Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Playing politics with guns

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For the first time since the shootings that killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a Colorado movie theatre, President Barack Obama has broken his silence on the question of gun control in the United States. He didn't suggest anything radical, certainly not by Canadian standards, but he did appeal for "a consensus around violence reduction" and possible restrictions on assault weapons.

It's one step further than he went 18 months ago when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded during a shooting spree that killed six people. The speech he gave then was hailed as a masterpiece by historians, pundits and the general public for its emotion and grace, but it never mentioned that the slaughter might be related to America's gun culture, which regards the right to own firearms as a national birthright enshrined in the constitution.

He did observe that some people were trying to make sense out of what happened by debating issues such as gun safety laws, but political judgment presumably prevented him from leading a movement for change.

The president's political sense has obviously evolved, but only slightly. He said he still supports the constitutional right of Americans to own firearms, just not weapons that belong on a battlefield.

There is a risk in taking on the incendiary issue of gun control, particularly with white men who tend to favour the status quo, but it could also help his re-election bid by solidifying his support among women, who tend to back gun control. Like the gay rights issue, it also further delineates the differences between him and his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney.

The polls, unfortunately, do not offer much insight on how the politics of gun control might play out in the fall campaign.

According to Pew Research, public opinion about gun control has changed little in recent years. In the latest survey on the topic in April, 49 per cent said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns, while 45 per cent said it was more important to control gun ownership.

On the question of banning assault weapons, like the one used in the Colorado shootings, the polling has been contradictory, with some surveys showing a plurality of support for such a measure, while others show the opposite.

The Colorado shootings, however, which were just the latest in a series of mass gun-related killings in recent years, might tilt opinion in Mr. Obama's favour, particularly if his silver tongue can work its usual magic.

Mr. Romney takes the opposite view, claiming the current laws are adequate, even though he passed a bill when he was governor of Massachusetts banning assault weapons. Rather than change gun laws, he called for "changing the heart of the American people."

Canadians may be appalled at the lack of political courage on the American gun issue, but such criticism ignores America's 300-year love affair with guns, which are seen as having won their liberty from Great Britain, held the country together during the Civil War, conquered the frontier and built the world's greatest superpower. It's part of their identity in a way that most other nations have trouble understanding.

The gun culture also reflects a history of distrusting government and a deep belief in individual rights and self-reliance. The National Rifle Association has also used its influence and wealth to punish politicians who stray from the mantra on weapons.

Even a group of U.S. mayors campaigning for stricter controls are only asking for background checks on gun buyers and prohibitions against sales to people on terrorist watch lists. It's hardly radical, but it's what passes for common sense on the issue today.

Still, with the highest rate of gun-related deaths in the developed world, Americans should follow President Obama's lead and launch a new national conversation. America will never look like Canada, but it's long past time to leave Dodge City, circa 1880, in the history books.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 30, 2012 A10

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