Obama powerless against US gun carnage
After another mass shooting at an American college this weekend, Barack Obama raged at his own inability to do anything about it. Yet he is the most powerful person in the world. Isn’t he?
Since he was elected president, Barack Obama has brought affordable health insurance to 32 million uninsured Americans; approved the death of Bin Laden; ordered soldiers out of Iraq, and back in again. He has won the Nobel Peace Prize and twice been named Time Person of the Year.
But he is powerless to stop his citizens from buying guns and turning them against each other.
Last week, a man shot nine people dead at a Community College in Oregon. Hours later, Obama gave his fifteenth address expressing his grief and support for the families involved. ‘Our thoughts and prayers are not enough,’ he said. Changes to America’s gun laws, which currently allow almost anyone to buy a gun with few background checks, would save lives. And he made a vow: ‘Each time this happens I’m going to bring this up.’
It was not the most powerful commitment of his career. But when he tried to introduce further background checks in 2013, his proposal was blocked by four votes in Congress.
Why are gun laws so hard to pass? The US government was designed so that no single person has too much influence. It is split into three branches: Congress, which creates legislation. The judiciary, led by the Supreme Court, which decides high-profile legal cases. And the Executive branch, headed by the president. Each can be challenged by its counterparts.
Meanwhile, America’s constitution lists ten ‘personal freedoms’ for US citizens in its Bill of Rights. The second of these is the right to ‘keep and bear arms’ — so any changes to gun laws must start here, and amendments must win a two-thirds majority in Congress.
But many senators depend on votes and donations from lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is against gun reform. And so, although the president and the majority of Americans want gun control, they have a long fight ahead. ‘I cannot do this alone,’ said Obama.
The three branches of the US government can be difficult to navigate, but this makes them a very wise and effective form of democracy, say some. Nothing can happen without a transparent, careful process which is supported by the people. And for many of those people, the right to defend themselves and their families is an important symbol of freedom in an often dangerous world.
But others argue that lobby groups like the NRA are breaking what should be an ideal form of democracy. The right to bear arms was written in a time without a police force, when the US had only just won its independence from Britain. Now there is no need for ordinary people to own a gun. And, as long as groups like the NRA use their power to influence politicians, America’s democracy is simply an illusion.
- Should all guns be made illegal?
- Obama has just over a year left as President of the United States. Has he been a successful leader?
- Write a speech to US Congress explaining how they should tackle gun crime in the country.
- Use The Day’s archives to create a timeline of gun crime in the US over the last five years.
Some People Say...
“Guns don’t kill people; people do.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- So nothing can be done. What’s the point then?
- It’s difficult, but it’s not impossible. The issue is one of many which will be debated during America’s presidential elections over the next year, and candidates such as Hillary Clinton (who campaigns for ‘sensible’ gun controls) and Donald Trump (who supports a right to ‘self-defence’) have already expressed their opinion on the matter. Of course, UK citizens do not get to vote, but that does not stop them from talking about the issue.
- Am I safe in the UK?
- Great Britain has very strict gun laws: firearms can only legally be owned by police officers, the armed forces, or citizens who have been given express permission — and ‘self-defence’ is not considered a good enough reason for owning one. As a result, gun violence is relatively low.
- Health insurance
- The US does not have free healthcare. Instead, hospitals charge patients for treatments, which are most often covered by their insurance. However, until ‘Obamacare’ was introduced, private companies could refuse to sell insurance to people at high risk of illness, or simply charge more than they could afford.
- Bin Laden
- The former leader of the terrorist organisation al-Qaeda was killed by US Navy Seals — a highly-skilled branch of the military — in Pakistan on 2 May 2011.
- When he became president in 2009, Obama promised to end the unpopular war in Iraq which had been fought since 2003. He achieved this in 2011, but sent troops back to the country in 2014 to advise in the fight against Islamic State.
- This is divided into two Houses: the House of Representatives, with 435 seats, and the Senate, with 100.
- The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, forming the beginning of the constitution. Amendments have been made to update it over time.
- Majority of Americans
- Last month, a poll showed that 85% support background checks for gun sales.