The country's latest gun massacre has led to a bit of a national awakening about the terrible effect of our gun culture, but the gun lobby is out in full force.
While teenage survivors of the Parkland massacre are being insulted, the president is using their tragedy to whip up gun owners' fears, warning that if Democrats take control of Congress in this year's midterm elections, "They'll take your Second Amendment."
The boldest gun restrictions being offered right now are edge-nibbling things like banning bump stocks and raising the age requirement for buying semi-automatic weapons. And the president proposes arming school teachers and ending gun-free school zones.
Banning bump stocks certainly wouldn't hurt. But experts interviewed by the New York Times after the Las Vegas massacre said a ban would probably have only a small impact on gun violence.
Raising the minimum age for buying semi-automatic weapons to 21 from the current 18 might also help, but only a little. Few of this country's gun massacres have been at the hands of people under 21. Age isn't the problem. Guns are.
National statistics apparently don't exist on the accuracy of police officers. "But if New York is typical," said a Times editorial last week, "analyses show that its officers hit their targets only one-third of the time. And during gunfights, when the adrenaline is really pumping, that accuracy can drop to as low as 13 percent."
Another problem: Under difficult circumstances, police officers aiming at a gunman have sometimes shot bystanders.
These are police officers, people who are trained – and retrained – on using firearms. They are ready, mentally and physically. That's their job. Teachers use entirely different skills and go about their jobs mentally prepared and focused on entirely different tasks.
In spite of Parkland, in spite of Las Vegas, in spite of the deaths of 20 little children and six staff members at Sandy Hook, arming teachers is the solution that the president of the United States and the NRA offer.
This, of course, is a distraction. Nobody with any sense – not the president, not the elected officials backing him or the NRA's Wayne LaPierre or the executives of the companies that make these weapons – believes that arming school teachers is a good idea. But it yanks attention away from serious gun-control possibilities – like banning the sale of semi-automatic weapons.
No, banning their sale won't end gun violence. As gun-control critics point out, only a relatively small percentage of this country's murders are caused by semi-automatic weapons. But a ban would be an important step. The semi-automatic weapon used in Parkland, the AR-15, is not only one of the most popular guns in the US, it's "the weapon of choice" for several of the mass shooters, said a recent NPR report.
Semi-automatic guns are "hugely devastating weapons," notes RIT criminal justice professor John Klofas, and they cause " devastating injuries."
Banning them, says Klofas "would reduce the level of carnage and the number of victims."
Sensible restrictions on gun ownership work, and they don't infringe on responsible gun owners' rights. The United States banned assault weapons in 1994, and in the following 10 years, the Washington Post reported recently, the number of gun massacres fell by 37 percent, compared to the previous 10 years. The number of deaths from those shootings fell by 43 percent. After the ban expired in 2004, the incidents and the deaths shot back up.
In Australia, a 1996 mass shooting – with an AR-15 – led to comprehensive gun control: a ban on semi-automatic weapons, background checks, a 28-day waiting period, a national gun registry, limits on the amount of ammunition that people can buy in a specified time period. And Australia imposed strong licensing requirements – for all firearms – including demonstrating a "genuine reason for owning possessing or using a firearm." "Personal safety" – a big reason US gun owners give for their interest in weapons – is explicitly prohibited from being one of those "genuine reasons."
Since then, there have been no mass killings in Australia, gun violence in general has declined, and gun-related suicides have plummeted.
The United States isn't Australia. In an interview posted on City Lab earlier this month, Australia's ambassador to the US, Joe Hockey, said it's naïve to think we could mimic Australia. The culture here is too different, he said.
That culture is rooted not only in our history (fighting for our independence from England, fighting a civil war) but also in irrational fear, partly brought on by the media's exaggerated treatment of urban violence.
In a Times op-ed on Saturday, NRA member Brian Mast, a Republican member of Congress from South Florida, bucked the NRA and called for a ban on sales of assault weapons, stronger background checks, and the banning of bump stocks. But he also said this:
"I conceal and carry a 9-millimeter pistol most days, because I know the threats we face, and I don't want to die because I am unprepared to return fire."
He'll continue to carry his gun. He's not alone, and some of his fellow NRA members are prepared for heavier battle. In 2013, the NRA said that Americans owned about 5 million AR-15's.
That's the magnitude of the cultural challenge we'll have to overcome, just to get a ban on mass-murderers' weapon of choice.
Some gun-control supporters are finding hope in the outpouring of support for modest gun restrictions since the Parkland shooting. I'm not. We've been here before.
Australia's ambassador is right: This country's gun culture is too deep. And we've sold our soul to fear and the NRA.