• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Obama out to make gun law his Lincoln memorial

FOR some Americans they are this year's must-have seasonal buys.

Costing anything up to $2000 and beyond, these objects of desire are not the latest tablet computers or televisions the size of dining tables. They are AR15 semi-automatic rifles, the type of weapon used to murder 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Connecticut.

One gun owner said of the general rise in the sale of firearms since the shootings last Friday: "People were buying everything they could out of fear the President would try to ban certain guns and high-capacity magazines."

No wonder some regard Barack Obama's bid to ban assault weapons and impose other gun controls as his Lincoln moment, a chance for the 44th President to emulate the 16th and bring seismic change to America. Can Mr Obama, named person of the year for the second time by Time magazine this week, grab that moment? Can America?

There was certainly a sense of urgency as Mr Obama announced the setting up of a task force under Vice-President Joe Biden. The group will deliver its proposals in January, ahead of the State of the Union speech in which Mr Obama will outline what he intends to do with his second, and final, term in office.

This time, said the President, words had to lead to action. It was a complex issue, he said, one that stirred deeply-held passions and political divides. "But the fact that this problem is complex can no longer be an excuse for doing nothing."

To many inside and outside America there is no complexity to be confronted. The only place automatic weapons belong is on the battlefield, end of story. Scotland in particular needs no convincing about the evils of guns. To watch America debating the point once more exasperates and saddens in equal measure.

But there are signs that Newtown has made a difference. With the exception of the fruit loops asking for schools to have armed guards, many Americans are looking at gun control with a new urgency. A number of Republican congressmen have come forward to pledge their support for a ban on so-called assault weapons (don't all guns assault?).

Hollywood, which has done more to glamorise guns than any other place on Earth, is having a look at itself too. Jamie Foxx, who stars in Django Unchained, the new, and typically gun-laden, Tarantino film out here next year, has said that the industry "cannot turn our back and say that violence in films or anything that we do doesn't have a sort of influence". Many will dispute this, using the argument that films can only hold a mirror up to society, not a gun to its head. But still, the fact that some are speaking out is a sign that attitudes are changing in La La Land.

As more days and more funerals pass, there is a feeling, in America and abroad, that this is a now or never moment. Hence the Lincoln talk. But for every reason to hope there is cause to be pessimistic, not least when it comes to the man who would be Obraham Lincoln.

The comparison is not a new one. The country's first African-American President and the President who freed the slaves and saved the union could hardly escape being linked. Like Mr Obama, Lincoln was a lawyer with connections to Illinois. Like Mr Obama, he could string together a word or two. Like Mr Obama, Lincoln's essential political message was that hope and unity had to triumph over division and inequality.

For obvious reasons, Mr Obama has basked in the Lincoln comparison, encouraged it even in his speeches and behaviour. Yet other than a gift for oratory and a legal background, the two presidents are not just centuries but universes apart. Mr Obama has never been tested the way Lincoln was. He has never passed a law that compares with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. For all the talk of a divided America, he has never had to face war in his own land. He aspires to be a Lincoln, but he is a long way from being so.

With perfect Hollywood timing, a biopic of Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the Kentucky-born President, has opened in the US. Mr Obama has screened it in the White House. One hopes he is as canny a Lincoln scholar as he seems. For all that Lincoln has been accorded near saint-like status, he was a politician to the very core of his being. He assessed, he calculated, he played the odds. He took up the cause of emancipation not only because slavery was an evil and an outrage against human dignity; he was also under pressure from commercial interests in the north. He knew that what he was setting out to do was nothing less than changing the culture of America. To do that, he had to be ruthlessly clear-eyed about what that culture was.

Like any realist, Mr Obama must know that guns are woven into the emotional, political and economic fabric of America. Independence was not secured with warm words. The west was not won by agreements among gentlemen. Gun ownership, in a lot of American eyes, is a part of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Reform will never come unless those views are confronted.

President Obama knows how difficult taking on the gun lobby will be. His past inaction on this front does him no credit. If he was so keen on a ban on assault weapons he could have attempted it during his first term.

Now he has a chance to change that, but time is running out. The longer the delay the more he faces a protracted fight with opponents in Congress, and, depending on how far reform goes, in the Supreme Court too. Then there is perhaps the greatest obstacle of all, big business. That same big business that helps politicians run for office and keeps them there. After the most expensive political campaign in US history, who wants to start that fight?

Like Lincoln taking on the south, Mr Obama squaring up to the gun lobby looks like madness. But he has to try. Putting Mr Biden in charge is a smart move. The VP is a savvy political operator who knows his way around gun control legislation. He will come up with proposals that will at least be a start. After that it is up to Mr Obama. This is his second term, his last chance. He has nothing to lose. Too many others have lost everything.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

131897