By Matthew Flinders. This was originally published on the Oxford University Press blog.
Tennessee State University, Northern Arizona University, Texas Southern University, Winston-Salem State University, Mojave High Scool, Lawrence Central High School, Umpqua Community College, Harrisburg High School, Sacramento City College, Savannah State University, Southwestern Classical Academy, Bethune-Cookman University, Frederick High School, Wisconsin Lutheran High School, Marysville Pilchuck High School…. the list school shootings goes on (and on). Over twelve thousand people died in the United States last year from gunshot wounds. Since the Sandy Hook massacre of 2012 there have been no fewer than 161 mass shootings. Does Obama’s frustration suggest that democracy is part of the solution or part of the problem?
It would seem that President Obama has a new prey in his sites. It is, however, a target that he has hunted for some time but never really managed to wound, let alone kill. The focus of Obama’s attention is gun violence and the aim is really to make American communities safer places to live. The New Year therefore brought with it an Executive Order from the President that requires all firearms sellers to seek a licence and initiate background checks on purchasers. There is no doubt that this will make the process of buying a gun a slightly slower and more cautious process but in reality it will do little to reduce the scale of gun crime. Obama knows this well and his measures are themselves borne from a frustration that has seen the Congress repeatedly block his attempts to push through more significant measures.
The killing of twenty school children in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012 fuelled a national discussion about gun control. Mass killings by gunmen in civilian settings, children covered in blankets, screaming parents rushing to see if their child has missed the carnage…the emotive politics of gun control turned from individual liberty and protection to individual responsibility and collective freedom but Obama’s attempt to limit the availability of semi-automatic assault weapons was defeated in the Senate. Body bags and public support, it seemed, was not enough to deliver change.
And yet crises – as political science frequently tells us – generally create ‘windows of opportunity’ into which radical new policy shifts can occur. Not, it would seem, in the case of gun atrocities in America. The paradox of the American psyche is that Obama’s call for restrictions on the sale of guns actually stimulated the biggest spike in gun sales that the country had seen for nearly two decades (1.6 million guns sold in December 2015).
So is democracy the problem or the solution?
Democracy is, as Bernard Crick sought to underline in his Defence, inevitably slow and cumbersome. It is messy simply because it somehow has to squeeze simple decisions out of a vast array of competing and often intractable social demands. As a result the democratic process tends to contain multiple veto points that can stifle responsiveness; a smooth policy change is suddenly turned into a sluggish and grating process that too easily morphs into gridlock and inaction.
Could it therefore be that the problem with democracy is that it prevents the implementation of measures that look eminently sensible to the rest of the world?
To some extent this might be true and the interesting element of Obama’s recent move is that by using an executive order to promulgate gun control he is in effect circumnavigating elements of the democratic process. But even here his weakness shines through. First, in the sense that by adopting this approach he risks setting a precedent for future presidents who have a very different approach to gun control and wish to shift the balance via executive order in a very different direction. And (secondly) the significance of the measures are so far removed from any notion of actually disarming the country that they could be interpreted as a sign of weakness rather than strength.
Mr Obama is clearly using some of his final ‘lame-duck’ year freedoms to push the issue of gun control back onto the political agenda. But at the moment the lack of political will is making gun control look too much like ‘a sitting-duck’ for the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups who want to take it back off the agenda. Some opinion polls suggest that the mood of the American public is shifting away from unlimited ownership but the pace of change appears glacial. In some ways American gun control has regressed rather than progressed in recent years as the federal ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that existed between 1994-2004 has not been renewed by Congress. But it’s too easy to exaggerate the threats or to ridicule gun toting Americans but the reality is far more sad: most deaths occur from guns being used to commit suicide, or are found by children and toddlers who mistake them for toys with devastating effects. When it comes to gun control and American politics then maybe – just maybe – could there be a case for a benevolent dictator who understands that the ballot and bullets, just like guns and safety, just don’t mix?
…. Reynolds High School, Seattle Pacific University, Kennedy High School, Georgia Gwinnet College, Paine College, South Carolina State University, Purdue University, Los Angeles Valley College, Rebound High School, Widener University, Delaware Valley School, Berrendo Middle School, Magne High School, Arapahoe High School, Brashear High School, Carver High School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology….
Matthew Flinders is Professor of Politics and Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics at the University of Sheffield. He is also currently Chair of the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom. He was once, for a very short time, a member of the British Army but had to leave because he did not like guns or loud bangs.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may also be interested to read Depoliticization, governance and the state by Matthew Flinders and Matt Wood.