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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

To The Bitter End: Conservative America and guns

‘Sandy Hook marked the end of the U.S. gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over’

Dan Hodges, Tweet on 19 June 2015

The Roseburg Gun Shop in Roseburg, Oregon. Photograph: Rory Carroll/The Guardian
Conservatism is a powerful and important force in politics. While radicals are sometimes able to get hold of the controls, they struggle to remain there for long; the energy and dynamism of a reform movement can collapse in the face of political challenges, and when this occurs, the conservative stands waiting. In European politics, David Cameron and Angela Merkel showed that conservatism doesn't necessarily result in steadfast resistance to change: both leaders moved their parties towards a greater acceptance of changing social attitudes, highlighted by the passing of gay marriage in the UK  in 2014 and Merkel’s welcome for Syrian refugees.

However, conservatism is not always so adaptive. In the United States, there is outrage again amongst liberals following another school shooting incident in Roseburg, Oregon last month in which 10 people were killed. Making his fifteenth statement on shootings in the U.S. since taking office, President Obama remarked: ‘somehow this has become routine’. Since Obama won re-election in November 2012, almost a thousand mass shooting incidents have taken place in America, including nearly three hundred so far this year. The lack of any gun control reforms in the same period gives weight to Dan Hodges’ view that, in practical terms, the debate is over.

Indeed, judging by the posts in response to Hodges’ tweet, it would seem that the two sides are now talking an entirely different language. Whilst gun control advocates cite statistics showing the disproportionate and shocking levels of gun violence in the United States, the defenders of the status quo put forward arguments that shift attention on to different ground: abortion, knife crime in Britain, terrorism and the need for better mental health care. These are red herrings, and I suspect their proponents know (perhaps very deep down) that the disproportionate levels of gun crime in the United States are, from a rational point of view, hard to justify.

However, guns are above all emotive symbols in the identity of American conservatives. While this may sound trivial, it is not meant to. Joan Burbick, a professor at Washington State University, has referred to the nation's "hard-wired belief in guns." Did she mean to get theological? If so, I think she was on to something. Conservatives are comfortable arguing for the unseen benefits of long-held traditions and customs. In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Alex Massie wrote eloquently about the role of guns in the making of America and in modern American identity. For defenders, the primary reference point is still the Second Amendment to the US constitution, drafted at a time of organised military resistance to the British Empire but revered as a timeless, and flawless, prescription for individual liberty. Putting aside the arguments about lobbying and corruption, conservatives have a lot of emotional and reputational investment in this debate: the experience of defending gun rights against repeated attacks in the aftermath of horrific shootings has bound the group together: to step back now, to retreat, would be to betray colleagues and friends as well as deeply-held principles. And with every bloody incident, and every public defence, the cost of backing down gets higher and higher.

I recently had a conversation with the father of a pupil at Brighton College, who grew up in South Africa during Apartheid. Many of those who supported the regime were good men and women, he explained, courteous to their friends, believers in social justice and not inherently opposed to reform. But over the years, as the external criticism mounted and South Africa became a pariah state in the eyes of the world, many whites began to identify more strongly with the harsher aspects of the Apartheid system. Having followed it so far down the road, pulling back would be to admit that they had always been mistaken, and that their critics truly had the moral high ground. There is a challenge here for liberals and conservatives alike: the gun control argument will not be won by convincing opponents of their moral inferiority. A new language must be found, one that takes the concepts of individual responsibility and self-discipline promoted by gun-owners and gives them some legislative teeth. As in South Africa, neither side should be happy to continue the struggle to the bitter end.

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