As a journalist, I’ve covered too many mass shootings in the US, albeit from a distance. I covered Columbine and the Virginia Tech shootings, and I covered the Washington sniper, which was for me a local story at the time. Working for British news organisations, after the coverage was over, I always fielded the questions from my colleagues about why it had happened. I wish I had an answer. Most of the shootings have been senseless, in the truest meaning of the word. We want to make sense of them. We want to know why, but in most of these cases, the shooters take any explanation with them to their graves. 

After the shootings, there are calls for change inside the US and stunned shock outside of the US over why nothing does change. Brits immediately point to the changes in gun law made after the Dunblane school massacre. My former colleagues at the BBC even have a story this morning about the lessons from Dunblane

Last night, I watched my friends back in the US recoil in horror. Most of them are parents, and they talked about hugging their kids a little tighter. A lot of them posted statistics about gun violence and mass shootings in the US. And I wonder if we have reached a tipping point where a proper debate about gun safety could start in the US. 

I remain relatively pessimistic, however, especially at this particular moment. Washington is caught up in discussions about the fiscal cliff. Nothing is going to happen about dealing with the issues of gun violence before next year, and it’s still unclear how the Republicans are going to pivot after the elections, especially the take-no-prisoners, brook-no-compromise Tea Party Republicans in the House. 

Having spent way too much time in the Washington and Westminster media and political bubbles, I know how politics work. In the US, I’m pessimistic about any movement on the issue of gun safety, not just because of the arguments on the right but also because of how some Democrats and urban liberals have responded. A Democratic representative in New York talked about how she was going to embarrass President Obama on the subject of gun control. Embarrassing the President and undermining his position is a stupid strategy, especially coming from a member of his own party. If you want to be effective, you need to figure a way to move the debate, not knee cap your leader in the White House. Adam Gopnik, writing in the New Yorker, had a good old rant about how Second Amendment advocates were accessories to murder. He wrote:

The people who fight and lobby and legislate to make guns regularly available are complicit in the murder of those children.

This might be cathartic for those who feel justifiable outrage at this truly horrific loss of life, but it’s not going to move the political dial in the US. Ed O’Keefe in the Washington post quoted a Republican leader, who while expressing sadness, also expressed caution at rewriting gun control laws. Hearings will be held, and very, very little if anything will happen. This is the pattern. Wait out the outrage and protect the status quo. 

A possible way forward?

I was thinking what would it take to move the debate. I’ll be honest, as a journalist, this is as much of a thought experiment as anything. I know that, even in the best of times, success relies in how you frame your argument. 

First, change the language. You probably noticed that I didn’t call it gun control. I called it gun safety. This is about public safety and violence. The environmental movement shifted the debate on pollution by starting to cast it as a public health issue rather than an issue of corporate and environmental responsibility. That isn’t to say that the environmental movement changed its thinking, just its language and framing. This could work for gun safety, although I’m sure I’m not the first person to have this thought. 

Yesterday, we heard the pretty typical comments including this old chestnut: “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” OK, let’s run with that. Let’s talk about legislation that instead of focusing on classes of guns, focuses on people who might misuse guns. If people kill people, let’s look at the recent mass shootings. What kind of people misuse guns, apart from your run of the mill criminal (who will always find a way to access illegal weaponry)?

None of the shooters in Tucson, Aurora or now Newtown, were responsible gun owners. They were all young men with mental health issues. Would it be a massive erosion of second amendment rights if we said that people currently under mental health supervision would lose the right to own guns? There would almost certainly be pushback against this, because to make this happen there would have to be background checks. But is there a credible defence of the right of the mentally fragile to own guns? I doubt that even the most fervent Second Amendment advocates are going to pick that fight.

Of course, this wouldn’t work without improved access to mental healthcare, which means putting more money into mental health diagnosis, care and research. Surely public safety is a function of government that most of us can agree upon? Ultra-austerity advocates will blanch at the thought of providing improved health care, but is not the cost of improved mental healthcare tiny in comparison to the life of the innocent? 

Against this backdrop, we have conservatives like Ann Coulter saying that the only thing that has ever decreased mass murder is the right to carry concealed weapons. “More guns, less shootings,” she says. Does this extend to kindergarten teachers? That’s the first question to ask Ms Coulter. How many parents want their children’s teachers to be packing heat? For a teacher with a gun to be effective, not only would they need extensive training – because it really isn’t all that easy to react effectively in a high-adrenaline, life-threatening situation – they would also need to have the gun either on their person or within easy reach. That in itself would increase the likelihood of accidental discharge or of a disgruntled student, parent or teacher getting hold of a gun inside a school. That doesn’t seem like a sensible solution. 

Another option is to increase the number of metal detectors at schools. But do you really want your children at a primary school going through airport-like security just to get an education? Is that a free society? That type of regular invasive surveillance is an erosion of rights, rights that our forebears fought hard for and that we should not give away lightly. 

Yet there are some who say that even the lightest, most sensible curbs on gun ownership are an infringement of their own rights. But when when the right to bear arms begins to erode other rights, including the right to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”, then something has to give. Rights come with responsibilities, and gun ownership cannot become the right that trumps all others, it must include the responsibility for the safety of others. Most gun owners are responsible, but there is still a significant problem with the misuse of guns, not just in terms of these mass killings, but also the day to day shootings that go largely unreported. 

At the moment, even in the wake of this horrific tragedy, I still see the status quo as winning. The champions of the status quo in the US have had a lot of ways to shut down debate. Any government initiative or any perceived erosion of personal liberty is tarred as a move towards socialism. So the very first thing that needs to happen is that we to actually stand up to those who would close down this debate, and make sure that give this discussion a bit of room to happen. Pushing back smartly, in all meanings of the word, against those who would shut down critical debates like this one on gun safety has to be a priority.  Recasting this as a public safety issue is a start and even just having a debate in the US, regardless of the outcome, would be a huge step forward. 

It’s long past time to have the debate on gun violence in the US. Let’s honour the memory of the victims of Columbine, Tucson, Virginia Tech, Aurora and now Newtown by having the faith in our own democracy to have this debate now.