New York – I arrived three days after Adam Lanza tore the nation’s soul apart, killing his mother and then 26 other people at an elementary school in Connecticut. That first night, at Mel’s Burger Bar in Morningside Heights, my host and I were joined by seven of his friends from the nearby Columbia Law School. The Sandy Hook massacre wasn’t a subject of discussion: it didn’t need to be. The table — future lawyers and justices all — was in steadfast agreement: firearm laws should be changed. One of the girls was originally from Connecticut and the horror was painted on her face. Another had a friend who, ‘like all middle-class white people’, started seeing a therapist a few months ago to deal with some mental anguish. The therapist’s advice? Buy a gun and head to a shooting range.Welcome to the United States.
Despite, or perhaps because of, its old reputation for violence, New York is not a gun-friendly city. The state itself has banned assault weapons and requires handgun owners to be licensed (not for shotguns or rifles), but in NYC those licences expire every three years and must be renewed. City residents require special permission to carry guns outside the home, essentially impossible for the average person.
Last year the New York Times reported that 37,000 people were licensed to possess a handgun in NYC and only 4,000 were licensed to carry/conceal their weapon. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an outspoken gun control campaigner, has begun a media campaign urging Congress to ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to close loopholes which exempt those buying online or at gun shows from mandatory background checks.
Commentators here have also been casting a keen eye toward Australia, whose 1996 massacre in Port Arthur triggered serious gun control reforms. The big surprise for many Americans was how quickly John Howard’s government overcame internal dissent and state intransigence to enact a change in the law, as well as the overwhelming popularity of the reforms. But the appetite for gun control has always been fickle in this country of firearm fanatics. As a New York barman pithily says to me: ‘We’ve seen this all before.’ At Columbine. At Virginia Tech. In Tucson. Each time the prospect of reform was raised, but each time it subsided.
It is clear now that the response to Sandy Hook will not be further obfuscation. At the time of writing, Barack Obama has just tasked Vice-President Joe Biden with what appears to be a wide brief on gun reform, with legislative proposals due by the end of January. We can be sure they will be fought tooth and nail, at least behind closed doors, by the National Rifle Association. The NRA declares that it wants to make ‘meaningful contributions’ to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, a claim which can be met with both scoff and scowl. A press release, dated 9 November, condemns the ‘anti-gun elite’ for raising the idea of an assault weapons ban after Obama won a second term. It also celebrated the issuance of Florida’s one millionth ‘right-to-carry’ permit just last week. This is an organisation whose philosophy on guns is simply ‘the more the merrier’.
But there is a general feeling that this might be one battle that the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, will not win. Members of Congress, mostly Democrats but even some Republicans, are coming out of the woodwork in favour of reform. The liberal newspapers are more vocal now, though the conservative Wall Street Journal -— the most circulated newspaper in the US — appears to be focusing on mental illness rather than guns (which it noted, with apparent regret, were ‘the most heavily regulated consumer product in the United States’). But the horror of five- and six-year-olds being gunned down in the classroom seems to have precipitated a paradigm shift for many Americans. It’s the holiday season, when people are most mindful of their families and the ones they love. And there is a second-term Democratic President in the White House. The consensus is: if not now, then never.
Just a set of stairs down from the liberal, progressive streets of Chelsea lies New York City’s sole public shooting range. On West 20th between 5th and 6th Avenues, the Westside Rifle & Pistol Range remains while all others have fallen victim to the city’s crackdown on guns. Parts of Taxi Driver (whose star, Robert De Niro, is one of the 37,000 New Yorkers who is licensed to own a handgun) were filmed here. There are newspaper cut-outs along the corridor, one of which lauds the establishment as a ‘great place for a first date’. Ammunition, holsters and gun paraphernalia line the walls, including promotions for the ‘Women on Target’ program, and a plaque from the NRA bearing the image of a rifle and two simple words: ‘Teach Freedom.’
For most activities you need a licence, but if you’re willing to pay $65 and undergo a short safety course you may fire a .22 caliber rifle, as long as you are a permanent resident of the US and over 21 years old. I don’t qualify, but I’m not here to shoot. I’m here to ask questions, to find out what makes shooters so enamoured of pulling a trigger. To inquire as to why it is, if the right to bear arms is all about reducing gun violence, that countries such as the US and Mexico have such high rates of death by firearm. To ask what possible justification there could be for allowing civilians anywhere near the sort of assault weapons that have been a fixture of these massacres.
At first it seems that I will be able to talk to someone, but when ‘John’ returns from the back office, the story has changed. It’s too busy today, and likely to stay that way -— so could I please send an email instead? For posterity’s sake, I do, but it goes unacknowledged. Fair enough. It’s a sensitive time for them. As sensitive, perhaps, as it is for those 26 families in Connecticut.
Michael Koziol is a media student at the University of Sydney and a freelance writer.