Unfinished business

America, usually so familiar, can feel very foreign sometimes. A few days after enrolling at an American university my fellow students and I had to attend an information session euphemistically titled Active Shooter Preparedness. Repetitive for the American students, bewildering for the international ones, the event provided guidance on what to do in the event of an ‘incident involving firearms’ on campus. In case you are wondering, the advice is to find a safe refuge, do not confront the attacker and make sure you have already signed up to the university’s security email alert system. It was not very reassuring. But more than anything else the session served as a grim reminder of the country’s unresolved hang-up with the 2nd Amendment.

Guns are the thing that outsiders, myself included, find it hardest to understand about American life. We tend to veer between genuine bafflement and moral superiority when asking ourselves why the world’s most powerful nation cannot prevent the deaths of thousands of its citizens each year. The major shootings always make the news back home. The names stick in our minds more so that the statistics but both are chilling. Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Tucson, Columbine. 160 school shootings since 2013. 30,000 Americans a year killed by guns. No other industrialised country comes close.

So those of us who are not fans of the 2nd Amendment have every reason to welcome last week’s decision by Barack Obama to bypass Congress and take executive action on gun control. The barely concealed emotion that characterised the president’s announcement contrasted with the calmer, professorial, no-drama-Obama stance he has adopted on so many other occasions. There were tears from the president as he announced that addressing gun violence was his last piece of ‘unfinished business’ in the White House. There was predictable vitriol from the gun lobby and – as ever – a spike in gun sales in response.

Supporters and opponents of the announcement gave the impression that the president had enacted wide-ranging reform. He hasn’t. His measures mean there will be greater legal clarification as to when background checks apply and more encouragement given to states to link criminal records to background checks. The president will ask for money from Congress (which he probably will not get) to hire 200 more Federal agents for gun control and to improve basic mental health, so often a factor behind shootings.

The smallness of these measures and the fact that the president knew he had to act without Congress says a lot about the challenges facing those running to be his successor.

On the Democratic side Obama can be a helpful outrider for Hillary Clinton. As a candidate she walks a fine line between presenting herself as an experienced, stable, continuity figure and an agent of change. Embracing an incumbent president committed to gun control may help square the circle for Clinton and indeed she was quick to welcome Obama’s announcement. Gun control has also been the one issue where Clinton has been able to get to the left of Bernie Sanders although this matters less as she cements her frontrunner status. More broadly Clinton’s biggest challenge is the lack of excitement her candidacy generates among the Democratic voters she needs to turn out on election day. An Obama presidency that dedicates its final months to championing the liberal cause of gun control probably does Clinton more good than harm.

When it comes to the Republican field, Obama’s announcement probably does not make a whole lot of difference. Naturally all the Republican frontrunners are required to denounce the measures. But plenty of GOP candidates have already spent months telling the voters that Democrats want to take away their guns. Those who have opted for more nuanced rhetoric have seen their poll ratings plummet. No doubt Obama’s gun control measures – and Clinton’s embrace of them – are good for a few more attack ads and some fundraising drives. But the party has pulled itself so far to the right during the primary season that there is not a lot further to go. It appears that the further one political party drifts from the mainstream, the more it allows its opponents to get away with doing precisely those things it dislikes the most.

Obama’s decision to work around Congress formalises the precedent of pursuing divisive political measures through executive action. This will have consequences for whichever party occupies the White House in 2017. Immigration reform and wide-ranging environmental measures have now been enacted directly from the Oval Office rather than through legislation in the House and Senate. This was probably the only way for Obama to enact many progressive policies while facing gridlock in Congress. But a host of conservative causes such as repealing Obamacare, scrapping the clean power plan or repealing gun control measures can be enacted in exactly the same way.

Ignore the tears and the tantrums from both sides. This latest announcement by the president will neither end the right to bear arms nor end the country’s epidemic of gun violence. It is a boring, pragmatic, well-intentioned baby-step step towards a future in which guns are not an everyday fact of American life. But always remember that there can be backwards steps too.

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Charlie Samuda is a master in public policy candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He tweets @CharlieSamuda

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