It’s not unusual for dinners with friends to dissolve into seances of despair about Donald Trump and America’s Republican leaders. The intensity of these sessions varies depending on the day’s news. It is a sort of graph with all the obvious spikes of disapproval: the firing of Comey, the withdrawal from the Paris accord, the threats to obliterate an entire nation. And so on.
No night, I don’t think, was angrier than one last week. At the table, we were American, English, Guatemalan, Mexican and Colombian – none of us, to be clear, conservatively inclined. No Trumpets in the room, so we were free to let off steam. The only question was where to begin.
First, disgust at Trump showing up in Puerto Rico and lobbing rolls of paper towel into the crowd, not surprising perhaps given the number of Spanish-speakers present, feeling raw on the topic. The Mayor of Puerto Rican capital San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz (whom I’d interviewed on the island on Monday), deemed the display “terrible and degrading”. We shared some other choice adjectives.
A few among us had caught a much fresher nugget of news, this one about Tim Murphy, a veteran Republican member of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania: best known as a leader of efforts further to restrict the options of women in America to seek an abortion. Earlier in the week, he had voted for something called the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which “would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy”.
The congressman had just resigned. Not because he’d been found out maintaining a mistress back in Pittsburgh, but because a local newspaper had revealed that earlier this year he urged her to get an abortion when she believed herself pregnant (though it turned out she wasn’t).
Such rank hypocrisy may not surprise, but it is still hard to fathom. You may be reminded of Larry Craig, the former US Senator from Idaho, who in 2006 voted in favour of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. The following year, he pleaded guilty to soliciting sex in an airport gents.
That we segued to guns and the slaying of 58 concert-goers in Las Vegas by a 64-year-old man, holed up on the 32nd floor of a hotel surrounded by an armory of deadly weapons, might at first seem odd. But before we’d arrived, one of us had shared something on social media that had gone viral and had caught her attention. It was originally posted by Gloria Steinem, the 83-year-old dean of American feminism (though there is some mystery as to who actually penned it).
It is a call to replicate all the restrictions that various states (all Republican-controlled) have imposed or are seeking to impose on women opting to terminate their pregnancies, for any person looking to buy a gun.
The war on women goes on: on Friday, the Trump administration issued a new directive allowing employers to remove coverage for birth control from the health insurance they give them. Potentially, hundreds of thousands of women going forward will no longer have access to birth control options free of charge: a draconian step that makes the Steinem post yet more pertinent. You may have seen it already, including on these pages.
“I want any young men who buy a gun to be treated like young women who seek an abortion. Think about it: a mandatory 48-hours waiting period, written permission from a parent or a judge, a note from a doctor proving that he understands what he is about to do, time spent watching a video on individual and mass murders, travelling hundreds of miles at his own expense to the nearest gun shop, and walking through protestors holding photos of loved ones killed by guns, protestors who call him a murderer. After all, it makes more sense to do this for young men seeking guns than for young women seeking an abortion. No young woman needing reproductive freedom has ever murdered a roomful of strangers.”
I long ago concluded that getting guns out of the American bloodstream is a doomed ambition. Precisely because they are in the bloodstream. In the constitution, the right to bear arms is thus in the nation’s DNA. But if this country today is so eager to craft rules narrowing access to abortion, can it not also narrow access to deadly weapons with legislation and regulation?
Can it defend making access to guns a right and access for women to full healthcare a privilege?
There is scant reason to hope. Efforts to pass even a modest new package of gun controls in the wake of the killing of 26 children and teachers at a Connecticut primary school in 2012 collapsed on Capitol Hill. Nothing happened after the slaying of 46 in an Orlando night club last year, and not even after a gunman attempted to assassinate a group of Republicans practising for an annual bipartisan baseball game on the outskirts of Washington DC earlier this year.
So horrific was Las Vegas, that some Republicans and even the vaunted National Rifle Association (NRA) have been forced to make some gestures towards a response. They are offering to explore options to prevent the purchase going forward of so-called bump stocks. This is a modification that the Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, employed. When attached to a semi-automatic weapon, it essentially turns it into a fully automatic, able to spit bullets in a non-stop barrage. It’s how he was able to take down so many victims at the concert site in such a short time.
Some on the Republican side of the aisle have now suggested the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, (ATF), an arm of the administration, ponder new rules to ban the purchase of bump stocks. Even the NRA has publicly stated its support for keeping bump stocks out of the display counters in America’s gun shops.
But hold the applause. By turning to the ATF, Republican members of Congress are reaching for political cover, expressing their concern about bump stocks, while avoiding having to pass legislation of their own that would surely get bogged down in partisan quarrelling anyway.
As for the NRA, in the same breath as asking for action on bump stocks, it also demanded national reciprocity of right-to-carry laws – citizens from a state that allows them to walk around carrying heat given the same right in every US state – to “allow law-abiding Americans to defend themselves and their families from acts of violence”.
That takes us straight back to the same tired, outrageous argument – the only way to stop bad guys with guns is to give guns to the good guys. As if good guys could really have taken out a man firing at them from a window 32 floors high.
It is the job of a President to help the nation get back on the path of humanity and decency when it has strayed into the weeds. When a tragedy like Vegas strikes. Like that’s going to happen.