Analysis – When a gunman stormed an elementary school in Connecticut almost a decade ago, killing 20 young children, Americans were horrified.
The Sandy Hook massacre sparked calls for the United States to finally move on stricter gun laws, with many fearing that, if the loss of 20 children was not enough to spur action, nothing would be.
And, yet, 10 years later, the country finds itself in the same position.
For the families of the 19 third and fourth graders and two teachers killed at Robb Elementary School in Texas, the suffering is unimaginable.
And an all-too-familiar wave of grief and rage is sweeping across the country.
US President Joe Biden has vowed to “turn this pain into action”, urging legislators to find the “courage” to stand up to the nation’s gun lobby.
But the same divisions that emerge after every mass shooting are already on display.
Not first time Biden has tried to tackle gun violence
Americans know the empty ritual that follows news of a mass shooting.
Wall-to-wall media coverage is punctuated by a flurry of crafted statements from politicians sharing “thoughts and prayers” before they pivot to deflection and inaction.
After Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama made then-vice-president Joe Biden the point person on gun reform.
His team eventually proposed 23 sweeping executive actions, asking Congress to legislate to ensure stricter background checks, improved gun-safety technology and more.
In a rare bipartisan effort, Democratic Senator Joe Manchin and Republican Senator Pat Toomey spearheaded a bill to expand background checks to most gun sales.
The vice president watched with his former colleague, Gabrielle Giffords, who two years earlier had survived being shot in the head by a disgruntled constituent, as the bill fell six votes short of being debated in the Senate.
However, he rationalised that, at the very least, such a shocking political failure would surely galvanise the public into forcing real change.
But that has not happened.
“I had hoped, when I became President, I would not have to do this again,” President Biden said in a televised national address.
“Another massacre. Uvalde, Texas. An elementary school.”
There have already been 27 school shootings resulting in injuries or death in 2022, among more mass shootings than there have been days in the year.
At least 17,000 people have been killed so far, including 10 shoppers who were gunned down in a racially motivated attack at a supermarket in Buffalo less than a fortnight ago.
After each Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Buffalo or Uvalde, public support for gun law reform spikes.
However, American citizens, like the politicians they elect, remain split on the path forward.
The vast majority believe gun violence is a problem, but only just over half, 53 percent, want stricter laws to tackle it, according to recent research by the Pew Research Center.
Those views are also underpinned by deeply held ideological differences.
While 73 percent of Democrats say making it harder to legally obtain guns would result in fewer mass shootings, only 20 percent of Republicans agree.
That divide is reflected in Congress, even for specific measures with widespread public support.
The latest federal attempt to introduce a universal background checks bill, HR8, passed the Democrat-controlled House in 2019, and again in 2021, but has twice failed to reach a vote in the Senate.
What options does Biden have?
In the hours after the Texas shooting, NBA coach Steve Kerr used what would have been a pre-game news conference to criticise the Senate’s inaction on the background checks bill.
“I am so tired of getting up here and offering condolences to the devastated families that are out there,” he said from Dallas, Texas, several hundred kilometres from where the attack unfolded.
“I’m so tired of the excuse, I’m so tired of the moments of silence. Enough.”
That feeling was echoed in the Senate, where Democrat Chris Murphy – who used to represent the district that includes Sandy Hook – pleaded for action.
“I’m here on this floor to beg, to literally get down on my hands and knees and beg my colleagues: Find a path forward here,” he said.
The gridlocked Senate means Democrats would need the support of at least 10 Republicans to overcome a filibuster and make any headway on gun control measures.
Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer suggested there was no point in trying to bring them immediately to the floor, arguing there was only a “slim prospect” of agreement.
So far, there is no sign of that happening.
“You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens,” Republican Senator Ted Cruz said.
“It doesn’t prevent crime.”
Senator Cruz then argued the “most effective tool” was armed law enforcement officers on school campuses, while Texas Attorney-General Ken Paxton called for the arming of school staff.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott suggested “mental health” was the most pressing issue.
“What is the problem here?” he said he asked local police and government officials in Uvalde.
“And they were straightforward and emphatic: They said we have a problem with mental health illness in this community.”
Outside of Congress, President Biden has used his executive powers to introduce regulations cracking down on “ghost guns” – privately made weapons, which are difficult to trace due to a lack of serial numbers.
He has also talked up the use of “smart gun” technology, which requires a fingerprint match or facial recognition before use, to reduce the possibility of kids getting their hands on their parents’ weapons and casualties from stolen guns.
More significant reform, such as re-introducing a ban on assault weapons that lapsed in 2004, would require support in Congress.
And that means overcoming the influence of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
When will America stand up to its gun lobby?
During his emotional speech in the aftermath of the Robb Elementary School shooting, President Biden asked: “When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby?”
However, the NRA is no longer the financial, political and cultural powerhouse it had been for decades.
The special interest group cannot afford to continue funnelling millions of dollars into the American political system, after secretly declaring bankruptcy in 2021 amid a corruption investigation.
And its membership is dwindling.
Even so, the steady drumbeat of anti-gun safety messaging – as well as the politicians it paid to help install, such as Republican Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell – means its impact will linger.
Former President Donald Trump, along with Senator Cruz and Governor Abbott, had been scheduled to speak at the NRA’s annual meeting later this week.
Guns are woven tightly into the fabric of America’s founding traditions, through hunting, a revolutionary war and a reverence for rugged individualism.
However, a version of the constitutional “right to bear arms” is increasingly fundamental to many Americans’ political identities.
The number of Republicans who say it is more important to protect the rights of gun owners than regulate weapons rose from 38 percent to 80 percent between 2000 and 2019, according to Pew.
Another uniquely American tragedy
Decades of debate with little action, even after the most heinous mass shootings, have left little hope this tragedy will be any different.
However, as a father who has buried two of his own children, President Biden insists he’s not prepared to give up.
“To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away,” he said.
“There’s a hollowness in your chest, and you feel like you’re being sucked into it and never going to be able to get out. It’s suffocating. And it’s never quite the same.”
After returning from a trip to Asia for the Quad meeting, Biden called for an end to the “carnage”.
“And what struck me on that 17-hour flight … was these kinds of mass shootings rarely happen anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“Why? They have mental health problems. They have domestic disputes in other countries. They have people who are lost. But these kinds of mass shootings never happen with the kind of frequency that they happen in America. Why?”
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