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United States

Opinion: Obama has to follow words with actions

Words alone are not enough. The US president has to live up to his promise to act after the school shooting tragedy, says DW's Christina Bergmann.

This time it's to be all different. Twenty children and seven adults dead: that's more than even gun-loving Americans can bear. The nation is in a collective state of shock - and US President Barack Obama found the right words for that at the vigil for the victims: "We have to change," he told grieving parents, siblings, relatives and friends as well as the entire country watching on television.

It can't go on like this, Obama said: all of society is responsible for the children, for the most defenseless. He is right: the excuse that a tightening of gun laws is difficult or politically dangerous is no longer acceptable.

Obama managed, though, to mention the word "gun" not a single time. The right to bear arms is protected by the US constitution and there's no joking about that. There's a gun in 47 percent of US households; in total there are some 270 million privately owned guns. That's more than in any other country and means that there are nine weapons for every 10 Americans. But support for tightening gun laws has steadily declined over the past decades. While in 1990 some 78 percent were in favor of tougher laws, in 2011 it was only 43 percent. The support for a ban on semi-automatic guns has also fallen.

Yet in light of the pictures from Newtown, the mood seems to be changing. On Twitter and Facebook, people are rallying against the arms lobby, which has been trying to keep a low profile, as have conservative gun-friendly politicians. There are only few who defend the right to bear arms in the aftermath of the murder of primary school children - or even suggest that more guns bring more security. It's absurd to suggest that assault weapons in the school director's office could have stopped the killer. But it's also true that a single gun law won't do the trick. The president is right in saying that the situation is complex - not least because of the millions of weapons that are already out there.

Yet this does not mean that any attempt will be futile. What is needed is a combination of measures. Among them is a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines holding 30, 60 or even 100 bullets. Background checks are also necessary if the gun is bought at a gun show - a loophole intended for private customers yet used by dealers. Another measure that's needed and which has been called for over the weekend is better care for the mentally disturbed and those who display behavioral problems. If medical treatment is cut, if people who look for help for their mental illness are stigmatized, any such issues are likely to be noticed too late.

It is a combination of many factors which leads to tragedies like the one in Newtown and gun supporters are right in saying that they can never be entirely prevented. But if the many measures that could be taken save even only one life, they would have been worthwhile. The president has to use the current situation to act. He has to make use of the fact that in his second term he doesn't have to fight for reelection and doesn't need to be concerned about losing future voters. The death of 20 young children and seven adults must not become a tragedy - like the Aurora shooting in summer which killed 12 and like all other shootings before that - that leads to many words but no deeds.

DW.DE