NEW YORK -- The last occasion 'The New York Times' ran a leader on its front page, the editorial bemoaned the nomination of Warren G. Harding as the Republican presidential candidate. That was June, 1920. On Saturday, for the first time in 95 years, the editorial board returned to the front page, demanding restrictions on the availability of guns in the wake of the latest mass shooting.
Entitled 'The Gun Epidemic,' the leader said it was a "moral outrage and a national disgrace that people can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill with brutal speed and efficiency," calling for a ban on "some large categories of weapons and ammunition."
“It is not necessary to debate the peculiar wording of the Second Amendment,” it said, referring to the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. “No right is unlimited and immune from reasonable regulation.”
Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the publisher of the newspaper, said they had placed the editorial on the front page "to deliver a strong and visible statement of frustration and anguish about our country’s inability to come to terms with the scourge of guns.” He added: "Even in this digital age, the front page remains an incredibly strong and powerful way to surface issues that demand attention. And, what issue is more important than our nation’s failure to protect its citizens?”
On Wednesday, 14 people were murdered in San Bernardino, California, the latest in a spate of mass killings that has intensified calls for greater firearms regulations. Republicans and Democrats have proved unwilling to enact even small change, despite the continued violence. The financial power of the National Rifle Association, allied to its ability to corral a very dedicated support, has ensured “gun rights” remain untouched, despite the frequency of mass shootings -- more than 350 in 2015 so far.
In the political vacuum, American media has taken up the fight. On Thursday, the 'New York Daily News' published a splash in which it collected tweets from politicians calling for "prayers" for the victims of the California massacre. The headline read: "God Isn’t Fixing This." On Friday, the same newspaper called the suspects “terrorists,” alongside the head of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre.
A (brief) history of New York Daily News covers on guns pic.twitter.com/9E90S4lwbK— Rebecca Leber (@rebleber) December 3, 2015
The NYT's call for a ban on some types of gun, including the "modified combat rifles used in California" is not an unpopular proposition. Pew surveys reveal 58 percent of Americans favour a ban on semiautomatic weapons, and 55 percent approve of a ban on assault-style weapons.
In the short term this would likely do little to stop the mass shootings. There are an estimated 350 million guns in circulation in the US. Banning semiautomatic or assault-style weapons would do little to hinder a determined buyer. What is required is government confiscation, and that is a position very few Americans support.
An early look at tomorrow’s front page…December 3, 2015
So a change in the culture is needed, a culture in which guns have become a national fetish. Whether a prolonged media campaign can force a sea change is questionable; it is unlikely that readers of 'The New York Times' or 'The Daily News' are propping up the NRA with their unflinching Second Amendment absolutism. However, if politicians who refuse to act are repeatedly publically shamed, incremental steps may be achieved.
Unfortunately, the issue is so aged and so politicised that it could be a generation before America finally addresses a problem that has been solved by every other industrialised country on the earth -- even if the every paper in the land called for change.