Just over a week ago a young man with quite a few gigabytes missing from his psychological circuitry went into a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, next door to the better-known US city of Denver and shot up the place just as the crowd had settled in with their soft drinks and popcorn to watch the latest Batman movie. Wearing a gas mask, the young man threw gas canisters into the crowded room and began firing. He killed 12 people and wounded 58 others.
This is where the bizarre part comes in - since the shooting the sale of guns in the mountain state has actually gone up! In the three days right after the rampage, state authorities approved 2887 people to buy guns, an increase of more than 43 per cent above the 2012 approvals the weekend before.
The police very quickly hauled in a 24-year-old university student, James Holmes, and charged him with the shooting. Holmes bought his weapons legally at local gun shops and obtained 6000 rounds of ammunition over the internet. He appeared dazed at a court hearing this week and his hair was dyed orange like the Joker villain in the Batman movies and comics. According to the police, Holmes was armed with a semi-automatic rifle with a 100-round drum magazine, a pistol and a shotgun when he opened fire during a midnight showing of the movie The Dark Knight Rises. So far, they haven't been able to come up with a motive for the carnage.
You would imagine such an event would ignite a wildfire that would consume vast areas of political brushland, but nothing of the kind has happened. Both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, who are squaring off for the presidential election in four months, have merely spouted mouth-water.
Speaking on Wednesday to the National Urban League, a group that works to promote civil rights and economic improvement for black people, Obama
pledged to work with leaders of all political stripes to "arrive at a consensus" on how to reduce gun violence across the United States. Obama says such tragedies are replayed on a smaller scale in cities throughout the country: "Every day and a half the number of young people we lose to violence is about the same as the number of people we lost in that movie theatre. I'm going to continue to work with members of both parties and with religious groups and with civic organisations to arrive at a consensus around violence reduction."
Like many of my generation, as a youngster I consumed Batman and Superman comics, which provided a window on the fantasy world which came later on television and now, the internet. For all his super-powers, Superman had a weak spot - kryptonite, in the presence of which he reverted to being an ordinary person with normal strengths.
For American politicians, any suggestion that the government should control guns is the equivalent of kryptonite, and so even touching on the issue of gun control during an election year is extremely risky. Obama has been careful to avoid making proposals that could offend gun owners and rally his Republican opponents. In his remarks to the Urban League, the president made a point of emphasising his support for the second amendment to the US constitution, which covers the right to bear arms. "We recognise the traditions of gun ownership that passed on from generation to generation, that hunting and shooting are part of a cherished national heritage, but I also believe that a lot of gun owners would agree that AK-47s belong in the hands of soldiers, not in the hands of criminals. That they belong on the battlefield of war, not on the streets of our cities." Obama's presidential opponent, Mitt Romney, is a former governor of Massachusetts who has backed gun control measures in the past. Earlier in the week he said that additional laws would not have stopped the massacre in Colorado.
The power and reach of the gun lobby
The reason that both Obama and Romney are tip-toeing around this issue is the power and reach of one of the most influential lobby groups in the United States - the National Rifle Association. The organisation, which has a membership of about 4.3 million, was founded in 1871, as the United States emerged from the blood-bath of the civil war. A study of US army records showed that for each Confederate soldier they killed, its troops fired about 1000 rifle shots. The generals were appalled at the lack of skill of the troops, and some veterans founded the NRA to provide training for civilians in the proper use of arms so that whenever the government needed to assemble a militia it could draw from a reservoir of men skilled in the use of arms.
For a long time that is what the NRA did - organising civilian shooting contests and encouraging marksmanship and the proper use and care of firearms. It's only in the last part of the 20th century that the NRA has morphed into a bogeyman terrorising every legislator in the country with its narrowly focused view of the second amendment.
The amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, which was devised to round out the bare-bones constitution which formed the foundation of the republic after the defeat of the British crown. The trouble with the amendment is that it was adopted after being wrestled by the legislators of the new nation, battered about and whittled down to a form with contorted grammar which allows the gun-fetishists of the NRA to interpret it in their own twisted way. The amendment states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." They conveniently omit to tell you that for some time after the revolution in 1776, there was still a real threat of a counter-revolution. This could best be warded off by a "well-regulated militia" and such an organisation worked best when men kept their arms at home, ready for any call to action.
Much water (and blood) has flown under the bridge since then, and the US is a far different country these days. It has routinely elected presidents, representatives, senators, state legislators, governors, county sheriffs and district attorneys to office and thrown them out with equal regularity. The country has four standing armed forces, the most powerful military the world has ever seen. The only serious threat the country faces is from outside. Such internal threats as may arise are dispatched by the vast internal security system the country has developed.
But the gun culture has become so entrenched that even if, by some miracle, production of guns were to cease tomorrow morning and all new gun ownership banned, the carnage would continue for generations. As a practical matter, how do you round up the estimated 280 million guns in circulation (almost as much as the country's population of 311 million)? And so, it seems, the Americans will continue to coddle their guns, and those of us who live close by will continue to suffer our own form of carnage from the guns which seep through the US borders, some of them in payment for drugs which flow the other way.