"There is, I am sure — will be, rather — a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I do not think today is that day." Those were the sentiments of Jay Carney, press secretary to President Barack Obama as he addressed reporters in the White House a week ago, just as police were sizing up the extent of a multiple shooting in an elementary school in Connecticut.
A young man, reputedly with mental problems, had walked into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in the small community of Newtown and mowed down 12 girls, eight boys and six members of the school staff before turning a gun on himself.
It was the second-deadliest shooting in US history, behind the massacre at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, in 2007, in which another disturbed young man killed 32 people before taking his own life. It was also the fourth time this year that such a rampage has happened in the United States. The first such case I can recall happened in Texas 46 years ago. In 1966, a young man killed his mother and his wife and then ascended a tower on the campus of the University of Austin with a high-powered rifle and picked off people at will. The toll — 13 people dead and 32 wounded.
Every time this happens, there is much hand-wringing and public demonstrations of sorrow and mourning, juxtaposed with widespread denial of the central reason why this happens — the prevalence of guns and a national proclivity for violence. The US is full of regulations on everything from the colouring matter in junk food to safety features in cars. In most places you have to obtain a licence to own a pet. Yet it's easier to obtain a gun than to register to vote.
Today, according to David Hemenway, a specialist in public health at Harvard University, children between five and 14 are 13 times as likely to be killed by guns as children in other industrial countries. Guns claim the lives of 83 Americans every day, and eight of those are either children or teenagers. There are more than 11,000 gun homicides in the United States every year, and in six months, more Americans are killed in homicides and suicides by gun than have died in the last quarter-century in every terrorist attack as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Americans have an almost religious attachment to guns, largely because of their constitution, which is regarded almost as reverently as the Bible. The Second Amendment to the US Constitution attempted to address the question of allowing citizens the right to own guns, but it did so in convoluted English which is nowadays subject to misinterpretation by the gun fetishists who long ago hijacked US politics.
The amendment reads: "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."
Its intention was made clear during the Second Congress in the late 18th century as the founders of the United States fine-tuned the form of government they were setting up. They had to contend with the states — which wanted all powers — and the federal government, a nascent and still fairly weak organism. That congress introduced the Militia Acts, obliging all white men of military age to obtain a musket, ammunition and ancillary equipment for service in militias. In the founders' view, the militias would allow the new nation to counter aggression by European powers, fight off native tribes on the frontier and quash internal rebellions, including those by slaves, who had no rights.
The overriding pragmatic goal, then, was security. Now, more than two centuries later, what does shooting up a school with pupils just above kindergarten level have to do with "security"? And don't forget that the guns the framers were familiar with when they adopted the amendment were one-shot devices which had to be re-loaded every time they were fired, not the repeater handguns or large-magazine assault rifles we have today.
Guns are entrenched in American history
Guns have another long and strong place in American history. The Springfield Armoury, situated in Massachusetts from 1777 to 1968, was the birthplace of the US industrial revolution. It was the source of numerous innovations, including interchangeable parts, mass production using the assembly line, as well as modern business practices such as hourly wages. To mass-produce parts which are truly interchangeable required greater use of machines, precision measurements, quality control and division of labour. The Springfield Armoury also introduced centralised authority, cost accounting for payroll, time, and materials, and increased discipline in the factory's processes — business practices still in use today.
The entertainment industry has accentuated — and abetted — the infatuation with guns, particularly through cowboy and gangster movies. Unfortunately, our people latched on to that culture of violence with gusto. We even defined an important rule of those movies, in which the lead character almost invariably comes out intact — "Star boy can't dead!" As a boy I recall following with a mixture of fascination and horror the story of Rhyghin, who met his end in a fierce gun-fight with police on a small cay just off the Palisadoes.
As the first responders uncovered the horror at the school, President Obama addressed his fellow citizens: "We've endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years". Barely able to contain his emotions, Obama called for "meaningful action" to stop such massacres, but didn't go into detail. It was only several days later, after an outcry across the nation, that he announced an effort to come up with tightened gun policies and appointed his vice-president, Joe Biden, to head a committee to fashion the policy and report back by next month.
There are similar efforts in the Congress, but lots of luck with that, as the Republican (and some Democrat) legislators are beholden to the gun lobby, like the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America. The NRA is the most influential of these groups, but it was unusually quiet this week, issuing an anodyne statement on Tuesday that it "is prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again", adding that the group's four million "moms, dads, sons and daughters" were "shocked, saddened and heartbroken" by the slaughter. It scheduled a news conference for yesterday, and its chief executive says he'll appear on the major Sunday talk show, Meet The Press. tomorrow morning.
Even if the legislators manage to come up with something fairly decent, there are no guarantees it will pass, and in any case, the horse left the barn a very long time ago. Even if gun production were to cease totally tomorrow morning, in a country of 311 million people, many of whom are children, there are about 300 million firearms floating around. And every time there's been a shooting like the one last week, gun sales have seen a dramatic surge. Another thing — the Gun Owners of America says if teachers at that school had been armed, they could have stopped the gunman. According to its director, Larry Pratt, "Gun control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands".
See what I mean?