Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Time US stood up to the crazy sons of a gun

How many more massacres of children will it take before the myths of gun ownership are finally tackled, asks Kunal Dutta

I still remember the first time I shot a rifle. It was in northern Pennsylvania in the spring of 1999, three years after the shootings in Dunblane.

What began as a kind invitation home for the weekend by a prospective American love-interest ended with me being frogmarched into a snow-capped forest accompanied only by the girl's father and an arsenal of assault rifles.

His tolerance of me finally snapped, when I asked why America didn't outlaw guns. As cartridges spewed and bullets whistled, the answer still resonates.

"Think what you want. But know this," he said, shouting against the spluttering sound of gunfire. "In years from now, when everything's gone to hell and you're in Britain exercising whatever rights you think you have in your democracy, I'll be out here with these, exercising mine."

It was the last time I saw the father, or the family. Three weeks later was the Columbine massacre, in Colorado, the deadliest high school shooting in US history. The juxtaposition of these two events drew my attention to a widening disconnect between America's belief of arms as fundamental human right and the hideous reality of what happens when these rights lead to firearms falling into the wrong hands.

Even then, just as at Sandy Hook, the immediate human outpouring of grief was seized upon by those eager to blame everything but guns: now was not the time to politicise a tragedy by debating gun reform, they argued, but to share in the sanctity of human suffering.

Really? Well, 13 years on, it is time to call this once and for all: guns have had their time. They are an outdated offering from the Founding Fathers: a fallout from the English Bill of Rights, sold to America under the premise of liberty at a time when muskets - not Bushmaster M4 carbines aka Armalite AR-15 assault rifles - were a credible source of personal protection.

Yet in the centuries since - as colonialism has crumbled, the superpower plates have shifted east, gun-technology is deadlier and countries like Britain, Finland and Australia have all reformed their laws in wake of horrific incidents - America remains in its own self-perpetuated time-warp.

In actual fact, it's worse than that. This outdated idea of the supposed right to bear arms has buried itself so deeply into the American psyche that we still see the same predictable arguments trotted out by the gun lobby - even during the funerals of 20 children slaughtered by yet another angry loner with easy access to an AR-15. It is the fault of the mentally-ill, they say, the healthcare system; the decline of moral values, or the rise of video games. Anything but the weapons themselves.

Worst of all, for too long now a fear of attacking these diversions has permeated American life. So much so, that it is distorting reality.

Earlier this year, as the presidential campaign reached its conclusion, the world gasped at James Holmes, the red-haired PhD student who inexplicably opened fire during a midnight screening of Batman in Aurora, Colorado.

Barely a fortnight later, Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, opened fire in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six people before shooting himself in the head.

These incidents, a tiny speck on the tapestry of the thousands of gun deaths across America every year, drew international condemnation and anger from President Obama.

Yet, in the US, barely a drop of blood registered on either candidates' campaign agenda. More depressing were the intellectual commentators who readily swallowed the view that guns could not become an election issue ("too risky politically") and turned their attentions to Iran's nuclear capabilities and the faltering US economy instead.

Even today, as many in Newtown, Connecticut grapple with their grief, life in gun-cavalier America continues without thought.

In the family superstore Walmart, in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, a sales pamphlet handed out to shoppers offered a range of guns as "the perfect guy gifts", with a "dual-calibre air rifle" promising shots of "1,200 feet-per-second" at a recession-busting $124 (£76).

When does this absurdity end? How much more slaughter of children by those with easy-access to semi-automatic assault weapons will it take before these myths of gun ownership are finally attacked? At what point do Americans find the guts to challenge the relevance of the second amendment to the constitution, or at least ask some pressing questions if any of it is even still relevant in the 21st century? When, rather than cowering, do American citizens take on the supposed might of the National Rifle Association; reminding themselves that, in spite of its much-hyped ability to tip the balance of power, the gun lobby was unable to get Mitt Romney anywhere near the White House.

The answer is they won't. That responsibility lies with Congress and the president. It is only by asking deep questions of the very tenets upon which America was constructed that the deaths in Sandy Hook will actually count for something.

Until then, the rest of the world will just hold its breath, hoping it doesn't have to gasp in horror when another tragic American tale is retold with the same, depressing predictability.

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