Belfast Telegraph

Monday 15 September 2014

US politicians have liberal gun laws in their sights

In spite of the power of the deeply entrenched US gun lobby in Congress, America's collective soul-searching in the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut massacre may yet prove to be an historical tipping-point in the gun-control debate.

But don't expect any acts of contrition from gun manufacturers, or even the purveyors of violent video games and movies, which some anti-gun activists claim have helped to numb society to the realities of violence.

By contrast, drive an hour south of San Francisco to the city of San Jose and you'll see the lengths to which one of the biggest gun manufacturers in 19th century America went to try to make amends for gun violence that made her mountains of money.

After the deaths of her infant daughter in 1866 and husband William Winchester in 1881, Sarah Winchester, the heiress to the Winchester rifle fortune, became convinced that she'd been cursed because of the carnage wrought by the famed Winchester repeating rifle.

The Winchester was the semi-automatic assault weapon of its day. So widespread was its use during the slaughter of Native Americans amid the country's 19th century westward expansion, that it was dubbed "the gun that won the West".

Sarah Winchester was deeply haunted by the ghosts of the multitudes slain by the gun that had given her a personal fortune (in 2012 dollars) of $500m, along with a daily income from stocks of $22,000. In 1884, at the urging of a Boston-based medium, she moved from Connecticut to California, bought an eight-room San Jose farmhouse and set about obeying the medium's directive to keep building new rooms and wings on the house 24 hours-a-day, seven days-a-week, 365 days-a-year for the rest of her life.

Doing so, said the medium (who must have got a kick-back from the San Jose carpenters' union), would ensure that the ghosts of the multitudes slain by Winchester rifles would haunt her no more.

By the time the workers were finished (the day after Sarah died in 1922), the rambling mansion held 160 rooms.

Sarah Winchester never stopped producing Winchester rifles. They were mainstays of the US armed forces in the Spanish-American War (1898), the offshoot Philippine-US war (1898-1902) and, finally, in the First World War.

Today's gun culture dwarfs those of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Within a fortnight, vice-president Joe Biden is expected to deliver his report on possible ways to combat America's growing plague of mass shootings.

Biden will likely call for a renewal of the 1994 assault weapons ban (which expired in 2004) and the outlawing of high-capacity ammo clips.

Maybe with the country stunned by the slaughter of innocents in Newtown, real progress in reining in America's cultural addiction to guns and violence can be made.

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