THE echoes of Dunblane were deafening; you could hear them in the terrified cries of survivors outside Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; in Obama’s assertion that parents across the United States were grieving; and, of course, in the growing clamour for tighter gun control.
But where it took less than a year for the British government to respond to Thomas Hamilton’s actions with a new law banning the private ownership of handguns; and where 338,000 people subsequently handed their weapons over during an amnesty; the US cultural attachment to widespread gun ownership, even among the liberal classes, makes it far from certain that Friday’s tragedy will result in a similar shift in attitudes.
In the US, the right to bear arms was fundamental to the founding fathers and is enshrined in the constitution. It is as important a part of what it means to be an American citizen as freedom of speech.
Viewed from outside, the US gun laws are absurdly lax; in many states, permits are not required for gun purchase, nor must weapons be registered; background checks are required only for guns sold by licensed dealers (though a significant proportion are obtained through classified ads, gun shows or as a private transaction between two individuals); several states (though not Connecticut) allow ownership of assault weapons such as the AK47 and only Illinois forbids the carrying of concealed weapons in any circumstance.
Yet even hinting at the possibility of change can result in an onslaught of abuse, as NBC sports anchor Bob Costas found out earlier this month when – after Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend and then himself – he “hijacked” the NFL Sunday Night Football half-time show for a “rant” on gun control, incurring the wrath of the National Rifle Association (NRA).
There are pro-gun lobbyists in the UK too, of course. Before the handgun ban was introduced in 1997, there were protests outside parliament by campaigners who trotted out the mantra that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”; some of them carried banners reading: ‘If Thomas Hamilton had killed 16 children in an arson attack, would we ban petrol?’.
This side of the Atlantic, such people are on the fringes; in the US they take up vast swathes of the mainstream and have their tentacles wrapped around the establishment’s heart. So entrenched is their position that on Friday night, the BBC’s Justin Webb compared gun ownership to slavery in its power to divide the nation. Like slavery, he said, it pits north against south, big cities against hicksville; and, like slavery, any attempt to erode it could provoke something akin to a civil war.
Still, you’d think Friday’s massacre would have put paid to all that; that being confronted with 20 dead primary school children – more even than there were in Dunblane – would provide the kind of shock that would jolt the country out of its complacency. Barely able to control his emotions as he addressed the nation, Obama certainly seemed to be saying: “Enough is enough”.
But even now, change is by no means a given. Counterintuitively, the roll call of shooting sprees from Columbine to Virginia Tech to the shootings at the cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in July, has hardened attitudes against gun control. There are thought to be up to 250 million firearms currently in circulation in the States, but incredibly, the lesson the pro-gun lobby take from such atrocities is not that ownership is out of control, but that even more people should be tooled up.
If the teachers in the elementary school had been carrying guns, they reason, they would have been better able to defend themselves and protect their charges. To UK sensibilities, this is arrant nonsense but with every fresh spree, the NRA’s warped view seems to gain traction. With its four million members and annual budget of $220m (£136m), the NRA has the power to hold Congress to ransom. The most powerful US lobby group, it can make or break presidential candidates. And where, come election time, those in favour of gun control have other priorities – the economy, education, healthcare – the gun lobby is monomaniacal. This explains why, though the Aurora massacre, which took place months before voters went to the polls – should have been the tipping point in the gun control debate, both Romney and Obama bodyswerved the issue.
Now, however, Obama has less to lose. So could Sandy Hook finally galvanise him into action? Defeatists will say what real difference can he make? With so many guns already out there, and support for ownership so entrenched, will he not be reduced to tinkering round the edges? But reintroducing Clinton’s federal ban on military-style assault weapons, which was allowed to lapse in 2004, would be a start, as would tightening up on background checks and outlawing clips that hold more than 10 bullets. Given time, it might also be possible to make inroads into public attitudes. What a legacy that would be.
There are disturbed individuals in every culture. But for all the gun lobby rhetoric, one fact is unassailable. Only one country experiences spree shootings on a gut-wrenchingly regular basis, the same country which arms its citizens with abandon. The question for Obama, and the country, is, if not now, when? If the slaughter of 20 innocents – and the mental scarring of hundreds more – does not change hearts and minds, nothing ever will. «