WHEN A former Miss America was confronted by a thief in her Kentucky barn last week, the plucky 82-year-old knew just how to react. Venus Ramey, whose figure adorned Second World War B52 bombers, pulled out her .38 calibre handgun, leaned on her walking frame to steady her aim and coolly shot out the tyres of the startled intruder's getaway vehicle. She then held him at gunpoint, flagged down a motorist to raise the alarm and calmly waited until the sheriff arrived.
The story was celebrated as an example of the unquenchable American frontier spirit and the inalienable constitutional right to defend hearth and home with firearms.
Coming just a few days after South Korean student Cho Seung-Hui used a handgun to slay 32 fellow students and teachers on the campus of Virginia Tech, there can be no clearer example of America's schizophrenia towards gun control.
Though shooting sprees are scarcely unknown in the US, America was shocked by the scale of the tragedy visited upon Virginia Tech and the town of Blacksburg last week. Yet despite the widespread revulsion at the carnage, perhaps the most striking element of the reaction was that there was, in fact, very little official response to the horror.
Because of the stranglehold that the gun lobby holds over Washington's corridors of power, the torpor goes to the very top of American politics. At the memorial service last Tuesday, President Bush predicted that "when a guy walks in and shoots 32 people it's going to cause there to be a lot of policy debate" but he was quick to suggest that any such debate would be premature.
Although the president ordered a cabinet-level review to determine how universities and schools can prevent further mass shootings, sceptics argue that this will turn out to be little more than the usual political window dressing.
After five Amish schoolchildren were shot dead in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, last autumn, the White House convened a grand conference on school security. Among its conclusions: schools must update their emergency planning. Few people believe the conference had much impact on school security.
The same pattern is expected to unfold following the Virginia Tech massacre. Despite global incredulity at the lack of political will in the US to tackle the issue of how a clearly mentally ill young man was able to arm himself to such deadly effect without anyone noticing, the silence from most of the nation's leading politicians, presidential candidates among them, has been deafening.
Democrats, who believe the gun lobby helped cost them control of Congress in 1994 and Al Gore the White House in 2000, have simply urged caution. "I hope there's not a rush to do anything," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "We need to take a deep breath."
Even the liberal Nancy Pelosi, whose instincts would normally make her firmly in favour of gun control, restrained herself to offer nothing more controversial than the usual bromides of commiseration. "The mood in Congress is one of mourning, sadness and the inadequacy of our words or our action to console the families and the children who were affected there," said the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Senator Hillary Clinton has limited herself to expressing sorrow, perhaps mindful of the warning of Terry McAuliffe, the former party chairman now a principal in her presidential campaign - to avoid the subject as a certain vote-loser. Rival Barack Obama has backed a ban on semi-automatic weapons and supported legislation that would have imposed tougher conditions on gun buyers in the past, but he was far more circumspect last week, restricting his comments to saying: "If we know that he [Cho] had mental health services then there should be some way of preventing somebody like that from buying any kind of weapon."
It was left to California Senator Diane Feinstein, one of a very few leading Democrats, to stick her head above the parapet. "Shootings like these are enabled by the unparalleled ease with which people procure weapons in this country," she said. The mass murder should "reignite the dormant effort to pass common-sense gun regulations".
But the vast majority of Democrats remain wary of anything that might risk confrontation with the powerful gun lobby. Though individual gun safety measures, such as more rigorous background checks, command support from as much as 75% of the electorate, the National Rifle Association has resisted any such measures, arguing that they're the first step along a process designed, eventually, to restrict law-abiding Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.
In any case, the new breed of Democrat is represented more by Senator Jim Webb of Virginia than by Feinstein and her allies on the left of the party. Webb, who in a breach of Capitol Hill regulations inadvertently brought a gun of his own into the US Capitol last month, said: "I believe that wherever you see laws that allow people to carry weapons, generally the violence goes down."
The comments reflect the prevailing wisdom: gun owners are a vital constituency for Democrats, especially in rural areas of southern states such as Tennessee, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia. In 2000, trade union households heavily favoured Al Gore, but gun-owning union voters split their votes 50-50 between Gore and Bush - enough to give Bush the presidency. Thus John Kerry, the leading challenger to Bush in 2004, went on a very public shooting trip just a few days before the election.
If that is the Democrat response, then what of the party of the centre-right. Republicans virtually have to prove their bona fides on gun issues before seeking election. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former governor of Michigan, recently risked looking ridiculous when he admitted that the two hunting trips he'd been on in his life had been aimed at "varmints" rather than bigger game.
Even Rudy Giuliani, who supported tougher gun controls when he was mayor of New York City, was careful not to risk alienating conservatives whose votes he will need to win the Republican party's presidential nomination next year. "This tragedy does not alter the Second Amendment. People have the right to keep and bear arms, and the Constitution says this right will not be infringed," he said.
In 1999, the Columbine school shootings - in which two classmates slaughtered 12 fellow students and a teacher before killing themselves - prompted deep soul-searching. At the time Democrats were spurred on to introduce dozens of gun control bills that could have made sweeping changes to American gun culture by increasing the minimum age for gun purchases, making child-safety locks mandatory for new handguns and closing the loophole that allows gun enthusiasts to purchase weapons at gun shows without submitting to a background check. Though some legislation made it through the Senate, not a single gun control bill was passed by the House of Representatives.
Coincidentally, the eighth anniversary of the Columbine shootings fell on Friday, yet even that grim anniversary brought no sign of any urgent movement to take another look at gun control. In part this may reflect the fact that gun crime has been falling: gun deaths are down more than 30% since the early 1990s and are at their lowest rate in nearly 40 years. But it is also the case that guns are now considered an issue upon which it is considered dangerous by politicians to lead, even if the majority of voters agree with moves towards greater gun control.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, pro-gun lobbyists contributed $962,525 to candidates in last November's mid-term elections, dwarfing the $49,090 spent by groups advocating gun control. For Republican candidates the pro-gun to gun-control contributions ran at a remarkable 166:1; for Democrats it was 3:1.
Far better all around if Cho's killing spree is dismissed as an aberration, the actions of a mentally ill loner for whom no amount of gun control would have altered his murderous intent. Early on Monday morning the English student left his own hall of residence at 7.15am to first shoot 19-year-old Emily Hilscher, with whom he may or may not have been having a relationship, and 24-year-old Ryan Clark, who came to her assistance after hearing an argument.
While the campus and state police began searching for another man linked to Hilscher, Cho returned to his room, finished off recording a video outlining his motives - a rant against "rich kids" - and walked to the local post office to send an envelope of clips and an 1,800-word letter to the NBC news channel in New York.
He then returned to the campus and Norris Hall just after 9am where engineering classes were under way. Within a few minutes, 30 more people were dead.
America now knows how the quiet student, mocked by his contemporaries for his unwillingness to speak, and bullied at school, chose to take his revenge. Yet his mental health problems were well known. He had been cautioned for sending inappropriate messages to female students, referred by his teachers for psychological counselling because of the content of his disturbing essays, and he had attended hospital to treat his mental condition after a judge ruled he was a dangerous to himself and others.
It emerged yesterday that Federal gun control laws would have prevented him from purchasing a gun. Yet the state of Virginia's more liberal interpretation of what constitutes a mental illness episode that would bar an individual from buying a firearm allowed Cho through the net. He practised his shooting at a local range and bought his bullets from Walmart.
Tomorrow, classes will reopen at Virginia Tech and the families of the victims will be left alone to mourn their dead. It is a measure of the state of play in the firearms debate that, regardless of tragedies such as Columbine, Nickel Mines and now Blacksburg, the idea that purchasing a gun should be made easier - professors should be armed to engage attackers in a gunfight - is only marginally less likely to find support in Washington than proposals for tightening America's gun laws and applying a federal, nationwide standard to the issue.