A price Americans are prepared to pay

EXCEPT on football Saturdays in the autumn, Blacksburg is a sleepy place, nestled in the picturesque Blue Ridge mountains in south-west Virginia, hard by the North Carolina border. Yesterday, it seemed as though everyone was expressing surprise that such a tragedy could happen here. What else could they say? The horror of Norris Hall has no rational explanation. "Surreal" was a word you could hear all over Blacksburg.

By road, Blacksburg is only a few hundred miles from Washington DC; psychologically, it belongs to a different America altogether. This was once frontier territory, the front line of the American colonies as the fledgling republic began its relentless expansion west. These hills - the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smoky Mountains and the rest - were largely settled by Scots-Irish immigrants whose ethos and culture played a still under-appreciated part in the formation of the United States. If America's gun culture has a spiritual home, it is to be found in Appalachia.

As Jim Webb, the Vietnam hero who was elected to the Senate last November, writes in Born Fighting, his history of the Scots-Irish in the US, the people here "are a culture founded on guns, which considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, while literary and academic America considers such views not only archaic but also threatening". It's not, of course, only "literary and academic America" that struggles to understand this proudly redneck culture; the rest of the world does too.

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If Webb is right - and I think he is - then the gun is an inescapable part of America's sense of itself. If the colonists had not been armed, they could not have rebelled against King George. Such sentiments may seem anachronistic or even callous in the wake of the worst mass shooting in US history, but no attempt to understand why America, alone of western countries, remains an armed society can hope to be successful without appreciating the historical - and constitutional - place the gun has played in its history. Wishing it otherwise is not enough to wish it away.

That culture still thrives. Three summers ago, I attended what proudly billed itself as "America's Largest Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun Show" in rural Kentucky. Guns from all over the world were on sale, while patrons could rent .50 calibre machineguns to blast away at wrecked cars, buses and boats. Time after time, I was asked if there was anything like this in Scotland. "No, not really," I would say, mustering as much understatement as seemed sensible. "You could see how people could twist this into something it's not," one sub-machinegun wielding man told me. "But," he insisted, "these people are just average Joes having fun."

And for the most part, he was right. Guns held legally by law-abiding citizens are, generally speaking, the lesser part of the US's gun problem. It's the two million guns held illegally that account for the seemingly endless proliferation of weaponry here. That is especially true in urban areas, where private citizens are likely to see owning a handgun as a means of defending their home and person.

Washington DC has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. Last month, a court ruled that its prohibition on gun ownership was unconstitutional. The city is appealing against the verdict, but Washington's experience demonstrates the futility of supposing that tighter gun laws alone can bring peace to US cities. Though the city's murder rate has declined in recent years, there were still nearly 200 murders in DC in 2005 - or 35 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Washington's experience demonstrates the near-futility of a single jurisdiction attempting to stand alone. With so many illegal guns already in circulation, Washington's policy has, its critics say, endangered law-abiding citizens while doing little to curb gangland slayings in the city's Hispanic and African-American neighbourhoods.

Blacksburg may change the political dynamic on Capitol Hill, especially as the Democrats now control Congress. But don't bet on it. Yes, there will be calls for stricter regulations governing gun purchases - including background checks at gun shows - but such moves amount to little more than the closing of loopholes. They will not address the underlying culture.

The political will for change can easily be overstated. A consensus has developed that Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee, and with it the 2000 presidential election, in large part because he favoured further gun control restrictions. Gun owners - legal gun owners, one should say - feared, not entirely without reason, that this was the thin end of the wedge.

The National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington. When Bill Clinton signed a bill banning the purchase of 19 kinds of semi-automatic weapons, the NRA boasted in 1994 that it had defeated 19 of the 24 Democratic congressmen on its list, handing control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans for the first time in decades. The assault weapons ban lapsed in 2004 (fully automatic weapons have been regulated since 1934, however).

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Since 2000, even liberal Democrats have given up on gun control, appreciating that the more Californian and New England Democrats talked about the need for gun control, the harder it was for moderate Democrats from the Appalachian and Rocky Mountain states to retain their seats in Congress. John Kerry's attempt to prove himself a man of the people on an election-eve goose hunt was one of the more embarrassing spectacles of the 2004 presidential campaign.

After 1994, Clinton recalled in his memoirs: "I had to face the fact that the law-enforcement groups and other supporters of responsible gun legislation ... simply could not protect their friends in Congress from the NRA. The gun lobby outspent, out-organised, out-fought and out-demagogued them."

It's far from clear that, Blacksburg notwithstanding, much has changed since then. It's an irony, too, that the worst shooting in US history would seem to have been perpetrated by a South Korean immigrant (and that alone will doubtless cause many to dismiss this latest slaughter as the entirely atypical actions of a lunatic).

Nonetheless, once a proper period of mourning has been observed, my suspicion is that the US's gun owners will continue to say that the right to bear arms - enshrined in the constitution - trumps tragedy. At its most brutal, the calculation is simple: Blacksburg is a price Americans would rather not pay, but it's cheaper than surrendering their weapons. The principle is more important than any pragmatism of the sort many, perhaps most, foreigners might think sensible.

As Jim Webb put it, the people of Appalachia think that "joining a group and putting themselves at the mercy of someone else's collectivist judgment makes about as much sense as letting the government take their guns. And nobody is going to get their guns".

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