Stephen McGinty: Aim for change on gun control

Two decades on, a gun enthusiast fires a Magnum at a target in the Los Angeles Gun Club. Picture: Getty Images
Two decades on, a gun enthusiast fires a Magnum at a target in the Los Angeles Gun Club. Picture: Getty Images
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Twenty years ago Stephen McGinty fulfilled a childhood dream of firing a Magnum, but the relentless killings in America have made the memory the stuff of nightmares

I’m writing this in my garden shed, where a broken window has let in the rain and I’ve had to mop up my desk before settling down to look out an old photograph of myself armed with a .44 Magnum. Detective Harry Callaghan said it was “the world’s most powerful handgun … and will blow your head clean off. Do you feel lucky, punk?”

I certainly did, that hot summer day more then 20 years ago at the LA Gun Club where for a small fee, I think it was around $20, I spent an hour firing a Magnum revolver and a Winchester rifle at a paper silhouette 50 yards down a concrete chamber.

The smiling Mexican woman had helped me pick my weapons of choice from a glass cabinet, handed me a pair of plastic goggles and red ear protectors and then escorted me to one of 20 booths, each divided by a metal partition.

Although I had never been before, the whole process was familiar from countless movies where the rookie cop demonstrates his crack shot by punching a smiley face into the paper target with a slew of well-aimed bullets. We passed an armed guard (no smiley face), ever vigilant, one hoped, in case a patron had an eye for other targets than those provided by the management.

There is an undeniable thrill in handling a loaded handgun, especially if you are a 20-year-old male raised on Dirty Harry and Lethal Weapon. For a second you feel a surge of power and weighty responsibility and then a grim black thought flickers on to the screen: how easy it would be to pull the trigger and kill someone. The thought comes automatically, unbidden like those that accompany you when standing by a railway track or on top of a high building, it is the mind pushing one to ponder the worst possible outcome. I felt quite sick.

Squeezing the trigger on a Magnum releases an uncontrollable jolt that raises your hand, a sonic boom that pierces your ears even through the protectors and brings to your nose the whiff of gunpowder. I think I fired 18 shots, reloaded and slotted those weighty golden metallic bullets into the dark chamber three times, but only hit the target four or five times. When I told the assistant that I’d always wanted to fire a Magnum because it was the world’s most powerful handgun, she screwed up her face and said: “Yeah, 20 years ago”. Apparently it had been superseded by a Win-Mag, an automatic Magnum that came with a clip of bullets instead of a barrel, which she then brought out in a wooden box with velvet lining. It looked about a foot long and when I finally worked up the strength to pull the trigger, a green and red flame burst out the barrel. It was a cannon for the hand.

We are attracted and repelled by guns. They are fetishised in movies and the popularity of computer games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops, Halo and Grand Theft Auto V, released this week, is based on their ability to allow men and women (and, illicitly, boys and girls) to act out their fantasy of a life in which guns and their accompanying excitement and danger are an integral part.

The freedoms offered in America allowed me to indulge my childhood dream of replacing the Lego and plastic guns with which I, and every boy of my generation, grew up, with the real thing. I’m glad I did it, but it is not an experience I would really wish to repeat and the ripple effects of those freedoms once again came lapping up in America with the mass shooting on Monday at the Washington Navy Yard which resulted in 13 deaths.

I love America. I’ve felt that way since I was a child and with every visit the feeling grows stronger, but it is a strange country. During a recent visit to Los Angeles we crossed the road and began walking down the pedestrian precinct when we noticed a police car had followed us. It put on the siren and beckoned us over. Jet-lagged and giddy with excitement, we hadn’t noticed the pedestrian light was on red when we crossed the road which was completely clear of traffic. The officers sternly cautioned us against “jay-walking”.

Afterwards I couldn’t help but ponder that this is a nation that will trust a blind person to own and fire an automatic handgun, but won’t trust the average citizen to judge when it’s suitable to cross the road.

I know it will sound callous, but I don’t think we should continue to devote pages of news coverage to America’s mass shootings. I write this not because it lionises the gunman who trades other people’s blood for ink, page clicks and airspace, but because these events now occur with a frequency that renders them almost ordinary. Since 1982 there have been 61 mass shooting sprees in America, fanning out across 30 different states and in the vast majority of cases the killers had purchased the weapons legally.

Two or three times each year we can expect our evening news and morning newspapers to be devoted to images and pages of terrified civilians, black body bags and flint-faced gunmen. Many of these events will occur in places of employment but on occasion the specific location and victims will add an extra level of trauma and upset. The shooting in Aurora in Colorado took place at a late-night screening of the new Batman movie. Cinemas are where the public go to watch violent scenes in a collective, cathartic experience not to fall victim to them, so this spun a new narrative as well as focusing attention on that red herring, the sins of Hollywood.

Yet it was last December’s murder of 20 first grade pupils, whose average age was five years old, that made the rest of the world stop and hold its breath. For if there was to be a tipping-point, an occasion when, collectively, America could recognise the heavy price it paid for the Second Amendment, then surely it would be the murder of young children.

B UT no, the cold, hard facts remain that as a society America accepts that certain freedoms come at a cost. The right to walk into a store and purchase multiple handguns and semi-automatic weapons is a right of which they are proud and if the cost of this right means the death of innocent people, from five-year-old girls to elderly men, in their dozens, hundreds and thousands each year, then so be it. Better they die, tragic though it may be, than a law-abiding citizen be turned away from his local gun store when next he feels the need to purchase a Bushmaster XM15-E25 semi-automatic rifle.

For this isn’t the view of a few die-hard National Rifle Association advocates, this appears to be the view of the majority of the American population.

Since 1990, Gallup has been conducting polls asking Americans if they believe gun control laws should be stricter. Well, it appears, they don’t. “The percentage in favour of making the laws governing the sale of firearms ‘more strict’ fell from 78 per cent in 1990 to 62 per cent in 1995, and 51 per cent in 2007,” stated Gallup. “In the most recent reading, Gallup in 2010 found 44 per cent in favour of stricter laws. In fact, in 2009 and again last year, the slight majority said gun laws should either remain the same or be made less strict.”

Those states that have gone against the will of their citizens and tightened gun control laws have seen a reduction in deaths. A report titled The Relationship between Gun Ownership and Firearm Homicide Rates in the United States 1981 – 2010 stated: “We observed a robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates. Although we could not determine causation, we found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.”

There is a glimmer of hope. Although America has more guns per head of population than any other country in the world, with 88 weapons per 100 people (Yemen is second with 55 guns per 100 people) gun ownership is becoming increasingly unpopular, in fact it is at an all-time low. In the 1960s almost 50 per cent of American households had guns, and now less than 20 per cent are armed.

Yet the fact remains, America loves its guns, it has no collective wish to give them up or even tighten restrictions to who can access them, for why indeed should the blind and partially sighted or the mentally ill not enjoy the same comfort and protection as other citizens from possessing a loaded gun?

If America is unwilling to make any moves to stop murderous gun sprees or reduce their frequency then what can we do but accept it. The problem is, America is the channel to which we are so often switched on, but when it comes to dutifully reporting, over multiple days, the latest mass shooting, I think we should now switch off.

Tragically, the next time it happens, and there is bound to be another before Christmas, can we really call it news? The gunman will be the same mentally ill loner, only the names of the innocent will have been changed.

As for my afternoon of gun play, today even the photograph makes me feel quite guilty.