Harsh truths from a nurse who packed `serious heat'

THE WOMAN was blonde, petite and, as the Texas gun shop owner put it, "packing serious heat". She was blasting away at targets at the back of a gun shop on the outskirts of Houston using a LadySmith, a Smith and Wesson revolver designed to fit a small woman's hand. In America's Lone Star State there was nothing unusual about the scene. Pick-up trucks have gun racks as commonly as air-conditioning. Young women carry guns as easily as Gucci handbags. In fancy, upmarket shops you can even buy the ultimate in designer jewellery - diamond-and-ruby-encrusted 9mm pistols. But this woman was different. She was wearing a hospital blue uniform.

When she stopped to reload and took her ear-protectors off, I struck up a conversation. She said she was a nurse in the local emergency room and admitted that she did see something incongruous about a nurse with a gun. Her job frequently consisted of patching up shooting victims. She explained that she did not even like guns, but she needed a little target practice, and the gun had become a necessity.

Her hospital shifts usually lasted from 6pm until two in the morning - prime time for treating shooting victims. When she finished work she faced the long and lonely drive home on Houston's freeways. On one occasion a truck driver had harassed her as she drove, swerving towards her car and making sexual gestures. He was trying to force her to pull off the road. The nurse said she was scared out of her wits until she drew the LadySmith from her purse and pointed it towards him. She did not have to fire. The truck driver braked, and she never saw him again. She shook her head regretfully at the grim moral of the story. She had done what Americans have done since the foundation of the first colonies. She had defended herself using her own weapon.

I told her I was trying to find out what difference President Clinton's attempts to tighten up on gun control had made in a traditionally gun- friendly state like Texas. Mr Clinton had forced through a highly controversial ban on selling assault weapons - AK47s, Armalites and the like. He had also steered the Brady Bill into law. Named after Ronald Reagan's press secretary, James Brady, it had stopped convicted criminals from buying handguns and put a few days' wait on those trying to buy exactly the kind of gun the nurse was firing. The nurse shook her head. In this society, she said, unconsciously echoing the propaganda of the National Rifle Association, if you criminalise guns, then honest folk will not have them. But criminals will.

The nurse in her blue uniform with the revolver is precisely America's dilemma over guns, and explains why it will never be solved. The US is a country whose founding myth is that it owes its very existence to an armed citizens' revolt against a foreign - British - tyranny. The state of Texas, with its own founding myths built round the rebellion against Mexico and siege of the Alamo, became part of the US only as a result of Texans taking up guns. To many Americans, the historic right to bear arms has become a modern necessity to bear arms. In the Los Angeles riots of 1992, for example, when civil order collapsed and Korean shopkeepers feared they were about to see their property looted, the police did nothing to help. The looters were driven away from Koreatown by Korean Americans who shot at the looters until they left. The American frontier may have gone, but the armed citizens' posse is alive and well.

So today Texas mourns the latest victims of gun massacres. From high schools to shopping malls to workplaces, every American wonders who will be next. My office? My child's school? My local restaurant? But despite the soaking of political rhetoric that will drench America over the next few days, nothing much will be done except fiddling at the edges of gun control. Who, in the race to be President, will tell the sane, reasonable, woman in the blue nurse's uniform or the citizens of Koreatown that they do not have a constitutional right to bear arms?

As a result of the recent killings, public opinion is indeed swinging towards tighter gun control. Only a handful of die-hards carry bumper stickers, as a neighbour of mine did, boasting "An Armed Society is a Polite Society". But most Americans, and especially Texans, believe that guns are goods as unquestionable as motherhood and apple pie. Sadly, gun violence is the inevitable result. As the Houston gun shop owner put it, the US was founded by people carrying the Bible and the gun. However deep the search for answers to this peculiar American dilemma, the gun, like the Bible, is here to stay.

The writer is a presenter on BBC News24

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