Leading Article: Will America ever be weaned off the culture of the gun?

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
YET AGAIN, the same story. A long list of dead after a lone gunman goes berserk. America wrings its hands; the rest of the world looks on in disbelief. Admittedly, Britain has had its own horrors, at Hungerford and Dunblane. By any measure, however, America is something else. We have seen crazed shootings in the US so many times in recent years - in schools, at prayer meetings, at the Capitol building - that the news of yet another massacre no longer comes as a surprise.

Yesterday, there were renewed calls for tighter legislation. But we have been here before. It was only three months ago that 15 were shot dead at a Colorado school; and, already, the drive to restrict handgun sales had begun to subside.

When a deranged gunman went on the rampage in Dunblane, the tight laws in Britain were tightened still further. When yet another gunman goes crazy in America, the connection between the quantity of guns and the armed violence is not generally seen as so obvious or immediate. On the contrary. Some years ago, when Virginia sought to introduce legislation that would restrict gun purchases to just one a month, opponents were enraged at this restriction on their civil liberties. That mentality is still embedded in much of the country.

President Bill Clinton has continued to urge stricter legislation. Compulsory background checks before buying a gun may soon be on the statute books. But that would not have deterred a killer like Mark Barton, who might well have cleared such checks. Questions were raised yesterday about day trading, and the dangers created by going mad in the upside-down world of the markets. But, to misquote the slogan of the National Rifle Association: "Day trading doesn't kill people; guns do."

The sheer quantity of guns is truly staggering - more than one per person across the entire country. In those circumstances, it is difficult to be surprised when a crazy person - of which there is no shortage, in any country - takes a gun to set the world to rights. The concept of gun ownership as an entrenched civil right may go back to the history of America as a frontier society, but surely the police force of the most powerful democracy in the world can do its job unaided by armed freelancers.

The problem is not so much what can or cannot be done. It is what Americans want to be done. Admittedly, the difficulties of bringing America's gun problem under control would be huge. The gun-owners who pose the greatest danger would be precisely those who would be least inclined to give up their weapons.

While even those who are in favour of gun control express their concerns in comparatively muted tones, the supporters of the still-powerful National Rifle Association are more strident. The pro-gun lobby shoots from the proverbial hip. In the words of one typical comment on the CNN website yesterday: "Legally armed citizens are the solution, not the problem."

Most Europeans fail to understand why Americans are still so devoted to their guns, with all the lethal knock-on effects. Many Americans, in turn, cannot understand why Europeans do not acknowledge the importance of essential self-defence.

This difference has broader implications. We are in danger of persuading ourselves that all countries think along similar lines, and that our way of seeing a problem is the way of seeing the problem. In reality, as the example of gun control clearly reminds us, nothing could be further from the truth. Things look very different when seen from different national perspectives. We may shake our heads at the extent of the cultural divide. But at least we should recognise the existence of the divide.

This lesson is important, not least for America itself, which - despite and because of being the strongest democracy in the world - has been ready to impose its own will on a global scale, in the unshakeable belief that the American way of doing things is the only way. America holds this truth to be self- evident - that its views are always right.

The extent of the differences between philosophies in the two continents applies not just to gun control, but to a whole range of international issues. But merely acknowledging different ways of looking at the same question - however extraordinary the alternative perception may seem - is an important start.

Meanwhile, Europeans may hope that Americans, still so wedded to the gun, will eventually seek a weapons-divorce. One day, perhaps, a majority of Americans will think that an abundance of guns is self-evidently a bad thing. But it could be a long wait.