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Sociological Notes: Neighbourhood murders in Maine

ANOTHER SCHOOL massacre. And once again America agonises over the place to lay blame: violence in movies and television shows, violence in video games, the godlessness of popular music, dangerous information on the Internet. Given the fact that the United States boasts 12 times more handgun deaths than all other industrial nations combined, I think it's reasonable to suggest that we Americans are simply a violent people. And we have too many guns.

Maine, where I live, is a big state, slightly larger than Scotland, yet with only a fifth of its population and about five times the rate of firearm murders: 5.8 per million to Scotland's 1.2. Which makes Maine an extremely safe place to live, by American standards - 10 times safer than the rest of the US, which averages around 60 firearm murders per million citizens.

Firearms account for more than half of Maine's homicides. Handguns, America's murder weapon of choice, are responsible for 32 per cent. Such statistics, insists the National Rifle Association, have little to do with the prevalence of guns in our hands and more to do with social and psychological causes. "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," goes the NRA's well-worn battle-cry.

Indeed, Mainers armed with knives commit 16 per cent of the state's annual murders. Fists and feet are responsible for 8.5 per cent, slightly ahead of strangling. Lagging behind, at about 5 per cent each, are murder by blunt instrument and murder by fire. Murder by motor vehicle and drowning, taken together, total just under 2 per cent.

Despite Maine's relatively peaceful nature, in the 25 years I have lived in the Pine Tree State, four of my neighbours have murdered. In each case friends or family members were their victims; firearms were their weapons.

Last winter, two 21-year-old men in my town got in a scuffle over a .22 hunting rifle after bingeing on alcohol and drugs all day and night. One of them began taking target practice inside the trailer, and the other grabbed the rifle from him. When he tried to reclaim it, he found himself staring into its small black muzzle. His rather undiplomatic response: "You don't have the balls to shoot me."

He was mistaken. In fact, his buddy proved his testicular worth 13 times. Eight shots to the head, one in the neck, and one more in the back, exhausting the 10-round clip. After reloading, the young man proceeded to fire three more slugs into his friend's chest. "To make sure he was dead," he explained to police detectives.

Two miles up the coast from my home lies the small, quaint, calendar- perfect town of Ogunquit. A few years ago, one of the restaurateurs walked into her bathroom and emptied the family pistol into her philandering husband while he was taking a shower. Then she shoved another clip in the gun and shot him some more. After being acquitted on the grounds that she had been the victim of domestic abuse, the woman returned to running her restaurant. Last month townspeople elected her to the highest office in town, the Board of Selectmen.

In the 21 years I lived in Whitefield, a rural community 100 miles to the north, the town saw two shotgun murders. In one instance, a 14-year- old boy became frustrated with his younger sister one morning because it was his responsibility to get her ready for school, and she refused to get out of bed. Even after he'd aimed the family shotgun at her, she wouldn't get up. So he shot her.

Murder in Maine, like murder elsewhere in the US, seldom results from the sort of diabolical scheming that visited the Colorado high school. Most often, murder serves as a means to end an argument between family or friends. Maybe, as the NRA maintains, these neighbours of mine as well as those Colorado boys would have killed whether they had guns or not. But it doesn't take a genius to know that the NRA is wrong.

Michael Kimball is the author of `Mouth to Mouth' (Headline, pounds 9.99)