Now is not a good time to admit this, but when I went to Washington as correspondent in 1997, I had two ambitions. The first was to become proficient in Spanish – for demographic reasons that are even more obvious now than they were then – the second was to learn to shoot.
Part of it was the seductive glamour; I fancied keeping a tiny bejewelled firearm in my handbag, as the late Nancy Reagan was reputed to do. But the greater part was practical. If you are living in a country where it is legal to be armed, then you have a choice. You can take the moral high ground and opt out, or you can decide to join them. And if you joined them, I reckoned, it was as well to know what you were about – or, to put it crudely, to know how a gun worked and to be able to shoot straight.
My only experience of firearms up to that point had come from shooting tin cans in an American friend's extensive garden, and I wasn't too bad at it. But almost the first thing you discover is that the kickback is fiercer than you generally anticipate, and you have to adjust for it. Then you need to figure out how the mechanics work, so that you can load and disable the weapon, as required.
Unfortunately – or fortunately, whichever way you look at it – I never got to go shooting during my time in the US. The problem was that Washington DC, while having at that time one of the highest rates of gun crime in the US, also had – and still has – some of the tightest gun laws. There was a shooting club buried somewhere on Capitol Hill, for gun-minded members of Congress to hone their skills; elsewhere firearms were illegal.
Which you could argue rather undermines the much-quoted Second Amendment that is interpreted as entitling every American to bear arms. And you might conclude from this that the US really could go much further towards outlawing guns than is generally believed, at least if people concentrated on state legislation, rather than federal law. Maryland and Virginia, on either side of DC, for instance, have radically different gun laws, reflecting the different sides they took during the Civil War.
Although thwarted in my desire to become a crack markswoman, however, I don't exclude having another go at it one day – for two reasons. While I share the general European aversion to the overweening US firearms lobby, as exemplified by the National Rifle Association, gun ownership has two compelling arguments on its side. The first is self-defence. Those countries which arm their police do so because possessing a gun evens up the odds, as between male and female, attacker and victim, in a way that no other weapon can. You may be smaller and weaker than your assailant, yet if you are armed and shoot better, you can prevail.
The second is an argument of high principle. A state that allows its citizens to carry arms is a state that is confident in its legality and unafraid of its people. Americans do not often defend their attitude to guns in this way, but if they did, they might be better understood.