America and guns: when will they learn?

Stephen Foley visits the Columbine memorial, just 20 miles from last week's US massacre

A Wall of Remembrance at the memorial to the Columbine massacre in 1999 is studded with granite squares, each engraved with a reminiscence or reflection from a student, teacher or emergency service worker affected. Only one quotation is unattributed. It reads: "It brought the nation to its knees, but now we've gotten back up how have things changed; what have we learned?"

The temptation, after a new mass killing in another Denver suburb, is to whisper in reply: "Not very much in 13 years."

The killing spree at Columbine High School, in which 12 children and a teacher died at the hands of two senior students, prompted a national debate over gun control laws but led to no new national legislation and no substantial changes in Colorado either. Today, the state has among the countries laxest rules on the purchase of firearms. Local police believe James Holmes unleashed his terror in the Century 16 cinema in the suburb of Aurora last Friday using an arsenal of four guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition that he obtained entirely legally.

Again, the atrocity has prompted a national debate. But debate is all anyone expects, not action.

"What do they stand for, and why aren't they standing up?" New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, asked yesterday of the two presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Almost before dawn broke last Friday Mr Bloomberg had begun pressing the case for new restrictions on gun ownership. He has been a consistent advocate of reform, but he is a billionaire, insulated from the need to raise money for his runs for office.

Other politicians are increasingly wary of weighing in in favour of anything that might circumscribe the Second Amendment right to bear arms, in the face of the National Rifle Association's massive lobbying firepower. The American public narrowly, but definitively, tells pollsters it favours gun rights over new restrictions. Gun control advocates are on the back foot almost everywhere in the US.

The Columbine memorial is a hauntingly silent circle, carved into the hillside of a popular park behind the high school. At its centre are engraved tributes to each of the victims. On several have been placed wristbands, crosses on necklaces, even bibles.

Aaron Rizzuto, 27, is reading them, one by one. He says that he comes here to reflect every year or so, and was drawn to come after the latest tragedy. He expresses a typical fatalism about the chances of tightening American gun laws, much as he personally would like to see people put aside a Second Amendment that was adopted in 1791 at a time of Revolution. "It's as if everyone thinks the King of England is going to be knocking on their door any day. I think we are a bit past that, but there's not enough people, with not enough power, to have our voices heard."

Pat King has come to the park with family and friends. Mr King's daughter was 9 at the time of the Columbine massacre, under lock-down at another school, and the killings in Aurora stirred memories of that day and made him cry again. "These weapons, the automatic and semi-automatic weapons, these are not for hunting. They are for killing people, that is all. But this is America, there is a right to bear arms and you can't take their guns. To do so, you would have to start with tackling the NRA first. They push this stuff, and they don't care what happens."

The NRA is undoubtedly one of the most powerful lobbying organisations in the US, and it is not hesitant to divert campaign contributions to defeat advocates of gun control. Many Democrat operatives believe Al Gore's support for gun control lost him key states in the 2000 presidential election, largely because of NRA opposition. The organisation has raised $9m (£5.7m) already for this November's elections. Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, who entered politics to campaign for gun controls after her husband was killed in the 1993 Long Island Railroad massacre, is now largely despondent about the prospects for making major changes. "A lot of Congress members, in their hearts they do believe and support common-sense gun-safety laws," she said this weekend. "But many members are definitely afraid of the NRA."

The Long Island Railroad incident was the last time a mass killing really moved people to demand tighter restrictions, leading to a 10-year ban on assault rifles of the kind used at Century 16. But the ban expired in 2004 with little congressional effort to renew it. In Washington, it is measures to loosen gun laws – such as a plan to allow states to recognise each other's concealed-weapons permits – that have gained ground. Even the shooting of one of their own, the Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was almost killed in a mass shooting in Tuscon last year which took the lives of six others, prompted no new laws. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled a ban on handguns unconstitutional, the vote split along ideological grounds.

Support for once-popular measures, such as a ban on handguns, has fallen to a 50-year low of 26 per cent, as a new fatalism grows. Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said yesterday he did not think there was "any way in a free society" to stop the likes of James Holmes getting their hands on weapons of mass killing. Senator John McCain pointed to Anders Brevik's massacre in Norway a year ago as evidence that even tight gun laws will be broken by men who want to create terror.

In Columbine, comfort comes not from pushing reforms that might prevent atrocities but from the changes that at least limit their scale. Nora Walters, a Fire Department volunteer whose daughter had chosen a different cinema to watch a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises last Friday, celebrated the speed with which emergency services responded. Watching a baseball game across from the school, she said: "I don't know what could be done, but I do know that our first responders are more prepared."

The tragedy in Aurora has once again knocked a nation off-balance. When it gets back up, how will things have changed? What will have been learned? Those who want to use Friday's killing spree to shake some sense into America's gun laws might as well be talking to a wall.

Mass shooting: a recent history

April 1999: Two teenagers kill 13 pupils and staff at Columbine High School in Denver.

April 2007: Virginia Tech becomes the site of the deadliest shooting in US history, with 32 people killed.

January 2012: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is shot and injured at a public appearance. Six others are killed.

April 2012: Seven die at a small Korean college in California.

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