America's blight to bear arms

With the US gripped in a guns epidemic, even massacres rarely lead to new controls and only the insane talk sense

It's US election time and politicians everywhere are practising their rhetoric of American exceptionalism – the shining beacon on the hill. So let's allow that they are right. This country does stand out. It is gun-toting, magazine-clipping, barrel-silencing crazy. It's an unhappy, blood-smeared distinction laid out for you in the graphics on this page.

An examination of America's deadly-weapons epidemic is due, of course, because of the slaughters in a Colorado cinema on 20 July, and, one week ago, the rampage at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Two more to add to the already long mass-shootings list, 19 more lives lost. Also due is some intelligent conversation and, you might think, action.

President Barack Obama called for conversation after Colorado, though we haven't heard him having one. Mitt Romney said nothing really. We did receive some wisdom from David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" killer who butchered six people across New York City in the 1970s. "Society has to take the glory out of guns," he offered from his prison cell. A country has a problem when the only sane advice is coming from the insane.

I have reported my share of shootings. Gabrielle Giffords, the Arizona congresswoman (and survivor) last year; Virginia Tech five years ago; and Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998. I have talked to some who survived and relatives of those who didn't. But here's an odd thing: in 20 years in the US I have never seen a gun in the home, hand or waistband of a private American citizen. Only on the police, guards and the Secret Service.

Maybe I am just not observant. But you might spy just one or two reasons for hope in these numbers: I didn't know, for instance, that the number of American homes with guns has been dropping, in fact quite steeply. Maybe we should be glad that, on the whole, elder and female Americans don't shoot people very often.

Progress on gun control, in Washington and in individual states, fires up occasionally then falters again. Massacres rarely lead to new gun controls. What or who are we to blame? John Wayne is my nominee. Or maybe Annie Oakley. Guns are in the culture and the bloodstream, and ownership of them is protected by the constitution. As for why lawmakers struggle to pass new controls, look no further than the National Rifle Association with its influence and its dollars.

But ask yourself this. You live in Aurora, Colorado, and a crazy man has just sprayed bullets into an audience of people you know watching a film. If just one had also had a Glock in their pocket, that man might have been stopped almost before he started shooting. Might you not reason that it's time now for you to get a gun? Give one to your kids when they go out? One final statistic. In the two days after that shooting, gun purchases in Colorado doubled. So maybe that's why guns will never go away in America. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

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