The images are horrifically, shamefully familiar. Children with faces frozen in terror grasp each other’s shoulders and file out into the school playground. A mother engulfs her son, one of the lucky ones, in an embrace of pure thankfulness. White-knuckled parents clutch mobile phones to their ears, desperate for news. These scenes have, in the past two decades, become as quintessentially American as the Thanksgiving Day Parade or the Girl Scout cookie drive.
The chilling twist in Newtown, Connecticut was the tiny size of those playing the key roles. Instead of gangly 15-year-olds, the children covering their eyes and scurrying out of their classrooms were six- and seven-year-olds, with backpacks and brightly coloured leggings. Too young to die, commentators lamented, as if somehow after puberty, mass murder isn’t quite as tragic.
Around once a year, sometimes more often, but rarely less, somewhere in America a shooter opens fire on a room full of high school or college kids. With a routineness that has itself become the principal tragedy, many of these incidents barely even register in the public’s imagination. Rarely do they lead to any meaningful clamour for changes in gun legislation. America has more guns than any other nation on earth, with approximately 88 guns for every 100 people, a number that is increasing every year.
Although the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting has packed more of an emotional punch than previous cases, the sequence of events that has followed already feels painfully, rigidly familiar, the well-trodden mixture of emotional outpourings and political inertia – the lameness of the left and loopiness of the right.
Congressmen steer away from thorny gun control debates, offering instead their “thoughts and prayers”. A choked-up Barack Obama called for non-specific “meaningful action” to be taken, but the White House was careful to temper that radical message with an assurance that “today is not the day to debate gun control” whilst giving no hint as to when that day might actually come. On the right of the political spectrum, the tragedy has been blamed on everything from a lack of God in the classroom, to a lack of guns, with many voicing the view that the best way to prevent school shootings would be to arm kindergarten teachers.
To non-Americans it seems incomprehensible that the murder of 20 first-graders wouldn’t be enough of an emotional jolt to propel a radical change of the gun laws. I fear however, that not even the slaughter of six-year-olds makes it more likely to happen.
The problem is that here in the US the issue of gun control is not a symmetrical debate between two opposing points of view. Politics is about telling the right stories, and, somehow, the gun lobby has taken firm ownership of the narrative of what it means to be an American.
Unlike in Britain, where the pro-gun movement, in as much as one exists, consists of a few toffs who want to shoot pheasants. In America, the sheer raw symbolism of guns is hard for outsiders to comprehend. The Second Amendment to the Constitution, the right to bear arms, is fundamental to the American psyche, leading to the peculiar doublethink that conflates guns inextricably with freedom. Guns are not so much weapons that kill children, but the gleaming trophies of the proud American’s fight against his imaginary oppressor. Guns aren’t just for citizens to defend themselves, they are a fundamental part of what makes them American in the first place. It is quite possibly one of the most ingenious and sinister PR messages ever crafted.
It is also a story that liberals rarely challenge on its fundamentals. However strongly the left may argue for specific reforms, they are mainly just tinkering around the edges. It is the right-wing that defines the debate, and it is a mark of the deep and enduring power of this narrative that it is left untouched by the mass murder of children. Despite the annual instalments of gun-related terror there is virtually no mainstream movement here to repeal the Second Amendment. Indeed support for tougher gun control has fallen every year since 1990. In a 2010 Gallup survey 54 per cent of Americans wanted more lenient laws or the status quo.
In the slipstream of this powerful and defining story, a bloated National Rifle Association continues to hold a metaphorical gun to lawmakers’ heads. While modest gun control bills are regularly introduced in Congress they rarely progress further. Unwilling to waste political capital with Republicans on a seemingly unwinnable issue, the President has been reluctant to push forward.
It is hard to see how the moral absolutism that allows the murder of a 14-year-old to be explained as an unfortunate but unavoidable by-product of freedom, could be shifted by the death of a seven-year-old. It is difficult to imagine a more poignant tragedy than the one that struck in Newtown, Connecticut. But if the deaths of the children at Sandy Hook aren’t enough to force change, then nothing is.