I still remember the first time I shot a rifle.
It was in northern Pennsylvania in the spring of 1999, three years after the shootings in Dunblane. What began as a kind invitation home for the weekend by a prospective American love interest, ended with me being frogmarched into a snow-capped forest accompanied only by the girl's father and an arsenal of rifles. His tolerance of me finally snapped when I asked why America didn't outlaw guns. And as bullets whistled, the answer still resonates.
"Think what you want. But know this," he said, shouting against the spluttering sound of gunfire. "In years from now, when everything's gone to shit, and you're in London, drinking tea and exercising whatever rights you think you have in your democracy, I'll be out here - with these - exercising mine."
It was the last time I saw the father or the family. Three weeks later was the Columbine massacre, in Colorado, the deadliest high school shooting in US history. The juxtaposition of these two events drew my attention to a widening disconnect between America's belief of arms as fundamental human right; and the bloody hideous reality of what happens when these rights lead to firearms falling into the wrong hands.
Even then, just like Sandy Hook last week, the immediate human outpouring of grief was seized upon by those eager to blame everything but guns: now was not the time to politicise a tragedy by debating gun reform, they argued, but to share in the sanctity human suffering.
Really? Well, 13 years on, it is time to call this. Guns have had their time. They are an outdated offering from the Founding Fathers: a fallout from the English Bill of Rights sold to America under the premise of liberty at a time when muskets - not semi-automatic assault weapons - were a credible source of personal protection. Yet in the centuries since - where colonialism has crumbled; the superpower plates have shifted East, gun-technology is deadlier and countries like Britain, Finland and Australia have all reformed their laws in wake of horrific incidents - America remains in its own self-perpetuated timewarp.
In fact it's worse. This outdated idea of the supposed right to bear arms has buried itself so deeply into the US psyche that we still see the same predictable arguments trotted out by the gun-lobby even during the first funerals of 20 children slaughtered by yet another angry loner with easy access to an AR-15. It is the fault of the mentally-ill, they say, the healthcare system; the decline of moral values or the rise of video games. Anything but the weapons themselves.
Worst of all, for too long now, a fear of attacking these diversions has permeated American life. So much so, that it is distorting reality. Earlier this year as the presidential campaign head to its conclusion, the world gasped at James Holmes, the red-haired PhD student that inexplicably opened fire during a midnight of screening of Batman in Aurora, Colorado. Barely a fortnight later Wade Michael Page, a white supremacist, opened fire in Sikh temple in Wisconsin, killing six people before shooting himself in the head.
These incidents, a tiny spec on the tapestry of the thousands of gun deaths across America every year, drew international condemnation and anger from President Obama. Yet in the US, barely a drop of blood registered on either candidates' campaign agenda. More depressing, were the intellectual commentators that readily swallowed the view that guns could not become an election issue ("too risky politically") and turned their attentions to Iran's nuclear capabilities and the faltering US economy instead.
Even yesterday, as many grappled to come to terms with its grief, life in gun-cavalier America continued without thought. In the family-superstore Walmart, in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, a sales pamphlet handed out to shoppers offered a range of guns as "the perfect guy gifts" with a "Dual Calibre Air Rifle" promising shots of "1,200 feet-per-second" at a recession-busting price of $124. A bargain in the pre-Christmas rush.
When does this absurdity end? How much more slaughter of children by those with easy-access to semi automatic assault weapons will it take before these myths of gun ownership are finally attacked? At what point do we, as progressive society, find the guts to challenge the relevance of the second amendment or at least ask some pressing questions if any of it is even still relevant in the 21st Century? When, rather than cowering, do we take on this supposedly revered-might of NRA; reminding ourselves that, despite their much-hyped ability to tip the balance of power, the gun-lobby were unable to get Mitt Romney anywhere near the Whitehouse last month?
The answer, as a British observer, is, we won't. That responsibility lies with Congress, the President and the American people to maintain momentum during this heartbreaking pause for self-reflection. It is only by asking deep questions of the very tenets upon which America was constructed that these deaths in Sandy Hook will actually count for something. Until then, the rest of the world will just hold its breath, hoping it doesn't have to gasp in horror when another tragic American tale is retold with the same depressing predictability.Reuse content