Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Bush's top-level conference on school shootings scrupulously avoided any reference to gun control

When is a gun not a gun? The answer is simple: when the White House has convened high-ranking federal education and law enforcement officials for a high-falutin' "Conference on School Safety" to show the government's concern at the plague of fatal shootings at US schools in the last few weeks.

This worthy initiative took place last week in an affluent Washington suburb, a few days after Charles Roberts trussed up 10 young girls at an Amish school in Pennsylvania, then dispatched them execution-style with a single pistol shot to the head, killing five of them. On the very eve of George W Bush's conference a 13-year-old boy with no history of misbehaviour appeared in the assembly hall of the Memorial Middle School in Joplin, Missouri, with a mask on his face and an assault rifle in his hands, pointed at the headmaster and a group of pupils. "Get away, don't make me do this," he is reported as saying. In the end, the boy fired not at them but into a ceiling pipe - causing a loss of water, but mercifully not of life. For much of Tuesday's proceedings here, however, you'd never have guessed.

The proceedings of the great and the good were led by the President in person, and touched on many aspects of school safety: the importance of sound basic values, of parental involvement and a sense of community, and of correct emergency drill procedures. As he put it during the hour-long discussion he chaired: "Societies change one heart at a time. This need to say 'I love you' comes from the soul. Hopefully out of these tragedies will come the sense of communal obligation ... for people to make an extra effort to comfort the lonely." But throughout his entire appearance, the word "gun" did not once pass his lips. Ditto First Lady Laura, renowned for her interest in education. During her seven-minute pep-talk to the conference, she, too, scrupulously avoided the G-word.

As always on such occasions, the audience was carefully vetted beforehand by a White House desperate to spare the boss any buffetting by the harsh cross-currents of the real world: no card-carrying Democrats, no troublesome liberal special interest groups and, above all, no one from the gun-control lobby were in attendance.

But for all the precautions, the ghost could not be banished from the feast. At last someone stated the obvious: the recent rash of tragedies and near-tragedies had one thing in common - guns. And what did the federal government plan to do about it?

Alberto Gonzales, the attorney general, had no choice but (please pardon the pun) to bite the bullet. Plainly, such weapons should be kept away from children, he agreed. But present legislation was quite adequate. It merely needed to be enforced properly. Could this, however, have prevented the massacre of the Amish?

The Pennsylvania authorities have released the transcripts of Roberts's conversation with the local emergency dispatcher moments before he killed the little girls. "Get them [the state police] off the property now," you hear him saying with the mundane calm of the truly insane. "Right now or they [the girls] are dead, in two seconds." No knife, hammer or baseball bat could have made that threat of instant mass murder credible; only a bomb - or a gun.

But then of course, to borrow the mantra of the gun lobby's standard bearer, the National Rifle Association: "Guns Don't Kill People, People Do." The unspoken message from this conference dealing with gun-inflicted horror was that nothing will be done to remove guns from the equation of horror. Expect no action from Congress. Even now, after the string of recent school shootings, candidates for November's mid-term elections do not whisper the words "gun control".

Thus continues the lunacy spawned by America's devotion to the second amendment to the US Constitution and its guarantee that "the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed" - even though the 1791 provision relates to the citizens' militias, created as a safeguard against any British attempt to regain the former colonies.

Meanwhile back in Pennsylvania, just before dawn on Thursday, they bulldozed the white-painted, one-room schoolhouse where Roberts had run amok, and hauled away the rubble. The site is now bare earth, to be reseeded and returned to pastureland.