Editorial: America's gun worship must end

Will Sandy Hook make the US notice that its murder rate is four times ours?

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We make no apology for returning to the subject of gun control in America. Not because we can influence the debate in the United States, or because we have any right to do so, but because the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School nine days ago were so horrible, in a society so like ours, that we still struggle to understand.

Not the motives of Adam Lanza, the murderer – though these were not easy to grasp either, even if such hatred, nihilism and paranoia is sadly familiar enough. What is really hard to understand is how a nation has allowed itself to get to a situation where guns are so universal that normal people feel they need one to be safe, and legislators cannot keep a ban on semi-automatic weapons on the statute book (a 10-year ban expired in 2004).

Last week, we were upset, astonished and outraged by the killings in Connecticut, even as we acknowledged the bravery and selflessness of teachers who gave their lives trying to protect the children in their care. This weekend we are numbed by two things. One was the response of Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (NRA), at a news conference on Friday. The other was the realisation that, in the week after the Sandy Hook shootings, more than 500 more Americans have been killed by guns, most them committing suicide, around 200 murdered and about 20 killed accidentally.

For a moment, when the NRA said that it wanted to "engage" in the debate about gun law, there was a glimmer of hope. But Mr LaPierre's argument was that the lesson of the latest mass killing was that more Americans should have more guns. The writers of The Simpsons could not have scripted a more savage parody. Mr LaPierre began his homily by attacking "politicians" for passing laws for Gun-Free School Zones: "In so doing, they tell every insane killer in America that schools are their safest place to inflict maximum mayhem with minimum risk." This looks like evidence of unspeakable stupidity on the part of a man who has not noticed that nearly all mass killers end by shooting themselves.

Yet Mr LaPierre is guilty not of poor reasoning; he is guilty of cynicism. He is prepared to go on television to say anything to make NRA members feel better about owning guns. The fundamental problem is not that the NRA is a highly effective pressure group, although it is, but that it represents the many millions of Americans who feel patronised by liberals such as Barack Obama who four years ago observed how, as they "get bitter, they cling to their guns or religion".

That makes the debate in America impervious to facts. Will Sandy Hook make the average American notice that the murder rate in the US is four times what it is in the UK? Will they notice that London, one of the world's biggest cities, is about to record fewer than 100 homicides a year for the first time in decades? Will they, inured as they are to news reports of shootings, notice the death of a three-year-old in Oklahoma who shot himself in the head last weekend with a gun he found in his aunt and uncle's house? Or of the 48-year-old woman killed at random in a drive-by shooting in Oakland?

We can only hope so. President Obama looks as though he understands the problems. If he can get any measure to restrict the availability of semi-automatic weapons through Congress, it will seem inadequate to us. But any restriction means fewer children will die and would therefore be worthwhile.

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