Staring down the barrel of an American icon

As the Dunblane inquiry unfolds, the British are thinking about firearms - amid ominous signs of the US gun culture taking root
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The Independent Online
Let me take you through the standard operating procedure for a policeman who sees a minor traffic offence committed in one of the worst areas of an American city.

First he will pursue the offender, briefly dabbing his siren and flashing his swirling blue and red lights to indicate that the driver should stop. When - if - he does stop, the cop will draw up his big "cruiser" - usually a Chevrolet Caprice - behind the car and slightly off to one side. The officer then shines dazzling spotlights on all the rear view mirrors of the offender's car to prevent him from seeing anything going on behind. If the approach has to be from the front, a much more dangerous position, he will tell the driver to place his hands on the dashboard where they can be seen.

Any attempt by the driver to get out of the car will be met by an order, shouted through a loudspeaker, to stay where he is. There is then a pause while the officer taps the registration number of the car into his computer. This computer will already have logged the precise location of the incident. If anything goes wrong, half a dozen other cruisers will descend on the spot and the computer will have produced an instant biography of whoever should be driving the offending car.

Finally the officer gets out and approaches the driver at an angle from the rear. He takes his licence and registration and returns to the cruiser to run elaborate computer checks. All this time the offender sits, immobile if he values his life and silhouetted in a brilliant pool of light. The atmosphere is rank with fear and suspicion. My skin - I am observing the incident in the front seat of the cruiser - is tingling with the anticipation of sudden violence, of the ambush that these cluttered alleys and rotting houses may, and sometimes do, conceal. And all this because a car had gone through a stop sign without stopping.

There is only one reason for this nightmarish ritual - guns. Guns are widely available in the United States and, as a result, even traffic law must be enforced in the worst inner city areas with the precautionary assumption that any driver might come out shooting.

Politicians, trapped by the strength of the gun lobby with its illiterate and ahistorical reading of the constitutional "right to bear arms", can do nothing. They simply mouth platitudes about crime being caused by people, not guns. This claim is only partly true - a gun might well make a crime possible and, therefore, "cause" it - and, even if it were wholly true, since there will always be criminals, society must have a legitimate interest in limiting the damage they can do. Either way, on the matter of guns, American politicians talk flagrant nonsense and most of them, I suspect, know it. They are, therefore, implicated in the nightly carnage on American streets. Even as my officer was checking out this traffic offence, I heard on his radio of two shootings a few miles to the south of where I sat. It was an average night.

Yesterday, the Cullen inquiry into the Dunblane massacre opened: the British are thinking about guns. Of course, we can agree that the situation here is nothing like that in America. There is no legal right to bear arms, restrictions on ownership are relatively tight and, as a result, there are few areas in which the police must assume that they might, at any moment, be shot.

Nevertheless, those areas are expanding. Guns are finding their way into the hands of British criminals. And they want them, they love them. Guns are almost sacred objects of desire. For, though we haven't imported law from America, we have certainly imported its cultural icons. And, thanks to movies, television and the nightly news, the gun is the most potent of contemporary icons. We now have a gun problem, even if, for the moment, it resides primarily in the more diseased regions of our imaginations.

And the point about guns is that they change everything. Carrying a gun gives you an enlarged area of control and influence. You can take action at a distance and, in a gun culture, you must assume that others are similarly capable. Your sense of the world is fundamentally altered. The gun redefines any environment as threatening and yourself as decisively able to respond. A gun transports you to a different realm of possibilities.

This is the world which Lord Cullen must consider. He must not be sidetracked by the more vaporous effusions that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Dunblane. All sorts of grand cultural generalisations can be constructed on speculations about the mind of Thomas Hamilton. Most will be wrong, but all will be irrelevant. Minds like that will always be with us. What counts here is the extent to which such psyches can find murderous expression in the environment in which they find themselves, and this must be Cullen's sole concern. Analyse certainly, understand maybe, but, above all, stop. Attempt, by whatever means, to remove the possibility.

Seen from this perspective, it is clear that Dunblane was about guns and only guns. Even if we could all agree on the wider condition and recent history of society, we could do little about it. Even the more practical matter of school security is a by-product of the gunman's freedom of action at a distance. And, in any case, fortifying our schools is one more step down the road to inner city America where children pass through metal detectors on their way to class. Maybe we have to do it, but we shouldn't kid ourselves that it is the heart of the matter.

No, guns are the point. Guns empower and inflame psychosis, guns render feeble and inessential the complexities of human contact, guns "solve" problems in ways that mere language or even fists and knives can never do. Whose delicious, thrilling irony led to the Colt 45 being christened the "peacemaker"? The irony of those it killed.

So Cullen must confront the gun. He must also confront the fledgling gun lobby that exists in this country. Already we have heard the American argument that guns don't kill, people do - though, over here, its form is: no matter how tight the law, the bad guy will always get a gun if he really wants one. This is just as corrupt as the American version since it casts the same hypocritical glow of respectability over an idea whose true form is: we want guns and you shouldn't try to stop us.

In fact, there should be almost no limit to how far we should go to suppress guns. Perhaps farmers may really need them, but hunters don't. And shooting as sport is disgusting, a way of playing at killing. So, a few shotguns aside, there is no reason why we should not aim for a completely gun-free society.

Cullen should not evade this aspiration because it is now his job to affirm the possibility of such a society. The spread of illegal guns is a sign that, even with our restrictions, we are vulnerable to the possibility of a gun culture. The American example should teach us that now is the time to replace gun fascination with gun disgust. Of course, realistically we can accept that there will always be lines in the world that must be defended by men with guns. But, equally realistically, we can insist that no more lines should be drawn and certainly none that run past our school gates.

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