The impossible dream - America without guns

Jonesboro will be no Dunblane
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FOR AN instant, when I heard the news from Jonesboro on Tuesday evening, I had a dream. In that nano-second of hopeless optimism, I thought, this might be it. A teacher and four children dead, gunned down by their own. Finally, America would come to its senses and just as New Labour did last year after Dunblane, get rid of the gun. Then I woke up.

How hard it is for us foreigners to understand America's relationship with the gun. I lived there for six years, and I still don't understand. It's not for want of trying. I can reel off the reasons for this deadliest obsession: the country's tradition of individual liberty and the right of self-defence, which a gun is supposed to personify; the enduring myth of the frontier and the Wild West (personified by cinema's ultimately pathetic figure, the cowboy without a gun); the status that guns confer especially on the young, and the fear bred by proliferation, the belief that the only protection from armed men is to carry arms oneself.

I have thought long and hard about America's culture of violence. I have counted the number of fatal shootings per hour of prime-time TV. I've talked to rednecks, militia leaders, Virginia gunshop owners and ice- eyed spokesmen of the National Rifle Association, the legendarily potent lobby group. I can recite by heart the infamous Second Amendment of 1791, which provides constitutional underpinning for the gun. "A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." No matter that the militias referred to were intended to safeguard the populace from King George's redcoats and hostile Indian tribes, and that the amendment is as relevant to modern America as the Corn Laws to modern Britain. Woe betide he who dares suggests the US Constitution falls short of perfection.

You may revile the NRA. You may mock the fatuous cynicism of its most famous slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people do". On the basis of its foundation in 1871 by former Union officers to improve the poor marksmanship of their men during the Civil War, the NRA likes to talk of itself as the oldest civil rights group in the world. For us, the assertion is akin to the Nazi party claiming humanitarian breakthroughs in eugenics; to members of the organisation, it is a self-evident truth.

But while I understand, I do not understand. For all the compendious knowledge itemised above, I looked on disbelieving at the great debate that swirled in Virginia a few years back about the infringements of human liberty that would ensue when the state limited handgun purchases to one per person per month. I could not, and still cannot, grasp how one such tragedy after another does not convince America that the carnage caused by firearms (40,000-odd deaths a year, half of them murders) far outweighs whatever benefit they might bring.

For the novelty of Jonesboro is not that it happened at a school, pupil- on-pupil, or that the gunmen in question were 11 and 13, or even the motive (the older boy seems to have been taking revenge for being jilted by his girlfriend). In Paducah, Kentucky three months ago, and Mississippi two months before that, teenage students shot dead their peers, one of them having shortly beforehand dispatched his mother. Jonesboro's distinguishing feature is that it happened in President Clinton's home state. How could this happen to us, a resident wondered, "these things are supposed to happen somewhere else". Yes, somewhere else: like Paducah, or the humdrum Texas town of Killeen - where George Hennard walked into a diner one morning in 1991 and shot 23 people dead - or, for that matter, Dunblane.

But just suppose my dream was true. Imagine that the NRA lay down like a lamb. Imagine Congress metamorphosing into the House of Commons and banning all handguns, and that the manufacturers who turn out two million weapons a year meekly close down their businesses. It wouldn't make an iota of difference. Quite simply, the number of guns in circulation has long since passed the point of no return. Imported weapons, legal and less legal, continue to pour into the US. Sometime soon, the handgun population (an estimated 222 million in 1992) of the US will overtake the human one (265 million at the last count). Ban guns, offer a king's ransom for them, do what you like. Bought or borrowed, inherited or stolen, they will continue to be available to all comers.

And that is the argument the gun lobby so mischievously employs. Having watered down any proposals that do reach the floor of Congress, it then argues that the new law will make scant difference - so why bother ? Thus it was with the Brady Bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns. So it was with the ban on various assault weapons, which the House of Representatives voted to repeal just a week after Dunblane. But true gun-lovers even recruited that massacre to their cause, as proof that even in countries where guns were few and relatively hard to come by, these things still happen. Why penalise the "vast majority of responsible gun owners" for the lunacies of the few ?

And so the cycle will be repeated. Hands will be wrung raw. There will be a heartbreaking funeral, innumerable vows of "never again". President Clinton, who, let it be said, has tried harder than most of his predecessors to slow the spread of firearms, has once more urged America to search its soul. Eminent men will examine adolescent alienation and the defects of the school system. The NRA may lose some support. But in a week, a month, a year, there will be another tragedy. The incomprehensible cult of the gun will prevail. When America ends it will not be with a bang or a whimper, but a shoot-out.