It may be 16 years ago but the inexplicable barbarity with which Thomas Hamilton shot 16 innocent primary school children in Dunblane sprang first to mind when the news broke of the equally horrific shooting of 20 innocent small children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in suburban Newtown, Connecticut.
Newtown is not one of the US’s many social disaster areas. It is a postcard-perfect New England town where everyone seems to know everyone else. In many ways it resembles Dunblane—an affluent outlying green belt town with many commuters, in this case using Metro North to travel the 70 miles into Grand Central Station in Manhattan. Its tree-lined streets are home to 27,000 and lie near Danbury CT in Fairfield County, just over the border from New York state.
The gunman was Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old son of a teacher at the school. It all apparently started when he killed his mother Nancy at her home nearby before taking guns she kept there and using her car to drive to the school with them. All US schools have security access but Dawn Hochsprung, the school Principal, recognised Adam as the son of a colleague when he rang for access and buzzed him in. She was one of the six adults who died when she went to investigate the sound of shots.
This early on, there is only speculation what the motive could have been. But whatever gripe Lanza may have had against his mother or the school management, how this translated onto 6-year-old children is difficult to fathom. He is reported by former classmates to have been a quiet, self-effacing, intelligent and nervous type. Because it is so typical, little can be read into the fact that his father Peter had divorced Nancy or that his 24-year-old elder brother Ryan had moved away and was living in New Jersey. Since Adam showed up wearing all-black combat gear and a bulletproof vest, this can hardly have been a spontaneous event. He made no attempt to escape and shot himself as police responded.
As we Scots have learned ourselves, even one such tragedy is too many. Though the United States is not as dangerous a place as those who have never visited might believe, this scale of willful carnage is entirely too commonplace there. This year alone, 12 people had already died at a Batman movie opening, six at a Sikh temple and, just this week, two more at a shopping mall. And the horrific scale of this rampage at Newton still does not top the 32 casualties Virginia Tech in 2007. It is a tragedy that the world even needs to have such a league table of carnage.
While some blame violent films, TV, games and other hostility-inducing elements of our culture, that does not explain why—Dunblane and Utoya being glaring exceptions—the bulk of such events occur in the States. Even the Canadians, who share a long open border and a very similar culture, do not indulge themselves in inhumanity on anything like the scale.
Some insight can be gleaned from more thoughtful films like Peter Bogdanovitch’s Targets (1968) or Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002). The former explores what motivates a slightly unhinged young man to drag his gun collection out on a shooting spree, while the latter is a tongue-in-cheek documentary about American gun culture, the title deriving from the 1999 rampage in Colorado when 12 died.
The common denominator appears to be the US’s prevalent gun culture. While it was still a frontier country, carrying weapons there was an understandable way of life. But justification this Western mentality has long been history. A secondary reason is the also-understandable perception that Americans live in a violent society and each should be capable of defending themselves and their homes. This accounts for the bulk of the 250,000,000 guns in the States. Many people own two. The only other country to come close to the raw 0.88 guns per head statistic is terrorist-infested Yemen at 0.5 per head.
Whether because of the foregoing or the simple macho power it confers, supporters of gun ownership have always been a significant political force, spearheaded by the National Rifle Association (NRA), whose uncompromising slogan was coined by Charlton Heston while he was their president; “You can have my gun only when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.” Not the most flexible stance and made all the more resolute by support for gun ownership outvoting those who would curtail it over the last few years—recent massacres notwithstanding. “Guns don’t kill people; criminals kill people” is one of their more sensible mantras.
The defence pivots around the Second Amendment to the US Constitution—a hallowed document that is revered to an extent a constitution-less Brit has trouble comprehending. The NRA and its supporters often quote this in their arguments:
“the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”
Which sounds pretty definitive; like it or loathe it, this seems to make a conclusive case that guns can be owned and carried by those who wish to do so. But the above is only a partial quote. The full text of the Second Amendment reads:
“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”
When this was adopted (in 1791), it made perfect sense. America had just emerged as the first colony to set itself free after a long and bloody war. It would soon be plunged into the war of 1812 and so the idea that its citizens could transform into well armed militia volunteers was a vital one and deserved enshrining. But that was 200 years ago. Europeans have far more recent arguments why they should go about armed to the teeth. But they don’t.
Whether Obama can take this anachronism and its powerful lobby on remains to be seen. But, in the meantime, it is providing cover for an arsenal to be available in almost all US homes. And, despite statistics showing that the great majority of the times they are used it is on members of the same household, opinion in support of that ‘right’ has remained firm.
Which means that the naturally occurring tiny psychotic minority (especially among teens and young men struggling with identity, hormones and drugs) have access to the personal equivalent of nuclear armageddon. That some use it is hardly surprising: to a 20-year-old (to quote Spike Milligan) ‘patience’ is a word invented by old farts who couldn’t think fast enough. Such behaviour is also hardly surprising in a culture where community generally tends to be thin as people move often and wall themselves off from each other in ranch-style homes.
But that last point does not appear to apply to idyllic Newtown, which could be the model for every fresh-faced, uplifting film about cosy community from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Home Alone”. So, even though all of the facts are not yet in, we are left with guns plentifully available to pyschotic youngsters as the only coherent explanation for what just happened there. Their ‘right’ to bear arms was not balanced by any functioning sense of responsibility towards the community of fellow humans.
And the only way for government to make a direct contribution to avoid more of this is for it to face down the NRA for once and knock away its main justification by a long-overdue repeal of the Second Amendment. Otherwise, Obama’s legacy is toast and America will fully earn Oscar Wilde’s scathing observation of being: “the only country to have gone from barbarism to decadence without any intervening civilisation“.