Newtown, Connecticut, joins a rollcall of towns whose names become synonymous with violent death. The President has a fight on his hands
This column, readers should be warned from the outset, is an exercise in futility. Not a single argument in it is new. It, and the myriad similar ones which have appeared these last 24 hours, might have been published a year ago, five years ago, even 20 years ago. In fact, they were – but in the interim, nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. And that is the real tragedy and disgrace of Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut.
The simple truth is that for all the ink spilt and outrage voiced, such incidents have become more, not less frequent since I first arrived in the US in 1991. That October, I was writing my first rampage story, about an unemployed merchant seaman named George Hennard who drove his pick-up truck into a popular restaurant in the small town of Killeen, Texas, before pulling out a couple of weapons and shooting 23 people dead and wounding a score of others.
It was the worst such incident in American history, to be surpassed, until the events in Newtown, only by the massacre at Virginia Tech university in April 2007, when 32 people died. But there have been countless others: Columbine High School in 1999, Fort Hood, Texas, where a deranged army psychiatrist mowed down 13 soldiers in November 2009, and the Aurora, Colorado, movie theatre shootings last July in which 12 were killed. There have been mass killings at Amish settlements and Sikh temples, in offices and car parks, in public places and private homes. Perhaps because this latest horror is freshest in the mind, a disproportionate number seem to take place at colleges and schools. But somehow they all blur into one ghastly whole.
And the aftermath is invariably the same: a day or two of blanket coverage, of unbearably harrowing accounts of innocent lives lost, varying only in the details. There follows suitable but ritual outrage, along with demands for a tightening of America’s gun laws – to be met by the familiar, well-honed arguments of National Rifle Association (“guns don’t kill people, people do”), and invocations of the price to be paid (30,000 people killed each year by guns, half murders, half suicides) if God’s own USA is to remain a free country.
Conceivably, the slaughter in Connecticut will live longer in the headlines. Even by American standards, the number of victims was exceptionally high, and most were small children. The killings occurred barely a week before those same children would have been excitedly opening their presents at what is supposed to the season of joy, peace and love. And it all happened not in the old frontier lands, with their ingrained culture of guns, where you half-expect such things, but in an urban and wealthy New England state, about as far from the Wild West as can be imagined. But don’t expect anything much to change.
The plain fact is that as gun outrages have multiplied, gun controls have lessened. A numbed resignation has bred a new logic, that even vociferous supporters of stronger curbs on gun ownership seem tacitly to accept. Like it or not, this reasoning runs, there are simply too many guns in the US to control (by most accounts, 300 million for a population of 311 million).
No amnesty will ever get rid of them; if a bad guy wants to get hold of a gun, he will. The best way for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves is not to rely on Congress and the courts, or anyone else, but to get a gun of their own. True, no one is yet calling for elementary school teachers to pack heat, but you can bet someone will, and soon.
The “zenith”, if so it may be termed, of gun control here came in the early Clinton years; first with the so-called Brady Bill, named after James Brady, the White House press secretary shot and paralysed in the 1981 assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan, which mandated background checks on firearm purchasers. Then came a ban on certain semi-automatic weapons that belong only on the battlefield, whose sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible. But this assault weapons ban expired in 2004, and has not been renewed. In the meantime, state after state has passed laws allowing concealed handguns to be carried, and easing what restrictions there have been on gun purchases (Virginia, for example, last summer repealed legislation that had limited handgun purchases by its citizens to one a month).
For gun control advocates the politics of the issue are more daunting than ever. Despite President Obama’s victory in November, Republicans – the “gun” party – retain a majority in the House of Representatives. The Supreme Court still has a conservative majority, that has repeatedly struck down gun control laws on Second Amendment grounds – even though that hallowed text (“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”) had in mind the circumstances of 1789, when that militia might be summoned to repel a new British invasion.
The NRA remains one of the richest, most potent, and most skilful lobbying groups in the land and, even if Democrats were to regain control of the House, enough of them represent districts where gun tradition runs deep to ensure that the NRA has its way. Understandably perhaps, given the multitude of political fights he already has on his hands, Obama has thus far shown little stomach to take it on. That might now change: the country had been “through this too many times” and must come together to take meaningful action, “regardless of the politics”, he declared on Friday evening. As a second- term president, clearly and recently re-elected, he will never be better placed to act. But don’t hold your breath.
The reason for so many Killeens, Virginia Techs and Connecticuts is not because of Americans’ devotion to the Second Amendment. It is not because they are more violent than us. It is not because of hokum about the Old West. It’s because there are, and always will be, so many guns. You weep for the children of Sandy Hook elementary school. You weep for America. But as I said at the outset, when it comes to positive action, you probably weep in vain.