On Friday morning, I received a phone call from my mother to tell me that my niece (who is also my goddaughter) had been taken to Dublin to the national children's hospital in Crumlin for an operation, as her pacemaker was infected. To explain: my niece was born with a very serious heart defect - so serious, in fact that after three heart operations in the two weeks after she was born, the doctors said they could do no more for her, and she was taken off the life-support machine and left to die. However, her will to live was strong that she defied the odds and is our little miracle child. On Friday morning, I was naturally upset, as she had not had to go through any procedures in the last six years; but by Friday evening, I was thankful that she was still here with us.
Thankful especially because of the horrific news coming out of Sandy Hook, Connecticut, where 20 little lives, all around my niece's age, and their teachers, have been lost. Horrific news - but not surprising. How could it be surprising in a country where there are almost enough firearms for every man, woman and child that lives there? Apparently there are 90 guns to every 100 citizens in the US. They are owned by a very vocal 20% of the population, mainly white, middle-aged and male, which must mean that there are a lot of families and/or individuals that own a pretty sizeable arsenal of weaponry. According to John Avlon, writing in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, gun control laws have actually loosened under Obama's presidency, to the extent that someone can feasibly carry a firearm on an Amtrak train, or in a national park. Granted, Americans do not tend to use trains in the same way that we do in the UK; but it is the equivalent of carrying a firearm on South West trains, or on one's Sunday walk on Hampstead Heath. When it is brought home in very tangible terms like that, the mind boggles.
There is also the issue, which Avlon talks about fleetingly, about the myth of the pioneer and founding fathers in the American psyche. There is even a holiday dedicated to the latter: Thanksgiving. What these myths tend to omit is the truth of what actually happened. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the genocide of thousands of Native American Indians which started in 1637 under the Massachusetts governor, John Winthrop. In essence, what Americans celebrate every year is nothing less than the ethnic cleansing of the native population. The myth of the pioneering, brave cowboy is equally pernicious, and was embedded firmly in the national psyche, again spinning the tale erroneously at the expense of the native population via a variety of methods, ranging from Laura Ingalls Wilder's tales of growing up in the Mid West, to the cowboy movies and spaghetti westerns of the 1950s and 1960s.
These myths are important in understanding the debate about gun control, as they tend to evoke an irrational emotional response in the pro-gun lobby, and a sneaking disquiet in the hearts and minds of those who abhor the killing of innocent children, but who also are afraid of being seen as that most heinous of criminals: the un-American. Fear has been a huge determining factor in the success of the pro-gun lobby, and indeed within the political history of the USA itself. It was used to great effect in the McCarthy era, which still has resonances today; I have to stop myself guffawing with laughter and disbelief every time I have heard Obama described as a 'socialist' on news items/blogs/interviews. It seems that to be described as a Liberal/Communist/Socialist is still the worst insult one could hurl at an American; however, I would hazard a guess that if asked, anyone hurling those 'accusations' (and I do put that word in inverted commas, as an out-and-proud Liberal, with a capital L) would not be first of all, able to describe what a Liberal or a Communist or a Socialist was; and secondly, if Americans did have access to some more of that 'Socialist' healthcare (which in more progressive First World countries, is seen as a right, not a luxury), there is a possibility that its disturbed young men would be diagnosed earlier, and given the healthcare they needed before they got their hands on assault rifles and slaughtered innocent people.
There is also a problem politically, as the NRA and their supporters seem to have, given their numbers, an unhealthy stranglehold on Washington. Given the fact that 20% of the population own 100% of weaponry privately in the US (in short, it seems like there are private militias being armed), I would say that the NRA has enough funds to target those that disagree with them politically, and that cannot be ignored in this debate either. It is unseemly that such a minority should exert such a voice in this issue; it is the very antithesis of true democracy. It is akin to the National Front in France, who recently gained around 20% of the vote, being able to dictate public policy. Although there is a case to be made for citizens having access to firearms in the more remote areas of the USA, or if they need it for labour purposes i.e. farming or ranches, by and large there seems to be an unhealthy obsession with, and access to guns in the USA. The killer's mother herself was apparently obsessed with guns, and shooting, and had several weapons purchased legally, which, sitting here in London, seems to be very odd. I know one person of my acquaintance in the UK who has a gun license; and even though he only has that for shooting clay pigeons, I find it hard to comprehend the usefulness of it. I myself have only once held a gun, for a show I did; and although it does give one a feeling of power to hold something like that, that can determine life or death, for me it was not a thrill. As the saying goes, "He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword"; and although gun apologists will say that they are beautiful things when used properly, I would contend that if you have a gun, you must be prepared for it to be used, and not always with your permission. They also contend that the answer is having more guns; and if you look at the statistics from the rest of the world, that is utter nonsense. Teachers should not have to carry firearms into their classrooms to appease a neurotically paranoid minority; the laws need to be changed for the safety of the majority. The UK is a shining example of how to react in the face of massacre, as it did after Dunblane in 1996: tighten gun control laws. The result, 16 years later, is that the UK has one of the lowest rates of death by firearms in the world.
The NRA also have a saying, made famous by the actor Charlton Heston, that their Second Amendment rights would be taken away from "their cold, dead hands". The problem is, the context of the Second Amendment is wildly out-of-date. So essentially Americans are hanging on to an Amendment that lost any validity in real terms possibly after the Civil War, but definitely after the Second World War. It seems to me as an American citizen who has never really lived in the US that America's problem with its image of itself, is that it has remained rooted in a Disney-fied version of a Norman Rockwell painting, which the modern world does not, and should not, accommodate. We have moved beyond that as a global society; and it is for that reason, the rest of the world looks at America with bemusement and incomprehension when the issue of gun control and young men massacring innocents arises as it has again, and again, and again. The NRA may say that their guns will be taken from their cold dead hands; the thing is, it is never their cold, dead hands that are at stake here, but the cold dead hands of moviegoers. And Sikhs praying. And teenagers in Columbine. Shoppers in an Oregon mall. And most recently, teachers and their students, none of whom were older than seven.
What America has to ask itself is this, as basic as it is: What do we value more? The right to own a deadly bit of metal, or the right of our children to live beyond their seventh birthday? This debate has come too late for the innocent victims of Newtown, Connecticut; but to honour their memories, the debate must happen so that it is not too late for others. If it does not happen, America will have condemned itself and its citizens to another Groundhog Day massacre, to be repeated ad nauseam.