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Judi Sutherland Headshot

What Would Jed Bartlet Do?

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I was in America on a business trip the day Obama won his first term. My Republican colleagues were in deep gloom. "He's gonna wreck the economy" they said. It was November 2008; I pointed out to them that the financial crisis had already hit, and on whose watch did that happen, exactly? In contrast, the black hotel concierges, chambermaids and taxi drivers had a spring in their step and a twinkle in their eyes. Everything had changed overnight.

Everything changed again last Friday, when the news started to come through about the shootings at Sandy Hook. Don't get me wrong when I say I was immediately bored by the whole thing. What I mean is, I resolved to avoid this whole thing on the news, because what had happened was so like what happened at Columbine/Virginia Tech/Denver over the last few years. There would be the same media frenzy, the same outrage and grief, the same shrine with flowers and teddy bears, the same protestations from the gun lobby that 'guns don't kill people - people do'. There was nothing new to see here, and nothing would ever change. After all, the American 'gun lobby' is a powerful force. It's got a lot of votes, and by definition, it's got a lot of guns.

I haven't been able to avoid it all. The meta-news this time has gone beyond parody. I haven't seen the interviews with six-year-old survivors, but I've heard other people's critique of them. I read an article on the BBC website by their Washington Correspondent, Jonny Dymond, which was less about the shooting than about the ghoulish media choking up this small town with their vans and cameras. Very sensibly, none of the townspeople were willing to talk to Dymond, so his article carried a distinct sound of the bottom of the barrel being scraped as he, presumably, searched for an angle down there. (I realise that I am indulging in meta-meta-news. I'll stop now.)

Americans are more strange to us than their music, films and TV programmes might lead one to believe. Their values and behaviours are very different. They accept compulsory car insurance, but think a decent health service for the majority of their citizens would be 'socialist'. They drain the word 'liberal' of all its connotations of freedom and tolerance, and make it mean 'Marxist'. They have this unswerving devotion to weapons that is unfathomable to us.

The gun lobby is, indeed, spouting about its 'freedom' and its 'rights'. I seem to remember that the American Declaration of Independence states, fairly early on, that the founders intended American citizens to enjoy 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'. If we are playing rights top trumps, I would have thought that those 'unalienable rights' beat the right to bear arms every time. The right of each child and each teacher to complete a school day and go home in peace. The right of each parent to greet his or her kids coming out of school and take them home alive. The right to a future. Compared to those, the right to borrow one's mother's Bushmaster semi-automatic assault rifle, (advertising strapline: 'CONSIDER YOUR MAN CARD REISSUED') and take out one's personal grudges against twenty six innocent people and their bereaved families, seems somewhat secondary.

I'm not an expert on the American Constitution. I know the Second Amendment was made in 1791, long before the semi-automatic assault rifle was conceived of. I don't know whether there has ever been an amendment to an amendment, but maybe now is the time. Barack Obama finds himself in his second term of office, with no possibility of a third. If he wants to be remembered for anything more than being the first black man in the White House, this could be his Abraham Lincoln moment. Now, when there are almost four more years left for him to operate. Now, while the hideous Tea Party has been recently humbled, and there is some chance of moderate Republicans having a voice. Now, while this latest atrocity is fresh in everyone's minds. I don't know what can be done about the plethora of horrific armaments that is already out there, but let's be clear. Nobody needs this type of gun to shoot deer, or defend their farmstead against intruders. If American politics is anything like the noble and principled business that Aaron Sorkin envisaged in The West Wing, Barack Obama will try to do something. Any American who really believes in the Declaration of Independence will want to help him.