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Honour the Past, But Don't Live in It

Dallas. 22nd November 2013.

The week marking the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address also played host to the 50th anniversary of John Fitzgerald Kennedy's assassination in Dallas.

And when I realized that, sitting in a motel room in nearby Austin, a simple thought occurred to me:

In all the years since that day at Dealey Plaza, I have never heard of Lee Harvey Oswald's actions being cited as a reason for gun control.

The core fact of the matter is beyond dispute. Lee Harvey Oswald let off three shots at John F. Kennedy from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. Two hit, ending the life of the 35th president of the United States.

The weapon used was a 6.5 mm Carcano Model 91/38 carbine which fired 6.5 x 52 mm Modella 1895 rimless cartridges.

This enabled Oswald to end Kennedy's life from a distance.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) defends the right of U.S. citizens to bear arms by repeatedly stating:

This is oversimplified rubbish.

Without the help of a rifle, Oswald could not have killed Kennedy from a distance of two hundred and sixty feet.

The 1791 Second Amendment of the United States Constitution, written at a time before industrial warfare had been invented, at a time when America was still indeed frontier territory and settlers were genuinely vulnerable to attack seems to me (despite decades of tortuous legal argument) to have been a pretty straightforward sentence allowing the local sheriff to raise armed militias to keep order as and when necessary.

Times changed, the destructive ability of weaponry increased to a level undreamed of by 18th century Man, and yet America has continued to cling on to a right to bear arms which has led to atrocities like Columbine, Aurora and Sandy Hook.

Texas, in particular, is seen as embodying the American desire (as defined by Lincoln at Gettysburg) to be a great nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

The president of the United States is sworn to preserve, protect and defend the U.S. Constitution. In addition to that and due to his youth, charisma and potential, it could be argued that in 1963 John F. Kennedy seemed to embody the American Dream.

Why, then, did not the inescapable fact that the Dream was struck down by rifle bullets in the heart of Texas lead to some serious soul searching, reassessment of the past and realization that America was no longer violent frontier territory but a settled nation and global hyperpower. The world had changed. The frontier was closed, the territory settled.

Peggy Sue even got married.

So why do so many Americans still cling on to their guns?

There are of course many reasons, but in general modern Americans are more patriotic than Britons. As the UK's former U.S. ambassador Christopher Meyer once said:

"...most Americans, whether Republican or Democrat, sophisticate or redneck, believe that their country's actions in the world are intrinsically virtuous; and more fool those countries that do not recognize this. The attitude of Britain's Victorians was very similar."

And, again in general, many Americans are gun owners.

Consciously to have to acknowledge that a rifle blew away the American Dream and ended the age of innocence may be a mite uncomfortable for some Americans, so they hang on to the NRA's "people kill people" mantra and to frontier values forged in the founding of America.

The United States, I heard it said recently, is still a young country floundering a bit in search of its own identity and, not unnaturally, a little prone fiercely to defend its new traditions in the face of foreign criticism.

But, as is always the case, you must come to terms with the past or be bound and imprisoned by it forever.

In the pilot episode of HBO's The Newsroom, a fictional news anchorman has a moment of clarity and gives it straight:

... The first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.

America is not the greatest country in the world any more.


In real life, in Dealey Plaza, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings just said:

"...each of us must meet our oncoming challenges head-on, with courage - honouring but not living in the past ... and never flinching from the truth."

I stand in Dealey Plaza and hear the sound of distant drums.

Whether they stand for the retention of old frontier attitudes, or for change and reinvention, I do not know.

James Christie is the author of Dear Miss Landau. He was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a mild form of autism, at the age of 37 in 2002. He lives in the Scottish Borders.

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