Another day, another school shooting. Suspected gunman Adam Lanza, is said to have shot dead 18 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, as well as his mother and then, somewhat predictably, himself.
It’s the third large-scale shooting in the US in 2012 – twelve people were killed in a cinema in Aurora, Colorado in July 2012 and six people were gunned down at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin in August.
The list of major gun attacks in the US, including the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 when 32 people were shot dead, is disturbingly long.
Every time one of these tragedies happens, the US Government and media are outraged, mournful, and extremely vocal about introducing legislation to stop it from happening again, but nothing ever happens.
The second that there’s any mention of a sensible crackdown on ownership and regulation of weapons, the gun evangelists point everyone towards their precious Second Amendment, which is clearly more important to them than slaughtered children.
Forming part of the Bill of Rights, the Second Amendment to the US Constitution states:
“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”.
Adopted in 1791, just a few years after the American War of Independence, the amendment was of its time – written to ensure that the American people could defend themselves against the British and any other enemies. It wasn’t intended to enable a disgruntled, mentally unstable individual to legally buy guns with ease and kill with alacrity during times of peace.
Times change, and so too has the context of the original Amendment. Let’s not forget that the Bill of Rights itself originally only applied to white men, with women, native Americans and African Americans left out of the party until Amendments further down the line.
I’m British and I live in the UK, so why do I even have an opinion on American gun control? Well, I have family on the other side of the pond and my brother is a naturalised American. I’d like to think that they live in a country where any murderous oaf can’t just waltz into a Walmart and stock up on guns and ammunition. Sadly, that’s not the case.
On one visit to the US, we did a National Rifle Association of America shooting course, so I have a qualification from the NRA stating that I know how to load and fire a semi-automatic handgun. Preposterous, I know, but true.
As the only Brits in the room, we were also the only ones who’d never fired a gun before. I was amazed that we were just able to walk in and handle a gun – no police record check or anything.
To be fair, the trainers were excellent, with a refreshingly responsible attitude to guns. As well as mocking their own organisation’s quaint insistence on referring to guns euphemistically as “firearms”, rather than “weapons”, our instructor also told us that if any of us were thinking of getting a gun for home protection then that would be a extremely foolish.
“Get a Louisville Slugger instead”, he said (that’s a baseball bat, to the Brits). Making this training course mandatory for gun owners would certainly be a step in the right direction.
In 1987, when Michael Ryan used several legally owned guns to kill 16 people (including his mother) and injure a further 15 bystanders in the notorious Hungerford Massacre, the Government immediately took steps to change the law.
As a result, the Firearms Amendment Act 1988 banned ownership of semi-automatic rifles and restricted the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three rounds.
In 1996, when gunman Thomas Hamilton went into a school in Dunblane, Scotland and shot dead 16 pupils and a teacher, the nation was outraged. Which is precisely why there was only minimal opposition when the Government took steps to implement the Firearms Amendment Act 1997, effectively banning private ownership of handguns in the UK.
As a result, we have a very low number of gun-related deaths on UK soil compared to the USA.
Speaking in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, President Obama said: “Our hearts are broken” and added “We’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics”.
A strong statement, and no doubt that a visibly upset Obama was expressing genuine sentiment, but as a political statement of intent, they’re just words.
I don’t wish to seem opportunistic, but this latest tragedy provides an ideal chance for the debate on gun control to move forward. However, as things stand, it’s highly unlikely that any significant changes to gun ownership laws will make it through Congress.
“Today is not the day to engage in a policy debate about gun control”, said White House press secretary Jay Carney on the events at Sandy Hook. To which I say, yes it bloody well is.
This article was originally published on 15 December 2012 on The Huffington Post UK.