OPINION: Shooting rampages in the United States in which a man (it is always a man) goes berserk with a gun and kills and injures multiple victims appear to be getting more frequent.
By one count, this year alone there have been seven in which more than half a dozen people have been killed and injured. Until this weekend the worst, in which 12 were killed and 58 injured, occurred in July at a cinema in Colorado, not far from the scene of a rampage in 1999 in which 13 pupils and teachers were killed at Columbine High School by two fellow pupils.
Columbine remains the worst massacre at a US high school, but the horror of it has now been outstripped by the slaughter on Friday of 20 children aged only six and seven at a primary school, along with six adults, in the small community of Newtown in Connecticut. As with most such killings, the heavily armed young gunman turned one of his guns on himself, leaving an appalled and grieving nation to try to make sense of what happened.
A clearly shaken President Barack Obama called for "meaningful action" to prevent such tragedies, of which he said America had "endured too many". The call was a familiar one. So far as it was intended to signal moves to tighten America's frighteningly loose controls on gun ownership it was a muted one. Since the president was speaking only hours after the shootings, he no doubt judged the time was not appropriate to raise the issue. But when it is eventually raised, Obama knows that "meaningful action" on gun control is more easily advocated than achieved. It would require the investment of huge political effort.
The call for greater gun control first emerged in the 1960s, after the assassination of President John Kennedy in 1963 by a man armed with a mail-order rifle and after the first random mass shooting in 1966, when a former United States Marine sharpshooter shot dead 13 people with sniper fire from a tower at Texas University in Austin. Since then, however, not even the attempted assassination of two more presidents and a congresswoman, a growing number of mass shootings at schools and supermarkets and the like, not to mention the carnage wrought by firearms accidentally or criminally wielded every day, has been enough to overcome the power of the mass of American opinion that favours allowing individuals to possess and carry their own personal lethal weaponry. In fact, the numbers who support the right to bear arms has grown and the laws allowing them to do so have been increasingly liberalised.
The blunt truth is that private ownership of firearms in the US is not going to change much. Not only is it enshrined in the Constitution, as generously interpreted by the Supreme Court, it is also an inextricable element of American culture, flowing in part from the founding myth of rugged individualism in a frontier society. There is also something in the notion that gun ownership alone is not at fault - that a culture of violence has some part to play. Other countries, such as Israel and Switzerland, are as heavily armed without anything like the same problems. Most mass shootings in the US have been committed with weapons that have been legally obtained. Moves to try to avert them as the president would like, by making guns harder to obtain legally, for instance, are likely to be piecemeal and grudging. If the past is any guide, any step forward will be matched by another one back.
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