On 13th March, 1996, Thomas Hamilton took four legally owned handguns and 743 cartridges of ammunition and headed to Dunblane primary school in Scotland. After cutting through external telephone wires to prevent 999 calls, Hamilton walked towards the school gymnasium, where he opened fire, murdered 16 children and one teacher and injured many more. In the wake of the Dunblane tragedy, two new firearms acts were passed, both of which severely restricted the private ownership of guns in Britain.
Since the Dunblane massacre here, 61 mass shootings have occurred in the United States – in churches, family-planning clinics, hotels, cinemas, shopping malls and other public spaces, including Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where 20 children, aged six and seven, and six staff members were killed, and Orlando’s Pulse nightclub, where an unprecedented 49 innocent people were murdered because they were gay. In three-quarters of these mass shootings, the murder weapons were obtained legally (at Sandy Hook, the assailant had stolen guns from his mother, whom he also killed). The majority of these many gunmen (and one gunwoman) were classed as mentally troubled.
The Sandy Hook attack prompted Barack Obama to propose reforms of America’s gun-control laws. Compared with the near-total ban on UK gun ownership in the wake of Dunblane, Obama’s proposed reforms were remarkably moderate – sufficiently, he hoped, to find acceptance with the USA’s powerful gun lobby. This legislation reasonably proposed that suspected terrorist sympathisers, those known to be violent and the severely mentally ill would be subject to background checks before legally buying firearms. Gun dealers would be obliged to report lost or stolen weapons, police would be able to find out if someone under their investigation was attempting to buy a firearm, and online gun sellers would have to follow the same regulations as those in bricks and mortar stores.
But despite 90 per cent of the American public supporting gun reform, the proposals were blocked by a minority of senators, many of them are known to profit directly via financial contributions (see the Twitter feed of @IgorVolsky for dollar exact figures – they’re truly shocking), or indirectly though political support, from gun lobby groups – lobbyists who represent the barely one per cent of the American public the National Rifle Association counts as members.
In this continuing climate of entrenched opposition to gun reform, the reportedly mentally ill US-citizen Omar Mateen was able to carry out last weekend’s horrific mass-murder in Orlando. Mateen, while not connected directly with any terror organisations, was inspired by ISIL and radicalised online. He was known to the FBI for his sympathies with terrorists, had twice been questioned accordingly, had a history of spousal violence and yet still legally obtained a firearm designed for war, in order to conduct a mass murder of innocent civilians.
Despite the fact that American gun ownership is declining (though just under a third of Americans still have a firearm in the house), mass shootings are increasing in frequency and severity – they’ve doubled in the past seven or so years, and seven of the “Top 10” highest casualty numbers have occurred in the same timeframe, with the highest-ever death toll occurring this week.
When politicians have failed to act over the massacre of six-year-olds, or innocent LGBT clubbers, never mind the number of single shootings, or the one-in-three suicides by gunshot, or the dozens of children that die each year in gunfire accidents, one has to assume that no atrocity is quite bad enough
When politicians have failed to act over the massacre of six-year-olds, or innocent LGBT clubbers, never mind the number of single shootings, or the one-in-three suicides by gunshot, or the dozens of children that die each year in gunfire accidents (in the US, you’re as likely to be killed with a gun as to die in a car accident), and when a public official, Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, responds to the senseless homophobic massacre by tweeting a bible quote about sinners “reaping what they sow”, one has to assume that no atrocity is quite bad enough. And, as with any mass murder, there’s no neat, all-encompassing answer to what happened in Orlando. It's about lots of things, despite what opportunistic politicians would have us believe. It's about homophobia, religious hatred, terrorism and racism, as well as easy access to guns and assault weapons.
But even with nuance, it is hard for those outside America to discount the stark facts over which they rightly have no say. It doesn’t matter what British people who have never held a rifle and don’t much fancy a trip to a Texas gun show think about either. We British don’t understand, and probably never will, how a country and ally with whom we share so much in common, from whom we take many cultural cues, seems so infatuated with guns. Firearms are not things in our homes – one still feels an unfamiliar frisson when an armed British policeman is spotted in a public place. We associate guns with territorial farmers, toffs with hacking jackets and flying lumps of clay, soldiers marching at Buckingham Palace. Guns aren’t at our school gates, under our parents’ beds, popped in our glove boxes or clutch bags in case of an emergency.
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It is baffling to someone who loves America but hates guns that, after this many massacres of innocent lives in the name of religion, those in the grips of severe mental illness and unknowable grudges can still tool up in Walmart, and probably always will. It is alarming to us that, in many states, it is easier it to buy a weapon of war than it is to get an abortion or even two packs of Sudafed.
Even less conceivable to those on the outside is that the suggested response to these hideous crimes is for more innocent people to carry guns so they’re ready for the worst. Give school teachers a rifle, encourage gay men to take guns to nightclubs, arm churchgoers with pistols, not prayerbooks. The logic that more guns will result in fewer shootings, despite every statistic proving the contrary (in England, one in every million dies from gun homicide each year. In Japan, roughly one in 10 million. In the US, 31 in every million will be shot dead), prevails. “People need to defend themselves,” says Donald Trump and his pals at the NRA. But people are not defending themselves now, when they already have free access to guns and a culture that positively encourages them to bear arms. They are reading books, getting fitted for diaphragms, disco dancing, film watching, teaching geography, shopping for clothes – living their lives as though citizens of the world, not soldiers engaged in 24/7 warfare.
You can be frustrated that a minority of disproportionately powerful men with a freaky obsession with guns will never allow US gun laws to tighten, however moderately. You can despair at the quasi-religious defence of the Second Amendment as though it is not the revisable work of dead politicians who lived in unrecognisably different times, but the actual word of God. You can be scared that unhinged people – whether disenfranchised students, radicalised Muslim terrorists, pro-life maniacs, bigots, homophobes, children (in 30 states, it’s technically legal for a child of any age to own a rifle or shotgun), misogynists and, most commonly, white supremacists – will continue to be able to buy weapons of war while shopping for spaghetti hoops.
But, ultimately, all we British can do is support the very many Americans who don’t get it either – the majority of US citizens who want tighter controls, who will carry on, tear-sodden, beaten and bereft to defiantly sing, dance, love, shag and marry whomever they choose, wear and read what they want, and believe whatever they feel in their hearts. You can mourn the many hundreds of children and adults stolen from their mothers, fathers, lovers and friends, just as you did the victims of Dunblane, and will over the future victims of terror attacks on Britain and abroad. You can take to the streets of London, Birmingham, Liverpool Manchester, Cardiff, Brighton and beyond to sing, vogue, revel in the freedom we all demand, refuse to be intimidated, rub the bigots’ noses in the freedom they try to curtail. You can stand shoulder to shoulder with your LGBT neighbours and American friends. Because that's what defiant joy and celebration does. It cancels out hate where it can never reconcile murders, or diminish pain, or reduce hate crimes and terrorism. And, despite all their guns, that’s ultimately the most effective weapon America has.