In 2007 a student at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people. I was living in America at the time, and I heard a man on the radio argue earnestly and in measured tones that to reduce the chances of such a thing happening again students on college campuses should be allowed to carry concealed weapons. It took me a moment to realise he was serious. I honestly hadn’t thought of this solution before.
Since then I’ve become more familiar with the reasoning of the gun lobby. Last week I heard an impressive and moving interview with the parents of one of the 20 children killed in Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The father made an eloquent plea for change. ‘Something in our society,’ he said, ‘needs to be healed.’ He urged American parents to ask themselves, ‘What is it worth doing to keep your children safe?’ Into my head, unbidden, came the answer. ‘You can buy yourself a gun for a start.’ I didn’t mean it, but I’m sure there were plenty of others saying the same thing, who did.
An attachment to guns has often seemed like a requirement for holding high office in America, almost as essential as believing in God. Running for the presidency in 2004, John Kerry made sure to get himself photographed, in combat fatigues, on a duck shoot. Being a decorated war hero wasn’t enough. When Hilary Clinton was running in the Democratic Primary against Obama in 2008 she claimed to have always enjoyed shooting ducks. At least Obama was spared this indignity. Even if he'd been tempted to pose loading a gun, imagine how those 'optics' would have played with the demographic Kerry and Clinton were reaching for.
Now that gun control legislation is back on the agenda, some Democrats are still wheeling out their animal-killing credentials, as if only that will earn them the right to join the conversation. Joe Manchin, Democratic senator from West Virginia, put it this way: ‘I just came with my family from deer hunting. I’ve never had more than three shells in a clip. Sometimes you don’t get more than one shot anyway at a deer. I don’t know anyone in the hunting or sporting arena that goes out with an assault rifle. I don’t know anybody that needs 30 rounds in the clip to go hunting. I mean, these are things that need to be talked about.’
It’s strange the way deer and wildfowl keep getting dragged into the argument, because whatever the Second Amendment is about it’s not about hunting. What it actually says is that ‘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.’ That seems to mean that the country should be equipped to defend itself against foreign attack, though it might conceivably mean that individual states should be equipped to defend themselves against an oppressive federal government.
For many Americans it seems to be about something different – your right as an individual to protect yourself from someone who breaks into your house or tries to rob your store or attacks you in the street. For a hardcore minority it’s about your right as an individual to protect yourself against the agents of a government that's infringing your basic liberties.
Either way, forget duck-shooting. If you want to respond in kind to an assault from a homicidal thug (or a federal agent, if that's your concern) you'd better be armed with whatever they’ve got. And you’d better have it ready. An unloaded handgun, safely locked away where your kids won’t be able to play with it, won’t do you much good if an armed criminal breaks into your house. If a crazy person opens fire in the shopping mall, even your semi-automatic Bushmaster is useless if you’ve left it at home. On its own terms, the logic of the gun lobby seems unanswerable. Violence in school? Arm the teachers. Violence on campus? Arm the students. Violence in the streets? Arm everyone.
The only counter to this line of reasoning is the cumulative evidence of what really happens. A child finds a loaded weapon and kills someone by mistake. An angry boyfriend, who might otherwise throw a fist, pulls a trigger. A law-abiding citizen reaches for a gun to defend himself and is beaten to the draw – because, outside of daydreams of rescue and revenge, psychopathic killers and crazy people usually beat law-abiding citizens to the draw.
These days I live in London, near to a place called Newington Butts, which is now mainly a housing estate. The name ‘Newington’ indicates that at some point in the middle ages it was a new settlement. A ‘butt’ is a target for archery practice. Newington became Newington Butts in the sixteenth century because archers trained here. It was England’s longbowmen who had won the battle of Agincourt in 1415 and thereby defeated the French. And in 1511 Henry VIII had decreed that all men under the age of 40 should own a bow and arrow, reasoning, no doubt, that a well armed militia being necessary to the security of a free state he’d better make sure Englishmen knew how to handle a longbow.
If I woke up one morning and bought myself a bow – a lightweight aluminium number with a quiver full of steel-tipped arrows – and wandered through Newington Butts with it, maybe I could try that argument out on the local constabulary.