Published by Daily Mail
It was a casual midnight massacre in a cinema during a screening the new Batman movie ‘The Dark Knight Rises’. And now, just as with every passing mention of Pearl Harbour, Dunblane, or September 11th , this film will most likely be forever synonymous with the tragedy.
Clad in gas mask, ballistics helmet and body armour, the audience thought the shadowy figure was part of the theatre experience, until he released gas-emitting devices and opened fire. But the story is a familiar one: a lone and unsuspected gunman enters a building and fires indiscriminately, targeting whatever moves – men, women and children, this time including a six-year-old girl.
And so the United States of America is (once again) in mourning. The number of dead and injured makes this incident the largest mass shooting in modern US history: Aurora, Colorado, 2012 (70 victims) now follows Fort Hood, Texas, 2009 (37), which followed Northern Illinois University, 2008 (21), which followed Virginia Tech University, 2007 (59), which followed Columbine High School, 1999 (39), which followed Springfield, Oregon, 1998 (25), which followed Killeen, Texas, 1991 (45), which followed Jacksonville, Florida, 1990 (14)…
I could go further back into the 80s and the 70s and 60s, but there’s little point. Not out of hard-hearted disrespect or lack of sympathy for those who still mourn their loved ones, but sheer exasperation that the US Government is seemingly unwilling to do anything to prevent such horrors recurring. At regular intervals throughout each decade, the world has collectively bowed its head as news has spread of those self-appointed revolutionaries who calmly walk onto their chosen battlefield bearing some permutation of pistols, assault rifles and bombs, and then proceed to terrorise, murder and maim innocent Americans. If these had been assaults by a foreign power upon US civilians, successive presidents – Republican and Democrat – would most likely have treated them as declarations of war and responded accordingly. But home-grown terrorism apparently doesn’t even qualify for a bit of ratcheted-up rhetoric against the inviolable ‘right to bear arms’.
I understand perfectly that it is not guns that kill people: people kill people. More specifically, evil people unlawfully kill innocent people. But in almost each and every tragic case of domestic mass murder, the semi-automatics have been purchased quite legally from the corner shop, just opposite Wal-Mart, right next door to McDonald’s. If you’re of sound mind and of a certain age, acquiring an AK-47 and 20 rounds of ammo is almost as easy as buying a hamburger. You can even buy one online for $370 – I just checked.
So it’s really no surprise that Aurora, Colorado is in mourning. If it hadn’t been there, it would have been somewhere else. The President of the United State has dutifully expressed his sorrow, shock and outrage, and the Queen has sent her sympathy and condolences on behalf of the British people.
The outrage, sorrow and sympathies are doubtless sincere and heartfelt. But shock? Really? How many times and with what regularity does an event have to occur and recur for the shock to become a tedious familiarity? How many more candlelight vigils need to be held before someone in the US Government has the moral integrity to talk of the sheer expectedness and totally unsurprising nature of such events? How many masses need to be said? How many requiems sung? How many more Facebook pages and Twitter streams need to be analysed and psychoanalysed? How many more intelligence reports need to be compiled by the FBI? How many more celebrities have to be wheeled out to tell us how devastated they are? How many more prayers have to ascend to the Throne of the Almighty before someone cries out that these things will be because of the liberties we demand and the culture we create?
It is not for a Brit to dictate to his American cousins how they should conduct their affairs or what they ought to do with their Constitution. I envy them their elegant, codified manuscript, observing that it’s largely a product of the 18th-century English and Scottish philosophical minds of the Enlightenment. But there is nothing enlightened about permitting civilians to possess weapons of mass destruction. If you can murder and maim 70 people with a single weapon, you might as well license people to carry anti-tank missiles and mortar shells.
The ‘right to bear arms’ was written in an age of pistols at dawn, when the state maintained no full-time army and single-shot muskets were deemed necessary to deter intruders. But things have moved on since having to contend with the Cheyenne and Cherokee. Bonnie and Clyde have given way to RoboCop and Terminator: it is madness to insist that the same rights of ballistics possession should be extended to the modern semi-automatic armoury.
Guns are part of the American psyche, securely embedded in the US cultural landscape in ways we can scarcely appreciate in the UK. They feature in their customs, rituals, symbols, stories and everyday language, and changing a culture is Sisyphean task. The issues are as constitutional as they are political: in the blue corner is the individual right to bear arms in accordance with the Second Amendment; in the red corner is the function of government to prevent crime and protect its citizens. Surrounding the blues are the powerful lobbyists for gun-rights: they talk of history, liberty, masculinity and identity. With the reds is an array of fragmented pressure groups and coalitions, who talk of the need for change; enough is enough.
When in the UK we were confronted with the shooting tragedies of Hungerford and Dunblane, a genuine sense of shock reverberated throughout the nation, and the question of gun control came to the fore. In opposition, Tony Blair said something must be done: in government, he swiftly legislated to remove the right of the freeborn Englishman to bear arms.
And this was indeed a constitutional right: the 1689 Bill of Rights says: ‘…subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law.’ But instead of extending these same rights to Roman Catholics in the era of emancipation, Parliament simply chose to disallow everyone to possess arms ‘by law’. The problem, of course, is that our lack of a codified constitution permits Parliament to treat our constitutional treaties like any other statute: Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, the Act of Settlement and the Act(s) of Union can be amended or abrogated just like the Dangerous Dogs Act.
Amending the US Constitution is not so straightforward, but neither is it impossible. The land of the free and the home of the brave has adapted its culture over the centuries, and it is that very capacity for change which has permitted the propagation of its national dream, which has always been perched tentatively somewhere between consent and dissent.
But no matter what the US presidential candidates mutter about gun control in opposition, when they reach the White House they simply tinker at the edges. We’ve had inter alia the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993. But these have not prevented Aurora, Fort Hood… Columbine…
While the politicians huff and puff for a fortnight, the friends and families of the victims will weep for months and years. And as the latest tragedy sinks into the history archives, it is reduced to matters of statistics; of whether or not the massacre qualifies for inclusion on the Wikipedia page of the Worst Mass Shootings in US History.
If just a fraction of the revulsion expressed by millions of Americans opposed to such ‘freedom’ issues as abortion, euthanasia and gay marriage were ever applied to gun control – for, surely, the teenager slouched in a cinema watching ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ has as much right to life as a baby in the womb – the recurring misery of mass murder might just one day be abated. The rights of the individual need to be re-balanced with needs of the community: state regulation is not illiberal micro-management when we are dealing with the preservation of human life. What kind of society is it that seeks to ban big sugary drinks in order to reduce obesity, while doing nothing to limit access to the pistols, rifles and guns which kills thousands every year?
Expressions of sorrow and sympathy need to be turned into political action. That action needs to change individual hearts and minds. That change must lead to a cultural shift away from the anarchy of ballistic autonomy and normative indifference. If it does not and nothing is done, let us not pretend to be surprised or ‘shocked’ tomorrow, next month or next year when another 50-or-so innocent bystanders are summarily shot in another leisurely massacre.