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“The Right To Bear Arms” Is Now An American Tragedy

Memo to the National Rifle Association: The Redcoats have left the United States. Now 100 million Americans own 200 million guns. Carnage comes too easily. The writer, a former Denver resident, asks, why is gun control so hard?

On May 1, 1999, eleven days after the last Colorado massacre — and you've no idea how painful it is to type those words — Charlton Heston stood on a stage in the ballroom of a Denver hotel. He was 75, an alcoholic, in remission from cancer, and with Alzheimer's Disease already starting to take hold, but the old actor knew his role.

He held aloft an ancient flintlock rifle, and defined the terms of the undeclared engagement. He declared that the only way he would be separated from his gun was if it were pried from his cold, dead hands.

The ballroom was jammed with the faithful. They were already standing. Now they cheered, as though this staged act of defiance was not just some piece of political and cultural theatre but a valid representation of who they were and what they believed.

The mayor of Denver had asked the NRA leadership to do the decent thing and cancel this meeting, or at least re-schedule. It did neither. In America, no one tells the NRA what to do, even in the worst of times — perhaps especially in the worst of times.

So this was the annual convention of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the voice of 100 million Americans and their 200 million guns. Charlton Heston was its president. Or, in the words of the T-shirts they used to have at the time, CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT.

In the public space that marks Denver's civic centre complex, an even larger crowd had gathered at the steps of the City and County Building centre for an anti-gun rally.

Unnoticed, at the side of the stage, was another man, middle-aged, with thinning sandy hair brushed across a broad forehead. He wore glasses and his face was downcast.

If, in the gathering at the Adams Mark Hotel a block away, there was something stronger than mere hubris in play, then Tom Mauser's presence represented a force more compelling even than that of a grieving parent.

"Something is wrong in this country," Mauser said, "when a child can grab a gun off a shelf so easily and shoot a bullet into the middle of a child's face, as my son has experienced. Something is wrong."

Now, owning an Uzi, an AK-47, a TEC-9 or an M16 with the advanced “Warfighter” 20 or 30-round magazine, is legal with the appropriate paperwork.

His 15-year-old son, Daniel, had been among the 13 — a teacher and 12 students — who were ambushed and shot dead by fellow Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who also took their own lives in the early afternoon of Tuesday, April 20.

The killers had been armed with a carbine rifle, a TEC-9 semi-automatic and sawn-off shotguns, as well as with knives and bombs. They had planned to detonate a bomb in the school's cafeteria, then pick off the survivors as they fled. Years later, in another part of the world, the same principle would be applied by insurgents in Baghdad, with the use of primary and then secondary bombs to kill and maim as efficiently as possible in a designated area.

Somewhere, there must be a textbook teaching this stuff, or simply a depraved, collective sub-conscious that knows no boundaries.

The resolve that drove Tom Mauser to the microphone before those thousands of people was the belief that his son's death and memory had to serve a larger purpose — which was to change his country's infatuation with guns, and the gun lobby's determination to scare silent anyone, civilian or politician, who would question it.

<p>Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images</p>

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Family Members Mourn Colorado's Latest Massacre.

This was 13 years ago.

The year before, in 1998, two schoolboys, aged 13 and 11, armed with a rifle, a pair of semi-automatics and four handguns, all stolen from their parents and grandparents, opened fire on their middle school in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Four students and a teacher were killed. There have been other mass shootings since then, including the 32 students murdered by Seung-hui Cho, 23, a student at Virginia Tech in April, 2007; and in Tucson, Arizona, in January last year, when six people, including a nine-year-old girl and a Federal judge, were killed by 22 year-old Jared Lee Loughner. Among the most severely wounded was Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who is now still recovering from being shot in the head. Seung-hoi's choice of weaponry included semi-automatic pistols and hollow-point bullets, designed to inflict maximum harm to whichever part of the body they struck. He'd purchased the guns legally, in what the gun shop owner later called "a very unremarkable sale".

After the uproar, the guessing and theorising, and the wisdom of hindsight, the element common to each of these atrocities took time to emerge.

It wasn't the grief and devastation of the families of the dead, and the survivors, but the silence of political leaders of every stripe and level of responsibility.

Since the ban ended, annual rifle production by … Ruger and Smith & Wesson has increased by 38 per cent, with handgun manufacturing almost doubled.

They deplored the violence, implored for calm, promised investigation to the ends of the earth and back in bringing the guilty parties to account. Of the devices that so enabled young, male fuckups with a grudge to wreak such havoc, not a word was said.

Practicality and cowardice are two sides of the political coin. The former was demonstrated by Tim Kaine, the governor of Virginia, in the hours after the Virginia Tech massacre.

"For those who want to make this a political hobby horse they can ride, I've got nothing but loathing," Mr Kaine, a Democrat, said. But in response to any reference to gun control: "Our focus is on the families and helping this community heal."

Even greater cowardice was demonstrated the following year during the primary campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. The Democrats are considered nominally more sane on the issue of guns, and so they are regularly opposed by the NRA. But in this instance the Democratic contenders distinguished themselves by omission: senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama made practically no statements about gun control in a talent quest where everything else — other than their position on the war in Iraq — was pretty much equal.

<p>Scott Olson/Getty Images</p>

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Gun Enthusiasts Gather At NRA Annual Meeting.

Profiles in courage, both of them.

The same thing happened Friday, July 20. On this occasion President Obama, and his Republican opponent Mitt Romney both expressed regret, sadness and disbelief over the Denver shooting, neither said a word about the weaponry that enabled it.

The right to own guns is sacred in America. The Second Amendment of the United States Constitution declares it to be so, although this is generally based on a what might be described as biased reading.

The passage in question: "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."

He could buy four guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition online, over the course of four months, without a word being said. Not that they would. This is how gun owners’ rights are observed and protected.

It will get you nowhere to point out that the Constitution, and in particular this amendment to it, was a document of its time; a time during which America was at war against England, and when the fledgling independent democracy needed all the armed and able-bodied help it could get.

Nevertheless, this wording is de-coded with Biblical exactitude and literalness. In charge of the de-coding and policing of this piece of law is the NRA, the self-proclaimed protector of gun owners' rights.

The NRA is a giant and a bully in American public and political life. It reported USD227.8 million income on its 2010 tax return, including contributions from gun companies and its 4.3 million members. It boasts a massive war chest — it spent USD7.2 million on the 2010 mid-term elections alone — and a platoon of willing acolytes in American conservative media.

The politician who crosses this organisation does so alone. There may be a chorus of sorrow and outrage at the killing field that theatre nine in the Century 16 complex in Aurora became. But in the weeks and months to come you can be sure that this choir will be reduced to a single voice, if not silence, on the subject of how such lethal force can be so easily obtained and deployed.

<p>SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages</p>


US President Obama shows how one victim held fingers on her best friend’s neck to stop bleeding after the shooting.

There is no leadership on this issue, nor encouragement to take it up. In 1990, according to Gallup, 78 per cent of voters were in favour of some kind of gun control. A poll taken in April put that number at 45 per cent.

To his great credit, John Howard put his head in the lion's jaws on the issue of gun control in Australia, soon after this country's worst massacre, in which 35 people were shot dead at Port Arthur by Martin Bryant in April, 1996. First he shepherded tough new gun-control measures through parliament, then explained his reasoning to a hostile crowd of 3,000 in the eastern Victorian town of Sale.

On that occasion, the extent of the danger the Prime Minister, or those closest to him, felt he was exposing himself to was embodied in the silhouette of a bulky bulletproof vest, under his shirt.

In the United States, a nation that describes itself as the leader of the free world, the absence of similar leadership stands out. And it makes the genuine and deeply felt emotions that greet these tragedies, all the more puzzling and compelling.

So, with shock, anger, grief and regret, all expected, all healthy, in their own way, there is another emotion, or perhaps state of mind, that is in play across this country: denial.

The makeshift memorial at Columbine High School grew amid the snow and cold of early spring. The floral tributes, the teddy bears, T-shirts with hand-written messages, candles under glass, soccer balls and jerseys, photos of groups and individuals, every type of writing surface with every type of message…eventually the fellow feeling stretched for 400 metres along the northern boundary of the school. Thirteen large wooden crucifixes dominated the near skyline, on a rise in another part of the property.

What resonated, just as is happening in Aurora, Colorado, was the shock of recognition: that this was an everyday place with average people — children and adults, victims and culprits — who all came from the same kind of suburban homes and backgrounds that characterise much of the rest of America.

There were church services and funerals, court cases and the inevitable recriminations, about the warning signs that were missed, and the deadly weaponry — shotguns and semi-automatics — that the two youths, Harris, 18, Klebold, 17, were able to amass so easily.

The high-capacity magazines that the pair used in their semi-automatic weapons were illegal at the time. Five years later, they were legal again, with the expiration of the so-called Federal assault weapons ban in 2004. A magazine is the removal "clip" attached to the underside of a weapon, which feeds bullets into the firing chamber. By law, those magazines had been restricted to no more than 10 bullets. Now, two clicks after a Google search presents the option to purchase magazines with a capacity of 100 rounds.

Soon, the caring, the curious and the simply ghoulish will gather in the car park of the cinema in Aurora, a suburb on Denver’s eastern flank. Wallace Miller, a county coroner from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, once dismissively called these gatherings “grief tours”.

Police have explained that a semi-automatic weapon, such as the one used by James Holmes in the theatre at Aurora, can fire 55 to 60 rounds a minute. He was able to buy four guns and 6,000 rounds of ammunition, online, over the course of four months, without a word being said. Not that anyone would challenge such purchases. This is how gun owners' rights are observed and protected.

At the time of its expiry, the assault-weapon ban was dubbed "a political placebo" by US senator, Larry Craig. Due for renewal, it did not even come up for a vote. Now, owning an Uzi, an AK-47, a TEC-9 or an M16 with the advanced "Warfighter" 20- or 30-round magazine, is legal in most states if you can produce the appropriate paperwork.

Bloomberg Businessweek reported that, since the ban ended, annual rifle production by US manufacturers such as Ruger and Smith & Wesson has increased by 38 per cent, with handgun manufacturing almost doubled.

So, with shock, anger, grief and regret, all expected — all healthy, in their own way — there is another emotion, or perhaps state of mind, in play across this country: denial.

You will hear individual voices, those of senators Dianne Feinstein of California, and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, or Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, call for stricter gun controls, but even they know they're just going through the motions.

"I don't believe it [gun control legislation] has a chance in this environment," Feinstein has said. "Americans really have to begin to show some outrage at this."

Soon, the gathering of the caring, the curious and the simply ghoulish will begin in the car park of the cinema in Aurora, a suburb on Denver's eastern flank. Wallace Miller, a county coroner from Shanksville, Pennsylvania, once dismissively called these gatherings "grief tours".

Shanksville has had its share of these pilgrimages. It was the site at which United Airlines flight 93, one of four planes hi-jacked by terrorists on September 11, 2001, crashed on that morning.

The measures that the United States government took in the aftermath of September 11 were immediate and far-reaching. The resulting laws tip-toed along the line of racial profiling, and they affect every aspect of air travel to this day. They impose inconvenience, they are intrusive, and they work.

Perhaps you can see the irony here. After that one event, the US government took radical steps, to protect its citizens, and, as much as it could it tried to ensure such an atrocity would not be repeated.

Since the September 11 attacks, there have been nine mass shootings in the US, shootings in which an individual armed with at least one gun has taken five or more lives. The toll from these nine separate events is 94. The means by which these events might have been prevented are not even allowed to be discussed, let alone voted upon, or put into effect.

The paradox of this country is that Americans expect the type of protection that will save them from terrorists and terrorist acts; and at the same time, they reserve, even demand, the right that makes them such a danger to each other.

Read more of Gerard Wright's dispatches from America, from the "stage-managed patriotic schlock" of the Republican National Convention to the dire state of the mighty Mississippi, and the cyclists trying to save Los Angeles from the automobile.

25 comments on this story
by Bronwyn

Eloquently expressed.
The irony, as you point out, in the attitude to terrorism and not being able to save their citizens from mad men with more guns and ammunition than they can possibly use in their rampages.

July 23, 2012 @ 4:57pm
by John

The NRA (and almost everyone, it seems) chooses to ignore that rather critical qualification contained in the Second Amendment relating to "A well-regulated militia...".
If any individual can be regarded either as a "militia" or as being "well-regulated", in the USA, then they must be using another language apart from English.
I can only assume (without extensive research) that such an obvious restriction has been tested and failed in the Supreme Court.
What a tragedy!

July 23, 2012 @ 6:06pm
by Matthew

Perhaps a way around the NRA would be for the media and authorities to stop referring to these events as 'massacres', and instead call them ' 'act of terrorism'. At least then, Americans' might begin to look at it differently.

July 24, 2012 @ 10:23am
by Roy

Perhaps the term 'gun control' needs to be put to one side.
It would be very hard, even for the NRA, to fight 'massacre control' measures.
Essentially, this is what the Howard Government did in Australia by targeting automatic and semi-automatic weapons.
I wonder, has the approach of declaring some weapons restricted because they are classified 'mass impact' been tried?

July 24, 2012 @ 4:54pm
by Mike

Whilst no sane person could object to restricting the ownership of automatic weapons by members of the public there are few sane people in the higher reaches of the Republican party. The deafening silence of the Democrats is harder to understand give that the crazies of the NRA are unlikely to vote for them anyway.

The comparison to the September II attack doesn't really hold as they killed thousands whereas in the 11 years since there have been 'only' 94 victims of mass shootings.

The numbers would need to be much higher to get any sort of reaction from Capitol Hill.

July 25, 2012 @ 10:33am
by Patricia

Thank you for speaking so eloquently for those of us who share you views.

July 25, 2012 @ 1:24pm
by Gillian

Comparisons to the 9/11 tragedy and the swift and, some would say, overzealous law reform and the lack of action on gun control is valid.

According to Wikipedia, there were 12,632 were homicide deaths., 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during 2000. That's more than four 9/11's every year.

Wake up, America!

July 26, 2012 @ 7:49am
by Dennis

It appears to me that the lack of political will on this issue is in fact a metaphor for all that is wrong in America these days.

July 26, 2012 @ 9:08am
by Tim

The United States is culturally quite a different country from those societies we have for a long time thought of as being 'like us'. Yet we worryingly seem to follow similar patterns of behaviour when frightened by things outside our immediate control and are so easily manipulated by those with a vested interest or ideology. Consider terrorism - hardly new; boat people - hardly nasty; or global warming - a great deal more likely to affect everyone yet so often denied by those whose beliefs are threatened by its likelihood.
The right to bear arms is irrational nonsense by an ideologically loopy percentage of the American populace seemingly at war with itself and the poorly defined, and understood, others of the world. I hope that being 'like us' means, rational rather than ideological, and never ends in toting a gun in one hand at the same time as toting a bible, koran or any other type of manifesto in the other in justification of barbarity.

July 26, 2012 @ 2:49pm
by Scruffy

Charlton was to acting as Sarah. P is to reading a map. They’re both mad as cut snakes yet both of ‘em, and many other nutters over there have influence. Let’s face it; the rest of the English-speaking world has no idea what makes the States tick. Thankfully we’re down here, way down south. God knows how the Canadians next door cope with this madness.

July 26, 2012 @ 8:23pm
by Steve

For years the rest of the world has been subjected to Americans rhetoric (usually through movies.....their method of speaking to the world) as the free-est nation on earth. I wonder what freedoms they think they enjoy that Australians, Canadians and every other developed nations in the world don't. I would argue that, speaking as an Australian, I enjoy freedom of an education and a media which are outwardly engaged with international events as well as domestic issues. Can Americans make that claim? They believe that their second amendment (the right to bare arms) gives them freedoms which we don't have, but can the 220 million Americans who don't own a gun feel they have the 'freedom' to walk the streets safely among their fellow citizens, when one third of them are unnecessarily armed. Wake up to the rest of the world America. You won the War of Independence, the Russians packed up and stayed home, everyone else who wants to kill you isn't going to be toting anything you can defend against with a M16.........apart from your own citizenry that is. You are the most frightened country on earth and the rest of the world thinks its pathetic. Freedom in America.....depends who you are doesn't it.

October 14, 2012 @ 3:44pm
by DJW

The thing to consider is that any gun control system must be complete.

If every automatic and semi-automatic fire-arm were banned tomorrow it would likely take decades for the already existing numbers drop to a level that may actually stop these sorts of people from gaining access.

Any form of gun control short of that is not worth the effort.

I also think you'll struggle to find links between gun control and homicide rates (including

November 5, 2012 @ 3:32pm
by a don

WOW DJW - there are many statistics related to gun control and homicide rates - try this stat ... Gun deaths in 1 year: Japan - 2 Finland - 1 Australia - 35 England and Wales - 39 Spain - 60 Germany - 194 Canada - 200 USA - 9,484 and try this on suicide rates in Australia since gun controls ....

December 15, 2012 @ 10:12pm
by REC

DJW what a pathetic argument. If we took that path then we would not have introduced laws and public information campaigns on smoking and seat belts for starters.

December 16, 2012 @ 9:14am
by Alan - Gold Coast

Who would have thought that the USA would be the subject of such universal derision world-wide. On gun control the USA has become the laughing stock of the world. Nothing will change because politicians of all persuasions are in the pocket of the gun lobby. All we can do is to prevent those stupid ideas taking root again in Australia. I haven't got much time for ex-PM Howard, but it is the one outstanding thing he did that will have a lasting legacy.

December 16, 2012 @ 12:29pm
by Marilyn

But the US are training teenagers to be mass murderers of children all over the world, why are American children the only ones who count?

Israel just slaughtered 40 kids with US weapons, the US has slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Iraqi and Afghan kids, they are murdering them in Pakistan in drone attacks directed from Nevada's desert bunkers, and 20,000 kids a day are dying of starvation.

I do get sick of Australia and the west going on and on about US children's deaths and ignoring all the others.

December 16, 2012 @ 4:53pm
by Craig McIntosh

When will an American President have the guts to bring in gun control. The deaths of 20 children is surely enough to now bring this legislation in! Its time for Obama to show true leadership rather than all talk!

December 16, 2012 @ 9:49pm
by Colin Berryman

We can no longer deny that America is a barbarous country. Children will be murdered en masse in America, even be the killers, like children are made soldiers in Africa and suicide bombers in the middle east. And its not just civilian owned WMDs that are barbarous. Look at the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Japan when the war was won so as to prevent Russia entering the Pacific war: Napalm in Vietnam: And to this day, corporate oil in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. Others can cite many more examples. But I support America every day. I consume its culture: its sport, music, movies, television, products (this ipad). Americans cannot see that they are barbarous. We all love them after all.

December 17, 2012 @ 9:38am
by James Evans

The American people must be educated to accept that these killingsis are a fact of life. They can't have it both ways, if they keep their guns people die simple as that. they are the only ones who can change it.

December 17, 2012 @ 2:55pm
by George

I am concerned that we have been asleep at the wheel. We have a Constitutional right to bare arms and to protect ourselves. That being so, why is it possibly constitutionally to stop me, as an American, from taking my gun on a plane, especially when I am only flying from one American airport to another American airport. To take my gun from me in the name of "security" is clearly a violation of my Constitutional rights. Where will it stop? Will they decide in the name of security that I cannot bare my gun anywhere but on my own land. I think that this serious issue needs to be taken forward to the Supreme Court and we should be able to protect ourselves in all parts of our wonderful country, including its air territory, as this is also part of the mighty USA!!

December 17, 2012 @ 6:25pm
by Daft

George shall I give you some sleeves so you don't have bare arms? For the record it is the right to "bear arms", that dates back to a time when the USA didn't have a standing military and was at war with England over taxes.

That amendment needs to be amended as it is outdated in the modern world.

December 17, 2012 @ 7:15pm
by Alan Moon

right to bear arms V child's right to life

December 17, 2012 @ 9:28pm
Show previous 22 comments
by Hugh McCarthy

If Charlton Heston held aloft a Flintlock Rifle it demonstrates that when the United States Constitution was written in 1789, that was the weapon available.
It is my contention that if the American Congress outlawed every weapon that was other than a single shot, they would be abiding with the Constitution and making it impossible for the demented souls in our society to create the tragedies that we have witnessed.
This might even satisfy the National Rifle Association.

December 18, 2012 @ 3:40am
by Luke

I don't think this has anything to do with guns and more to do with what I would deem crazy folk. I presently live in a rural area where every second neighbor has 3 or more guns. They lock them up safely and at least once a year go on refresher courses on gun safety and ammunition handling. I do not fear that these people will go to my local school one day and "open fire".

I think the debate here should be about how to recognise these people on the edge, just like you would research in how to identify a serial killer. These people are not normal, they would be fully capable of going to a school with a knife, baseball bat, bow and arrow. They choose a gun because they can kill more effectively but don't think for a moment that they couldn't go with another weapon. To my mind is the question "What is wrong in the USA where this is becoming more frequent".

For the record I am for responsible gun use where needed but I am neither pro guns, nor anti guns. My thought is that if you need a gun for safety you are probably screwed anyway, guns are a weapon, not a shield, the only protection they provide is with a thin veil of a threat (I can shoot back). If faced with a crazy person chances are they won't recognise that veil in the first place (I don't care if you shoot me), in which case the gun becomes only a tool to stop them. Protection after that, well that depends on who fires first, and sorry but my money is on the crazy person for firing first.

December 18, 2012 @ 1:20pm
by H. Reid

More denial. Statistically, there must be at least 30,000 unidentified Americans "on the edge" from some form of mental illness or deficiency, all of them able to buy weapons designed solely to slaughter human beings. Luckily (?) most of them simply commit suicide. Some will have darker ambitions.
I grew up on a farm. I grew up with guns. I was a member of a gun club. Yet I never found I needed more than one bullet to put down a sick animal, hunt a rabbit, or hit a target. Does Luke spray his sick animals with machine-gun fire? If so, he needs help now, especially as he believes that being hit with an M-16 is the equivalent of being hit with a baseball bat
We seem to believe that if everyone had a gun and was educated in it's use our world would be safer. Good idea. We should also teach our teenagers how to drive properly when drunk. That should cut the road toll.

December 25, 2012 @ 1:25pm
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