“The Right To Bear Arms” Is Now An American Tragedy
By Gerard WrightJuly 23, 2012
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."
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.