America's gun warfare

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 April, 2006, 12:00am

While the gruesome shooting of eight members of a biker gang in rural Ontario last weekend has rocked Canadian society, such violent deaths involving guns have long been routine TV viewing south of the border.

Americans' fascination with firearms is something that they find hard to explain to themselves, let alone foreigners. As their first line of defence, US gun enthusiasts frequently trot out the argument that America's passion for personal weapons is due to its colourful and often violent history; the fight for independence from Britain and the century-long battle to tame the continent - fighting the native tribes and killing buffalos and bandits.

In recent years historians and scholars have mostly put that mouldy myth to bed. Research seems to indicate that most Americans living on the frontier didn't even know how to handle a gun, and the idea that every male aged over 10 carried a Winchester, Colt or Remington rifle is a fantasy largely inspired by Hollywood.

As one of America's most enduring cultural icons, it's hard to imagine John Wayne perched on his trusted mount without his repeating Winchester (the 'gun that won the west') by his side. But Wayne's real name was Marion Morrison, and he never fought in any war or fired a gun in anger. And American patriots and gun-lovers from around the world were angered this month when Winchester announced it was closing its Connecticut factory after 140 years.

Today, despite frequent polls in which Americans say that there are simply too many guns in the country, the issue of gun control is a hot potato which politicians approach at their peril. The National Rifle Association (NRA) - membership 4.3 million, each paying US$35 annual dues - maintains one of America's most ruthless and best-financed lobbying organisations.

Because the Republican Party has such a strong following in the south and midwest - where the concept of gun control is almost heretical - the NRA has closely aligned itself with the party. Acting in concert with it, the lobby group has figuratively shot down scores of gun-control advocates, almost all Democrats.

In the 2000 presidential election, hundreds of billboards were set up in 10 key states showing a prancing French poodle, wearing a pink ribbon and a blue Kerry-for-president jumper. The billboard headline read: 'That dog don't hunt' and 'For 20 years John Kerry has voted against sportsmen's rights'. There are 170,000 voting precincts in the US and the NRA says it has volunteer election co-ordinators in every one.

Until recently, the NRA's public spokesman was actor Charlton Heston. As NRA president in 2000, Heston's keynote speech before the organisation's flag-waving, gun-toting annual convention featured a declaration that Democrat Al Gore would only be able to pry away his gun 'from my cold, dead hands'.

While pro-gun advocates and their opponents argue the merits or otherwise of gun ownership, American society has paid a heavy price for having so many guns.

Guns claimed 28,663 lives in the US in 2000, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics, based in Maryland. Of those, 10,801 people were murdered, 16,586 committed suicide and 1,276 died in 'unintentional shootings'.

Three unrelated incident that happened in a single week within a few hundred kilometres of the nation's capital show the dangers of guns in American culture. First, a teenage boy, playing Russian roulette with a loaded revolver in his bedroom, blew away the back of his best friend's head.

Then 48 hours later, an eight-year-old boy took a loaded pistol to the Kids World day-care centre in Washington, DC, where he shot a seven-year-old girl in the arm.

Two days after that, middle-aged Republican state senator John Reid accidentally fired his own handgun while sitting in his office in the Virginia state legislature. The bullet passed through Mr Reid's bulletproof vest hanging on a nearby chair. Richard Saslaw, leader of the legislature's Democratic minority, said angrily: 'He had no business bringing it into the General Assembly.'

A supporter of stronger gun control laws, Mr Saslaw added: 'I think guns should be banned from all government buildings.'

Mr Reid is hardly the only macho American politician to be packing a piece. Disgraced former House of Representatives Republican leader Tom DeLay previously held a permit to carry a concealed handgun. But the permit was taken away from the Texan last winter after his federal indictment on campaign finance charges.

While non-Americans find shooting incidents alarming, they happen almost every day in homes and schools and post offices and stores across the US.

Just over a year ago, in the deadliest school shooting since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Denver, Colorado, a teenager carrying a gun rampaged through a Minnesota school, killing five fellow students, a teacher and a security guard; seven more students were wounded. Students said Jeff Weise, 17, was grinning and waving as he blasted away, before using his last shot to kill himself. Police said that before going to the school on the Red Lake Indian reservation, Weise killed his grandfather - a tribal police officer - and his grandfather's girlfriend.

Last year the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (named after late president Ronald Reagan's press secretary James Brady, who was permanently disabled by a bullet when Reagan was shot in 1981) issued its nationwide report on which states had the weakest gun laws.

Alaska received the lowest grade. Residents of the 50th state can carry concealed weapons. The state allows private sales without government interference and does not limit handgun sales to one purchase per month.

Arizona could have taken out the dubious honour if not for the intervention of Governor Janet Napolitano, who vetoed a bill that would have allowed patrons to carry loaded guns into bars. The veto infuriated the NRA, which had lobbied for two years to get the proposal passed. Todd Rathner, Arizona-based member of the NRA's national board of directors, said the bill would be reintroduced this year and another veto by the governor could harm her chances of re-election this autumn. He added: 'Gun owners in Arizona have a long memory.'

But Eric Edwards, executive director of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, applauded the veto, saying: 'Guns don't mix with booze any better than driving has.'