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The killing schoolyards of America

December 19, 2012

“GUN control supporters have the blood of little children on their hands,” according to a statement from Larry Pratt, issued after the massacre of 20 children aged six to seven at a primary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

That’s right. He seems to believe that further laxity in controlling the weapons that facilitate murder would have helped to prevent the atrocity. After all, there are laws that prevent teachers and administrators from bearing arms on school premises. Pratt sees this as a travesty.

“This tragedy,” he says, “underscores the urgency of getting rid of gun bans in school zones. The only thing accomplished by gun-free zones is to ensure that mass murderers can slay before they are finally confronted by someone with a gun.”

He does not exactly envisage a scenario whereby any five-year-old could have retrieved a handgun from his satchel and shot the perpetrator. The argument is presumably intended to advance the cause of armed teachers. In kindergartens. Perhaps they should also be obliged to turn up for work in combat gear.

It is surely no coincidence that Pratt happens to be the executive director of Gun Owners of America.

A more influential lobby is the National Rifle Association (NRA). Some 45 years or so ago, John Lennon came upon an NRA-sponsored magazine featuring a smoking firearm on its cover. The headline accompanying it read: “Happiness is a warm gun.” He turned it into a song.

The sentiment was probably true for Mark Chapman, who killed Lennon 32 years ago. Likewise for Adam Lanza, who meticulously slew 20 little children and six adults on the premises of the Newtown school, after having killed his own mother with a gun she owned.

One of the gun lobby’s lines of argument is that more stringent controls on the purchase of firearms would not have helped, given that the instruments of murder belonged not to Adam Lanza — who is inevitably assumed to have been intellectually unstable — but to his mother.

Mike Rogers, a former FBI agent who is now a senior Michigan Republican in the US House of Representatives commented that he hoped the mass murder in Newtown would not renew the debate on gun control, because it is “certainly the lowest common denominator”. “What is the more realistic discussion is,” he ventured, “how do we target people with mental illness who use firearms?”

One would have thought anyone who opposes gun control falls in the mental illness category.

In the days to come, it will inevitably be argued that Nancy Lanza, the shooter’s mum, was somehow to blame for not keeping the assault weapons out of reach of her presumably unbalanced son. What is less likely to be considered is why she felt the need to own two handguns and an assault rifle in the first place.

One would have thought, though, that this fact alone kind of pre-empted the debate about whether mental illness ought to be taken into account when issuing gun licences. Adam Lanza apparently did not purchase any firearms. He did not need to do so. They were available at home. The mental state of Nancy Lanza’s was not a consideration when the weapons were sold to her.

But the second amendment to the US constitution is sacrosanct. A conservative Supreme Court, after all, has interpreted it as signifying the right of any individual to own weapons. The preamble about well-regulated militias is easy to ignore or misinterpret. As for its late-18th-century context — the temporally constrained circumstances that lent it some coherence and a degree of logic — who gives a damn?

In his peroration last Friday, a visibly moved Barack Obama spoke of “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics”. If only. He chose his words carefully, notwithstanding the emotional circumstances. He could have said that the right to own assault weapons ought to be rescinded, or at least is not sacrosanct.

But he didn’t. Perhaps that’s something hard to do for a US president who routinely ticks off targets in Pakistan or Yemen, and then doesn’t particularly care if the missiles unleashed by drones wipe out schools or children at home. They are not targets but collateral damage.

The lives of children have more value when they are American kids.

In fact, the murder of children is an appalling crime against humanity, regardless of whether the perpetrators are Americans, Nazis, the Taliban or any other species.

Can the US put into place measures that can reduce the likelihood of American children being massacred without reconsidering its assumed right to murder children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan or elsewhere?

Yes, it probably can.

Would its hypocrisy in that case be more obvious than before?

Yes, quite possibly.

But the fact that it is reluctant to prevent the most appalling bloodshed even on its own territory truly boggles the imagination.

There are, no doubt, members of Congress who genuinely feel that gun restraints would make the US a safer place in which to live. They are right. But it could be a very long time indeed before their views acquire legislative power.

Be it in Beslan, Newport, Kandahar or Peshawar, the mass murder of children ought to be an absolute outrage under any circumstances. It is considered more appalling if it happens in the US. That is a travesty.

The US has effectively been a security state since the end of the Second World War. It needn’t follow that schools for infants ought to be protected by armed guards. The US is not Afghanistan or Iraq.

It ought to remain that way. But whether it can do so without abandoning its overseas ambitions — and egregious excesses — remains an open question.

The children of the US — as of Yemen, Pakistan and all other countries — deserve a lot better. But chances are that the security state and the would-be global hegemon will trump the likelihood of a weapons-free US society.

Many massacres and smaller-scale incidents preceded the Newtown outrage. The same pattern, one fears, will follow it.