Neil Macdonald: Self-preservation in gunned up America

U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden is to bring forward recommendations on gun control this week. But in a country with almost as many guns as people, all this debate has done is spur on the buyers, Neil Macdonald writes.

It's actually difficult to type this with my expatriate Canadian fingers, but a lot of what the National Rifle Association is saying these days makes objective sense.

Granted, it only makes sense in the context of the American gun lunacy the NRA itself has worked so successfully to create.

But that's America's reality, and in that sense, the NRA is eminently realistic. Putting armed police into schools, at this stage, is probably prudent.

Congress has estimated that, as of 2009, there were about 310 million firearms in the United States. That's a gun for every person in this country.

Millions of these are assault-style weapons, like the Bushmaster, or that brand's many commercial competitors. Adam Lanza took one to Sandy Hook elementary school last month.

They're copies of the rifles carried by modern soldiers, and they fire high-velocity bullets from large magazines as often as you can pull the trigger. (The military versions differ only in that they are capable of firing a steady stream of bullets with one pull.)

These rifles are designed to kill people, not deer. Quite simply, they are weapons of war, which makes them a popular pick for homicidal maniacs.

Bushmaster Christmas

Now, the sane thing, which I've written about before, would be a mass seizure of such weapons. Period. Lots of Americans feel the same way.

But that's just not going to happen. Assault-style weapons are realities on the American ground.

In fact, in many American homes, as Atlantic magazine pointed out recently, it was a Bushmaster Christmas, part of a gun-buying spree that began shortly after Obama first came to power and picked up sharply again after the shootings in Connecticut.

Gun sales picked up sharply after the school shooting in Connecticut last month, in anticipation gun control laws might be brought in. So did demonstrations, almost right across the country, against that possibility. (Reuters)

The non-partisan Violence Policy Centre says firearms manufacturers are concentrating on marketing assault-style weapons as a priority.

Seizing them, or forcing people to sell them to the government, as Australia did after the Port Arthur massacre there in 1996, would be politically, if not legally impossible in the U.S.

In fact, the Obama administration is not even seriously talking about reinstating the restrictions on newly purchased assault weapons that proved so useless during the 10 years between 1994 and 2004 when such a ban was in effect. (The manufacturers simply altered their technical specifications to evade the law.)

The president does seem determined to do something — Vice-President Joe Biden has been meeting with the NRA and video-game makers, and is heading a task force that is to make recommendations as early as tomorrow.

But the legal and political walls are so thick around America and its guns that it is hard to imagine any kind of serious breakthrough.

Even Gabrielle Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman who was shot in the head by a psychotic two years ago and has now launched a national campaign for responsible gun control, won’t give up her Glock.

Gunned up

In this debate, assault-style rifles are hardly the only problem. Let's not forget that the Virginia Tech shooter, who slew 32 young university students in 2007, didn't need a Bushmaster. He did it all with two handguns.

Further complicating matters, firearms don't go stale like cheese; they are made to last for a very long time, and do.

The bleak fact is that America is gunned up, locked and loaded, and it's going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.

The Supreme Court has explicitly ruled Americans have the constitutional right to bear arms for self-defence (Attempts by D.C. and Illinois to restrict gun ownership were struck down.)

What’s more, gun laws have in fact slackened on Obama's watch.

His administration is hinting it might issue an executive order trimming gun makers at the margins, or demanding more stringent background checks to keep them out of the hands of the mentally deranged. But the basic reality won't change.

Adam Lanza, remember, simply stole his mother's legally obtained weapons.

Given this reality, who can really argue with the Pennsylvania and New Jersey school districts that recently took the NRA's advice and hired armed, retired police officers to roam their school hallways?

As the NRA points out, politicians are guarded by armed security. So are VIPs. So are most federal buildings. So are political and sporting events here.

So what's the matter with affording children the same protection?

They live in the same heavily-armed American society that seems to worship violence, if movies and video games are any indication.

Cop in the schoolyard

Perhaps it's because I lived in Jerusalem, where my kids, and those of my diplomat friends, were ferried to school in armoured vehicles, but if I lived in a heavily armed state like Texas or Virginia or Oklahoma, I'd have no objection whatever to seeing a cop in the schoolyard.

Vice-President Joe Biden has been meeting interest groups and quick-marching a task force looking at possible gun control options. He is expected to report to the president this week. (Reuters)

For that matter, how do you argue with a law-abiding American who happens to live in a high-crime area — in an era when police services are being cut back in the name of austerity — and decides to obtain a weapon and proper training?

I know, I know: Arming yourself, or hiring police in schools, amounts to attacking the symptom, not the disease.

But this is America, and the disease appears to be inoperable. The NRA has helped see to that.

I'm not even sure an armed cop in the school could actually stop a determined mass killer. The deputy sheriff on duty at Columbine High School in 1999 engaged the two young killers and missed.

But it is probably a better option than a courageous principal flinging herself at a shooter and dying in the act.

Frankly, those schools that goodheartedly post signs proclaiming themselves to be "gun-free zones" might as well, given the American reality, put up a sign saying "target-rich environment."

I wish I could say the NRA's violent logic makes no sense at all. But I live here, and I know that this can be a terribly violent place.