Lesley Riddoch: America’s moral compass must shift

NEWTOWN. The childlike simplicity of the name belies the horror of Friday’s shooting and the apparent difficulty of tightening gun laws quickly in grief-stricken America.

Is it too soon to “get political”? Could bad timing set back the case for gun law reform, or is President Obama prevaricating?

Grim events demand pause for thought. Parents everywhere could imagine the headlong dash to be sure their children are safe. People everywhere could imagine the competing urges of panic and protection as teachers tried to shield children from the approaching killer – at the age of 20, part-child, part-adult himself.

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And yet “home-grown” shootings have now killed more Americans than Iraq, Afghanistan or 9/11 combined. Can the constitutional right to bear arms possibly survive the Newtown massacre? We wait and watch for America to decide. President Barack Obama choked during his first televised speech, falling silent mid-sentence – a powerful tribute to shared feelings of outrage and loss. Yet he talked only of “meaningful change” ahead, not gun control. Was that out of respect for the dead, fear of tackling the gun lobby, a desire to keep “fiscal cliff” talks on track with gun-supporting Republicans – or what?

For watching Scots, the issue seems to be a no-brainer. America styles itself as the home of the free. But folk on this side of the Pond cannot see any freedom worthy of the name in a society where schoolchildren already have “lock-down” procedures for armed attack and six-year-old survivors – pushed mercilessly for gory detail on live TV – can distinguish between the sounds of police, army and intruder’s guns. Shooting is that common.

American critics of the president’s failure to confront the gun lobby are harsh – “impeach Obummer – the criminal that orchestrated this shooting” says one Twitter campaigner. Film-maker and anti-guns activist Michael Moore is more measured: “The gun lobby already hates Obama. I wish he’d give them an actual reason.” But will he?

Obama and gun-licensing state legislatures in America must decide if Sandy Hook was an exceptional event or the product of a deeper malaise. It takes a mature democracy not to over or under-react.

Parallels with Dunblane are obvious and immediate. Utoya also springs to mind. And yet neither of these mass killings happened in cultures where guns are freely available. The Dunblane killings prompted a security crackdown at primary schools and vetting procedures for adults working with children. Both moves have created a new environment where men are scared to be seen helping children at all.

The Norwegians managed not to over-react to their unique tragedy – an outlook encouraged in Utoya’s immediate aftermath by political leaders who stood without armed protection outside Oslo Cathedral, bare-headed in the pouring summer rain, to lead their country in a demonstration of grief and a defiant reassertion of the country’s commitment to peace.

“No-one can bomb us to be quiet. Our answer to violence is even more democracy. We owe that to the victims,” said Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg two days after 76 people had been gunned down by Anders Breivik. It was a bold and timely bit of leadership – denying neither grief nor police culpability but swiftly tackling the larger danger of social disintegration if suspicion, mutual accusation or mindless fear led Norwegians to “arm up” in the American way.

Just such Norwegian-style leadership is needed right now from President Obama and his Republican opponents – while shock can still be matched with the surprise of common purpose. There is no later.

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Without a speedy anti-guns statement, the demand for resident government marksmen in American schools will become irresistible. Amazingly, gun-control laws were actually relaxed in many states after the “Batman” killings in Aurora earlier this year. In Michigan, trained gun owners can now carry concealed weapons in formerly forbidden places, such as schools, day care centres, stadiums and churches (though schools can opt out) and already gun sales are rising in the aftermath of Newtown.

The vicious circle of fear justifying more guns will keep growing. The chance to channel outrage into some questioning of America’s casual acceptance of gun culture, mental health problems, violence, misogyny, inequality and world-topping imprisonment rates will keep receding.

The tragedy of Sandy Hook will soon be explained away by circumstances and the peculiarities that will doubtless emerge in the lives of Adam Lanza and his gun-owning, murdered mother Nancy.

Advocates of stricter gun control are already under attack. “Let the victims be mourned and stop pushing your agenda,” is one of the more repeatable complaints on Michael Moore’s website. The film-maker has a characteristically direct response. “Too soon to speak out about a gun-crazy nation? No, too late. At least 31 school shootings since Columbine [the shooting that prompted his Academy Award-winning documentary in 2002] and 61 mass shootings in total. The way to honor these dead children is to demand strict gun control, free mental health care, and an end to violence as public policy.”

Michael Moore is absolutely right. And yet the chances are he will not be heard. Why not?

If we assume Americans are not a stupid people then the problem is lack of will, not lack of evidence. The “right” to bear arms was written into the American constitution by Founding Fathers determined to see off a possible threat from invading armies in 1791. And yet Americans seem intent on applying those words literally 200 years later. Surely by now Americans are sufficiently confident about their democracy to apply the refreshed spirit, not the literal letter of their founding laws?

Powerful connections between governments and arms manufacturers also keep American identity and national virility bound up with the commodification of violence. Incredibly, the headquarters of one the largest gun lobbies – the National Shooting Sports Foundation – sits directly across the highway from the stricken Sandy Hook Elementary.

Of course, it’s easy to sound sanctimonious. A prison officer was killed in a drive-by shooting and a flag brought street violence back to Belfast last month. British weapons are sold to dictators around the world and, until recently, Glasgow had a higher murder rate than New York. And yet that’s precisely why the watching world needs the world’s second-largest democracy to rediscover its courage and moral compass.

The clock is ticking.