WHEN Barack Obama, hours after the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, talked of the need for “meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this”, half the world nodded in agreement.
But what did he actually mean? What’s “meaningful action” in this context?
Meaningful preventive actions had been taken at Newtown at the behest of principal Dawn Hochsprung, who just weeks ago notified parents that, when they visited and if they weren’t recognised, they’d be asked for identification. Message: The children at Dawn’s school were going to be protected. The security systems were robust. Despite the cheery “Welcome, Visitors” sign outside the gates, people couldn’t just walk in and out of the building. Once roll-call time came at 9.30am, the doors were locked. Visitors had to ring a bell, and when they did, their faces came up for viewing on monitors inside the school. That represents an admirable degree of formal, planned protection for children and school staff.
At this point it’s not clear if the shooter forced his way in or arrived before the 9.30am closing and locking of the doors. Early on, it was mooted that because his mother was a teacher in the institution, his face was well known and so someone buzzed him in, but in fact she was never a teacher there, so that theory came to nothing. He had been a student there, but would not have been well enough known or liked to be buzzed in on sight.
In addition to permanent precautions, those working in the school responded wisely to the emerging disaster. One staffer ran through the school, yelling at teachers and students to take cover, while another took simpler, yet just as effective action by turning on the intercom. The sound of gunfire broadcast throughout the school alerted teachers who dragged children into bathrooms and closets, warning them to be silent and telling them, as one teacher remembered afterwards, that while the bad guys were out there, the good guys were on their way. True on one count: The good guys were definitely on their way. False on another: Only one bad guy was out there, killing child after child after child, as well as the security-conscious principal, who reputedly ran straight at the gunman in an attempt to protect her pupils.
Adam Lanza had arrived at the school in combat gear, armed to the teeth, having already killed his mother. Once he had mown down more than two dozen human beings, he then turned one of the guns on himself. The scale of the massacre led to an immediate assumption that terrorism might be involved, but that notion failed to gather momentum. What did gather momentum, inevitably, was a focus on the weaponry deployed: A Bushmaster M4 carbine, and two handguns, one a Sig Sauer, the other a Glock.
“Tighten up gun laws” was the immediate cry, with opponents of the NRA calling loudly for a reduction in the number of guns in homes and a greater rigour around the selling of deadly weapons. The NRA said nothing. Or, rather, the organisation itself said nothing in the hours after the killing spree, although some of its members said a lot. Their key point seemed to be the somewhat self-evident “guns don’t pull their own triggers” excuse, which, while undoubtedly true, ignores the fact no other weapon that is reasonably accessible to non-military personnel is capable of putting 20 people to death in a matter of minutes.
China has recently seen a spate of spree killings using knives, but the numbers of the dead are inevitably much smaller than gun killings in the US. The gun is the conveyor belt of murder mass production. Those who want to kill large numbers of people in a tight timeframe in a way that’s up close and personal tend to use guns.
On the other hand, it must be acknowledged that the gun lovers have a point when they suggest that focus on the weapons, as opposed to their users, might be missing the point. In this case, the users seem to have been plural: Adam Lanza and his mother, Nancy. The 20-year-old did try to buy a gun last week, but seems to have abandoned the idea once he was told about the background investigation that would be undertaken into him, and the mandatory “cooling off” period designed to reduce impulse purchasing of weaponry. The gun lobby triumphantly point to this failure as a wonderful example of how existing gun control laws work.
Which might be persuasive, were it not for the fact that Lanza had been able to lay his hands on a variety of guns in his own home, because his mother was an enthusiast. Police raiding the house after the atrocity found that the three guns Lanza had taken from his home were just a sample of what his mother kept there.
Mrs Lanza being into guns in a big way and teaching her two boys target shooting didn’t send chills up the spines of her neighbours, despite the fact the younger son was an isolate incapable of making relationships. This boy was at best odd, at worst a sufferer from a personality disorder. His older brother seems to have written him off — when he was questioned by police after the killings, he said he hadn’t talked to Adam in two years. These people were not playing Happy Families. If anything, they were playing Watch This Space.
However, Mrs Lanza, a respectable middle-aged woman with a pleasant detached house, was exactly the kind of person who would not come up with a red flag beside their name in a background check prior to buying a firearm.
Even if gun control becomes markedly more robust than it is at present, it is never going to preclude gun purchase by parents of a child with a developmental problem. 99.9% of those youngsters will never be violent, with or without a firearm.
None of which is to suggest that the prevalence of guns in the US shouldn’t be tackled. It should. But tackling it can’t begin to address the pre-existing over-supply. It’s been estimated that the US holds close to 300m handguns and hunting rifles. (Paradoxically, gun shops will get extra business because of the Connecticut killings as families rush to protect themselves.)
What, thus far, hasn’t been seriously addressed is the virtual call to violence issued by mass media in the wake of each atrocity, when the shooter, his clothing, appearance, utterances, and killing skill are splattered across newspapers, television, and the internet. He goes out in a blaze of ingloriousness and becomes a household name, in the process creating a join-the-dots model for imitation.
Wannabe murderers study the MO of earlier killers. As you read this, some obsessive, unhappy teen somewhere is revelling in every scrap of Adam Lanza coverage — and planning to make his own bloody mark on history. It’s difficult to imagine meaningful action to short-circuit that vicious circle — because mass media would fight any limitation on its coverage of mass-murders even more fiercely than the NRA fights gun control.
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