In the early morning of Wednesday March 13th 1996 I was in a hotel bedroom in Houston, Texas. I had arrived the afternoon before from London and, as so often happens after a long flight with changing time zones, I had slept fitfully. At around 5:00am I was wide awake and put on the television to try and find out what had been happening in the world since I left home. Frequent visitors to the US will know that even in a city as large and important as Houston to find news from beyond the Beltway is difficult. With the mute button on I skipped through the News channels until suddenly there on the screen was a very familiar scene indeed. Although we lived in London my wife and I had a country hideaway at the centre of a little Scottish town in an area in which we had lived happily many years before. It was a tiny cottage with really just two rooms but we were fond of it and visited it frequently. The peaceful little town sat at the gateway to the Highlands in Stirlingshire. It was called Dunblane.

The view on the TV screen was of the Cathedral in the distance and the Allan Water. It was a live picture taken from a bridge a few yards from our cottage. Into shot came a woman with a microphone – a reporter doing a voice to camera. I turned up the sound. An hour ago, she said, a man had entered the Primary School in Dunblane with two pistols and two revolvers. He had fired them in a gymnasium at a class of five and six-year-olds and it was feared that more than a dozen children and a teacher were dead, as was the gunman.  Later the news hardened and it was announced that sixteen children and one teacher had perished in this hideous assault.

At Easter we went to our cottage and on Easter Sunday we went to the service in the Cathedral. One of the dead children had lived in our small street and her family had passed our house on their way to the service. The mood was sombre and there was no sense, less than four weeks after the event, that people had any way of coping with it. A Public Enquiry took place and the Judge made recommendations which included the tightening of gun ownership laws – particularly for Gun Clubs and their members. There was some objection to this from the Clubs but in time the Law was changed and few objected when it did so. It is important to put the Dunblane massacre into context. In modern times (since the Second World War) there have been three “shooting spree” type massacres in the United Kingdom in which in total 46 people have been killed (Hungerford 1987, Dunblane 1996 and Cumbria 2010). British Gun Laws have always been tight and the post Dunblane strengthening of them has provided further protection – although as the Cumbria shooting showed there can never be absolute citizen safety from gun crimes.

Three years after the tragic events in Dunblane, in April 1999, 15 people were killed in a shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Since then there have been a further 79 shooting incidents (not all of them fatal) at American schools – most tragically the incidents at Virginia Tech in 2007 (33 dead) and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut this month (27 dead).

Gun ownership in the United Kingdom is low – the latest figures suggest around six guns per hundred residents. Gun crime is also low with 1.2 people being killed each year per million of the population. The comparable figures for the United States of America are 88.9 guns per hundred residents (the highest in the world) and 29.7 gun deaths per million of the population. So the United States has 15 times the private ownership of guns per capita that the UK has – and 25 times the gun murders per capita.

Global statistics suggest that the intuitive link between gun ownership and gun-related homicides is borne out by the facts. The UK, with one of the lowest gun ownership rates in the world also has one of the lowest homicide rates. But an overlay of culture should also be applied. Some countries, like France, where hunting is prevalent (hence the high gun ownership) also have a low gun homicide rate. This is probably because the rules attached to acquiring and owning firearms in France are strict – as they are in most Western European countries.

In the United Kingdom there is little or no gun culture and yet we have had horrifying events like Dunblane. But they are very rare and hopefully now even less likely thanks to a further tightening of legislation. But in the United States there is a ubiquitous gun culture and a bias towards ownership which is unique. With 88.9 guns per 100 of the population (that’s nearly one for every man, woman and child) the US is out on its own.  No other country approaches the US in its level of gun ownership – and no other Western country approaches it in gun deaths either. So those who argue for changes to American gun ownership laws have to argue for a dramatic change to the gun culture as well.

Supporters of America’s addiction to guns, notably the National Rifle Association, rely upon the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution which says that “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. This Amendment was made in 1791 and in the context of a world utterly unlike the one of today. At that time the population of the Country was a little under 4 million and so soon after 1776 it is hardly surprising that the idea of a People’s militia was a powerfully attractive one – who knew whether King George might try and get his American possessions back and when! And like Switzerland today (which does have a formal people’s militia and where as a consequence there are 46 guns per hundred residents, the highest in Europe) the institution of a “well regulated militia” no doubt meant that guns had to be kept at home. But today’s 311 million citizens of the US are not formally or informally part of any militia. They are in the main private citizens and extremely unlikely to be collectively called upon to “protect and defend these United States” – they have a professional military and security forces to do this for them. So the original rationale for the 2nd Amendment fails the test of being (as it originally was) to help the existence of a “well regulated militia”. Instead it becomes a largely spurious tool unscrupulously used by the NRA, politicians and others who support them in public, firearms manufacturers and the rest to protect their interests.

The ubiquity of American culture and the global significance of the United States militarily and economically create the illusion for many of us that who are not Americans that we understand the country and broadly empathise with its values. And that remains an illusion no matter how often we visit the US and how well we think we understand the culture. America is superficially familiar even to the first time visitor – the people are friendly and, especially for the native speaker of English, communication is straightforward (mostly!). Alastair Cooke got it right when he said “People, when they first come to America, whether as travellers or settlers, become aware of a new and agreeable feeling: that the whole country is their oyster.” In some respects the conservatism and resistance to change of the United States is part of that appeal. The rest of the world adopted metric units decades ago but the US still has gallons and feet and pounds and miles and still measures temperature in Fahrenheit!  Whilst much of the western world is overwhelmingly secular the US is still very religious – and not just in the Bible belt. Whilst nearly all Western economies have a substantial Welfare State the US has a much smaller public sector and a much lower public expenditure on “benefits”. The checks and balances on change written into the constitution by the Founding Fathers, not least the strong independence of each of the 50 States, means that to get a change applicable across the Nation can be problematic. Look how much of a struggle President Obama’s modest healthcare reforms were (and remember how the clever Clintons failed completely on the same subject). This brings us back to Gun Reform.

As I have shown above the United States is completely out of step with the rest of the modern world in its gun culture. This has lethal consequences – not just the hideous school killings but every day. Around 30,000 people die every year from guns in the US A – the equivalent figure in the UK is less than 150. But it is not a good idea for we Brits to lecture Americans on the need for tighter Gun Control, or anything else for that matter – as Piers Morgan is finding to his cost ! But America has no better friends in the world than the British and good friends have a duty of care to their comrades. Friends – you are killing too many innocent people with your guns. You have far, far too many guns in your homes. Violence breeds violence. Above all please realise that whilst America is different, as indeed all Nations are different, you are not so difference that globally learned lessons, like that of Dunblane and its aftermath, don’t apply. All too often statements in America about Guns totally ignore these lessons. As just one example Asa Hutchinson’s recent call on behalf of the NRA to have armed guards in Schools failed completely even to mention practices beyond the United States. There is a world beyond the Beltway and there is a world beyond the shores of America. True you do have to cross an ocean to find it – but it’s worth the journey. You can protect yourselves without always arming yourselves to the teeth. You do it with your intelligence and your love of a peace. You can truly have  a more perfect Union, which “…establishes Justice, insures domestic Tranquillity, provides for the common defence, promotes the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty” without needing to have a gun in every home.

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