Miércoles 25 de Abril de 2007, Ip nº 188

America's weapons, america's tragedy
Por Marc Pitzke

Gun control? Why? Those who want to kill will always find a way, argue the US gun lobby, citing the example of the Erfurt school massacre. Even after the Blacksburg bloodbath, it is very unlikely that America's citizens will disarm -- quite the contrary.

Tragedies often bring out the best in people. That has proven true over and over again in the United States, a country where it often seems that empathy and pathos are always just below the surface. It proved true on Sept. 11, 2001 when hundreds of New Yorkers stood in long lines to donate blood. It proved true after Hurricane Katrina when thousands of volunteers rushed to New Orleans to help the storm's many victims. And it has shown itself again this week as the entire nation embraces a mourning Virginia Tech university.

It was an embrace that took place in both the real and virtual world, with moving gestures and poignant words. "People who have never met you are praying for you," US President George W. Bush told gathered students and faculty on Tuesday, a day after a gunman went on a campus killing spree that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 33 people, including the killer himself.

A wave of solidarity is washing over the country; flags are flying at half mast; television news anchors are wearing ribbons in the Virginia Tech colors; TV stations are playing somber music; on-air therapist "Dr. Phil" McGraw comforts students by satellite; the candle light from the impromptu monument to the victims flickers on screens across the country as the images of the victims are shown. The rituals of consternation and mourning seem familiar to all. Columbine. 9/11. Katrina. And now Virginia Tech.

Questions as to the bloodbath's political and societal context are for now considered taboo. The American media has so far focussed almost entirely on the details of what happened and how. Deeper questions as to why it happened have so far been largely avoided -- except to take a closer look at the psyche of the attacker himself. As is often the case, the attacker this time around, 23-year-old student Cho Seung-Hui, has been identified as a loner -- someone on the fringes of American society.

Slowly though, deeper questions as to the origins of such violent shootings can be heard. The sub-headline of a Tuesday editorial in the Washington Post -- "Virginia Tech's tragedy is America's, too" -- can be read two different ways.

America is suffering. But it is the same America whose historical leitmotif -- the reverence of personal freedom, including the right to possess weapons -- allowed the Blacksburg killer to lay his hands on the guns he used. Cho Seung-Hui used a 9 mm Glock pistol and a .22-caliber Walther handgun, both of which he procured legally.

Where there's a will

"It's been eight years since Columbine. We've done nothing as a country," Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told CBS News on Tuesday evening. "It's been six months since the Amish school shootings. We've done nothing as a country. We need to be asking our elected officials what they can do to prevent people from getting these kinds of high-powered weapons."

It's no wonder that the expression "school shootings" has long become part of the vocabulary of pop culture here. But bans on guns could not stop those who perpetrated the massacres in Erfurt and Dunblane. If someone wants to kill -- so runs the argument of the gun-loving opponents of a ban -- they will always find a way.

The logical conclusion that such Americans then come to is pure Wild West machismo: If criminals have guns, it's better to arm everybody. "All the school shootings that have ended abruptly in the last ten years were stopped because a law-abiding citizen -- a potential victim -- had a gun," said Larry Pratt of the gun lobby group Gun Owners of America in a press release following the latest shooting. A campus-wide gun ban like the one at Virginia Tech "leaves the nation's schools at the mercy of madmen," he says. In other words: Students should show up for classes packing heat.

It is an ancient and unresolved debate here, whose core is the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution of 1789. The much-misinterpreted text guarantees "the right of the people to keep and bear arms" -- a defensive measure against assaults by the young state on its citizens. That may apply to muskets, but not to AK-47s.

In the aftermath of Blacksburg, Washington may once again try to crack this tough nut. "I believe this will reignite the dormant effort to pass commonsense gun regulations in this nation," the Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has already said.

Feinstein knows what she's talking about. She was instrumental in getting a ban on assault weapons put into law in the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 -- the last nation-wide gun control law that came into effect in the US. However Congress, controlled at the time by Republicans, allowed the ban to expire in 2004.

It is very much in doubt if the new calls for gun controls will be successful. This is not just because of US history and the power of the gun lobby, whose campaign donations in the election year after the 1999 Columbine massacre shot up to $4 million. The new generation of Democrats, who stormed Congress in January, come mostly from states in which the "right to bear arms" is regarded as a civil right. Many of these young Democrats are -- like their Republican colleagues -- against gun control. The question is if Blacksburg will shake up the hardliners.

"We have a bunch of Democratic senators from rural states and gun control is a poor issue for them," says Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic strategist. "Some will say: 'Without the ability to break a Republican filibuster in the Senate, why are we even talking about gun control?'"

"It's a tough sell," admits Democratic Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, one of the most prominent opponents of guns in Congress. McCarthy's husband Dennis and five other passengers were shot by a gunman on a Long Island commuter train in 1993. McCarthy is now working on milder measures which she hopes will be more palatable to the gun lobby, including immediate background checks on gun purchasers.

Hunting for votes

Even the presidential election campaign is unlikely to push forward the issue in the long term. Of course all of the candidates -- including the Republican Mitt Romney -- were quick to place condolence banners on their Web sites and to cancel all appearances that day. But none of them has gun control as a burning campaign issue.

Quite the opposite. "I am shocked and saddened," said John McCain in his statement on Blacksburg. Further down on his Web site, however, he states his position: "John McCain believes that the right of law abiding citizens to keep and bear arms is a fundamental, individual Constitutional right that we have a sacred duty to protect." Come on, let's go get those swing voters in the gun states!

Gun control is the third rail of US election campaigns -- it helped to break Al Gore in 2000. Two thirds of all Americans are against a gun control. That is why in 2004 the Democratic candidate John Kerry made his way through the undergrowth with a shotgun for the benefit of the photographers. And why Romney is now boasting of being a member of the NRA gun lobby and of having been a hunter "his whole life." A claim that unfortunately he had to qualify later: He had only been hunting twice -- once when he was 15 and once last year, when he went quail hunting.

Culture of violence

But are lax gun laws alone to blame? Those who dig deeper hit a much more complicated problem: America's much derided "culture of violence," as the Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama calls it.

The causes for this are as diverse as they are disputed, and they happened to have been on the agenda for a summit on media violence Tuesday in Indianapolis. Activists and local politicians discussed unemployment, poverty, Hollywood movies, video games, rap music -- as well as the brutal winner-takes-all society in the USA, where the losers, outsiders, and those who are different or who don't fit in are trampled down mercilessly.

There is no end in sight for this debate and, above all, there is little likelihood of a solution. All that is left is the ritual of dismay -- and the real dismay. CNN anchorman John Roberts burst into tears yesterday, as he reported on how the victims' mobile phones had all started to ring at the same time. "I'm sorry," he said. "As a father that hits me really hard."

  18/04/2007. Spiegel Online.