Thu, Oct 18, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Guns and US family values

More Americans have died by US gunfire since the kiling of John F. Kennedy than on foreign battlefields in the 20th century

By Paul Harris  /  THE OBSERVER , NEW YORK

Shirley Katz is not afraid to fight for her rights. Last week the schoolteacher, 44, went to court in her home town of Medford, Oregon, to protest her working conditions. Katz is outraged she cannot carry a handgun into class.

"I know it is my right to carry that gun," she said.

The same week Katz was in court, someone else took a gun to school in the US. This time it was a pupil in Cleveland, Ohio. Asa Coon, 14, walked the corridors of his school, a gun in each hand, shooting two teachers and two students. Then he killed himself. Coon's attempted massacre made headlines. But a more bloody rampage, the murder of six young partygoers by Tyler Peterson, a policeman in Crandon, Wisconsin, got less attention, even in the New York Times -- the US' newspaper of record -- which buried it deep inside the paper.

Guns, and the violence their possessors inflict, have never been more prevalent in the US. Gun crime has risen steeply over the past three years. Despite the fact groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) consistently claim they are being victimized, there have probably never been so many guns or gun-owners in the US -- although no one can be sure, as no one keeps a reliable account. One federal study estimated there were 215 million guns, with about half of all US households owning one. Such a staggering number makes the US' gun culture thoroughly mainstream.

An average of almost eight people aged under 19 are shot dead in the US every day. In 2005 there were more than 14,000 gun murders in the US -- with 400 of the victims children. There are 16,000 suicides by firearm and 650 fatal accidents in an average year. Since the killing of president John F. Kennedy in 1963, more Americans have died by US gunfire than perished on foreign battlefields in the whole of the 20th century.

Studies show that having a gun at home makes it six times more likely that an abused woman will be murdered. A gun in a US home is 22 times more likely to be used in an accidental shooting, a murder or a suicide than in self-defense against an attack. Yet despite those figures US gun culture is not retreating. It is growing.

Take Katz's case in Oregon. She brought her cause to court under a state law that gives licensed gun-owners the right to bring a firearm to work: her school is her workplace. Such a debate would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Now it is the battleground.

"Who would have thought a few years ago, we would even be having this conversation? But this won't stop here," said Brian Anse Patrick, a professor at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Needless to say, last week the judge sided with Katz and she won the first round of her case.

It is a nation awash with guns, from the suburbs to the inner cities and from the Midwest's farms to Manhattan's mansions. Gun-owning groups have been so successful in their cause that it no longer even seems strange to many Americans that Katz should want to go into an English class armed.

"They have made what was once unthinkable thinkable," said Patrick, a liberal academic.

He should know. He owns a gun himself. Even some US critics of gun culture are armed.

To look at the photographs in Kyle Cassidy's book Armed America is to glimpse a surreal world. Or at least it seems that way to many non-Americans. Cassidy spent two years taking portraits of gun owners and their weapons across the US.

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