Made in the US: The pride that keeps gun law in place

The trouble is, despite everything that happened last Monday, nobody with the power to do anything substantial on gun control is interested in having a substantive debate about it

By Gary Younge  /  THE GUARDIAN , RICHMOND, VIRGINIA

Mon, Apr 23, 2007 - Page 9

Dave Hancock talked about his .38mm Smith and Wesson as though it were US$3,800 of Dolce & Gabbana.

"It's light, easy and comfortable to carry," he said, easing the snub nose pistol out of his pocket and gazing at it nostalgically.

"They don't make it in the nickel finish any more," he said.

Hancock, who works at the Bob Moates Sports Store in Midlothian, Virginia, loves guns. Over at the handgun counter he slipped out a jet black 9mm Glock 19 -- the kind that Cho Seung-hui used to slay 32 of his fellow students and then himself last Monday -- and handed it to me. It was heavy, and doubtless felt all the heavier for its immediate associations. Hancock showed me how to reload the magazine. Then pulled the trigger and watched me flinch.

The relationship between this weapon and the massacre that took place on Virginia Tech campus 320km away is not moral but functional, he insisted.

"They flew airplanes into the World Trade Center, but nobody is saying we should stop flying," he said. "They drove a truck into the building in Oklahoma with a bomb made of fertilizer but we're not going to do away with trucks and fertilizer. One person who's mad enough and determined enough can kill 30 people; you can't blame that on guns."

Hancock believed there might be a case for stronger checks on the mental health of prospective gun owners. But if anything, he argued, what happened this week is an argument for more people to carry weapons, not fewer.

"If one single professor had been carrying a legal weapon they might have been able to stop all this," he said.

The main problem with the obvious retort that if guns were less easily available Cho's insanity would probably have been less deadly is that it is obvious. The debate between advocates of gun rights and gun control reached a painful stalemate long ago.

Painful because, in a country where more than 30,000 people die every year from firearms -- more than one every 20 minutes -- there is a lot to talk about. Stalemate because neither the arguments, nor the balance of forces of those who make them, seem to change sufficiently to break the logjam.

"The right to bear arms" is enshrined in the US Constitution. The founding fathers intended it so that citizens could protect themselves against state tyranny. Now gun lobbyists argue that they want them to protect themselves from other citizens.

However, in the more violent cities in the US there is hostility to that view.

"When they wrote the Constitution I don't think they really had this crazy kid in mind," said Debbie Yorizzo, a student-teacher at Hunter college.

"Martin Luther King couldn't sort this shit out back in the day," said Genesis Moore who lost his brother, Jason, to gun violence in Las Vegas in November.

"Everyone wants to have one so they feel like they're tougher than the next person," said Curtis Perkins, who was with Jason when he died.

In 1966, after Charles Whitman shot 14 people dead in Texas, the New York Times wrote: "Whatever the motivation, it seems clear that the way is made easier by the fact that guns of all sorts are readily available to Americans of all shades of morality and mentality."

It would have been no less prescient had they published it last Tuesday.

A Pew research poll, taken before the shootings, showed that while public support for greater gun control had waned over the past 10 years, most people still backed it.

The trouble is, despite everything that happened last Monday, nobody with the power to do anything substantial is interested in having a substantive debate about it.

The shootings returned guns to the center of national conversation but left them on the margins of political discussion. Before the 2000 election, the National Rifle Association (NRA) boasted that it was so close to US President George W. Bush that it would be working "out of his office." They have been pretty much true to their word. Before last November's election, Representative John Conyers, the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, pledged he would not "support or forward to the House any legislation to ban handguns."

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine said on Wednesday that he held "nothing but loathing for those who take the tragedy and make it political."

And so the murders were rendered into a purely emotional event borne from a psychotic moment -- a subject more likely to be resolved by Oprah or Dr Phil than by the House and the Senate.

Like hot air, the week's coverage of the shootings expanded to fill the space available to it. The issue of gun control was occasionally raised but rarely seriously discussed. Instead, they kept asking: "How could this happen?"

The US' innocence is one of its few eternally renewable resources. Its ability to shock itself with the predictable is itself predictable.

"Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell," wrote Graham Greene in The Quiet American. "Wandering the world doing no harm."

There were few who couldn't see this coming even if no one knew where or when.

Amid the hours of reconstruction and speculation, press conferences and pen portraits, we heard from creative writing professors about the tell-tale signs of psychosis in student literature and from student counsellors about referral procedures. Some of it was interesting. But whatever route the interviews took they always ended up at the same destination -- if someone wanted to do this, there was nothing we could do to stop them.

By Thursday CNN was reduced to gleaning insight from the woman who drives the student shuttle bus and screening Cho's rambling rants. They beeped out the expletives as though the swearing was the most offensive thing about their content.

The videos made Cho the source of much revulsion but proved unworthy of moral panic. Some commentators tried to emphasize his South Korean birth as somehow relevant to the slaughter. But Cho was made in the US, every bit as much as his elder sister who had gone to Princeton. True he was an immigrant, who came to the country at the age of eight.

But his parents were "good" immigrants -- legal, solvent and self-employed. At home they had been poor. Now they'd put one child through an Ivy League college with money from their dry-cleaning business; their story owed more to Ellis Island than the Rio Grande.

Meanwhile, South Koreans kept a low profile and braced themselves for a backlash that has yet to materialize.

"People in my office look at me differently," wrote a member of the Korean United Methodist church of Greater Washington, to his pastor. "I cannot even approach my coworkers to talk. I feel so ashamed. I feel like I gotta do something to show I'm a good neighbor."

With little help from politicians or the press, people struggled to make sense of it. In the Richmond Times Dispatch one writer quoted Hamlet, Cicero, Henry Newbolt and John Donne in a 700-word column.

A hundred people showed up for a memorial service at the Episcopal church in Richmond and when the bells finished tolling 33 for the victims many were sobbing. Heading up to the service in the lift I nodded at a man called Ron who told me he was feeling fine. As the lift opened he corrected himself: "Actually I'm not feeling fine. This whole thing is sitting really heavy on me."

Heavy, like a Glock.

Back at Moates' store a draw for a silver Para-Ordinance Model 1911 .45 automatic was due to take place last Thursday. The 1911 is part of the company's new line of "gun rights" pistols, which carry the guarantee that the company will donate US$25 to the NRA for every one sold. Anyone who spent more than US$100 in the store could enter the draw.

The "Bloomberg Gungiveaway" was intended to cock a snook at the New York mayor, who had issued a lawsuit against several gun stores, including Moates', for selling firearms that end up being used by criminals in New York.

Moates is no stranger to lost causes. In the parking lot, two cars bore Confederate registration plates. One said "Secede," the other "Lee.CSA," honoring Robert E. Lee, the general who led the south to defeat in the civil war.

Inside, on the book rack is a work entitled The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda and an Unnecessary War. Amid the hunting gear, rifles, ammunition and handguns, are civil war relics, southern memorabilia and Confederate bumper stickers.

But when Moates refused to postpone the raffle in respect for the victims in Blacksburg it looked as if his "pride" and "attitude" would result in him shooting himself in the foot.

"The draw is April 19," he told the New York Daily News last Monday.

On Tuesday a clerk said nothing had changed.

Suddenly, on Wednesday afternoon, Moates had a change of heart.

"We didn't want to be insensitive to the people in Blacksburg. But we also didn't want the draw to take place quietly," Hancock said. "So we put it off until May."

Within two weeks everything will be back to normal. The draw will take place with much fanfare.

And the US will prepare its next surprise.