James Holmes pictured in court on Monday (Credit: RJ Sangosti-Pool/Getty Images)
|James Holmes pictured in court on Monday (Credit: RJ Sangosti-Pool/Getty Images)|
One aspect of American culture that is incomprehensible to people in Ireland (and probably the rest of the civilized world) is the attitude to guns and gun control.
We don't understand how such a simplistic insistence on "the right to bear arms" can prevail among so many people in America. And we don't understand why, given the absence of any meaningful level of gun control, anyone over there should be surprised when yet another shooting outrage occurs.
Watching the TV news here in the aftermath of the horror at the Aurora movie theater, people here were deeply moved by the anguish of the families and friends of the victims.
But as well as feeling sympathy, the unspoken question in everyone's mind here was a simple one --how can anyone over there be surprised?
How can anyone in the U.S. think that such outrages will not happen every now and then when ordinary people can possess an arsenal like the one accumulated by James Holmes?
Listening to the commentary by leaders and experts on the American TV news -- which many Irish people now get as part of their normal TV package -- it was notable how the fundamental issue of gun control was dodged yet again.
The shooting rampage was discussed as a tragedy, as something impossible to understand, as something that could not have been predicted, as an outrage that could have happened anywhere, not just in the U.S.
No one was prepared to discuss the elephant in the room, the ease and speed with which Holmes was able to build up the arsenal for his killing spree.
When it was mentioned, it was stated without embarrassment that he had acquired the guns legally, even though they included semi-automatic weapons and thousands of rounds.
It was also emphasized that this was not the time for discussion about gun control, that any knee-jerk reaction in the wake of such a tragedy would be inappropriate.
Instead, the people of Aurora were urged to focus on rising above this awful atrocity by coming together to comfort and support each other and to begin the healing process.
Don't let the gunman win by going down to his level, they were told.
Don't let the gunman win by allowing his actions to degrade the community and its values. Don't let the gunman win by allowing Aurora to be defined in the future by the terrible thing that happened there.
This was the message put forward by community, political and church leaders in the aftermath of the shooting and seen by us here on the extended American TV news coverage.
It was also the message from ordinary people in Aurora who, although devastated by what had happened, were restating their values, their belief in how precious life is and how they must stand together with pride as a good and caring community.
All of which is laudable, even noble, showing us the best side of American culture. But the question is, is it enough?
Reporters and experts on American TV also spent time searching through Holmes's background, looking for an insight into the kind of young man he was and what stresses he was under, as though the answer to preventing a recurrence of what had happened could be found in that analysis.
But the answer won't be found there. As a response, that is not enough either.
So let's get down to the issue at the heart of all this -- gun control.
The fact is that there are young men under stress in Ireland and many other countries in Europe right now, but we do not see Auroras happening here.
There are isolated, resentful young men here, just as there are in the U.S. A proportion of them will become delusional and dangerous, just as happens in the U.S.
The difference is that here it is very difficult to get guns, and almost impossible to get automatic weapons and large amounts of ammunition.
If you have enough money and you're tough enough to deal with the criminal underworld, you can buy an old handgun or a sawn-off shotgun in Dublin -- but even that is extremely difficult. A shy loner (like Holmes) would have no chance of getting a gun on the street here.
In the U.S., however, inadequates like him can do the paperwork and buy online or go into their local gun store and present an innocent face while they buy assault weapons more appropriate to a war zone.
The assertion on some American TV news shows that this kind of awful tragedy can happen anywhere and is not peculiar to America -- the Breivik case in Norway was cited several times -- is misguided.
There is a big difference in the frequency and character of these outrages in America. Cases like Aurora are much more frequent in the U.S. and their character is very different.
Breivik is a neo-Nazi nut with an extreme political agenda. Almost all the other cases in Europe also have political agendas.
The incidents in the U.S., apart from being much more frequent, are different because they are not usually politically motivated. Typically they are the work of inadequate men, often young men, who are escaping their private failure and isolation through a fantasy payback on the society they imagine is oppressing them.
The most obvious way of stopping them is to make it much more difficult for them to get guns. Yet that is something that America refuses to do.
Nor is it just shooting outrages like Aurora that is the problem in America today. The level of gun killings across the U.S. is so high -- an average of 84 people are shot and die as a result every day, with many more injured -- that it shames a country which calls itself civilized.
That's seven Auroras every day. Yet America refuses to do the one thing that would make a real difference -- introduce strong gun control.
The reasons put forward seem infantile to us, as though America is still living in the days of the Wild West.
There might have been some justification for carrying a gun back then. There is no justification for ordinary people having weapons in a modern society like the U.S. today.
The argument that the right to bear arms is a key part of the individual freedoms that make America the land of the free does not stand up to scrutiny. Yes it is a constitutional right, but that does not mean it must remain forever.
In a healthy democracy, a constitution is changed by referendum as a society develops. What made sense in 1791 when the Second Amendment was adopted may not make any sense today.
And by the way, if you look at the wording of the Second Amendment it puts the right to bear arms in the context of having a militia ready to defend the state. So back then it was not seen as a fundamental right for the individual.That came later, most recently in Supreme Court decisions in the last few years.
The idea that true freedom must allow good people to have almost unrestricted access to weapons so they can protect themselves against the bad guys is flawed. It ignores the obvious fact that if there are very few guns around, very few bad guys will be able to get them.
What may be best for society may involve the curtailment of some individual freedoms. It's already clear from the statistics that states in the U.S. where there are lower levels of gun ownership have lower homicide levels.
The frequently heard gun lobby argument that "guns don't kill people, people kill people" ignores this. The fact is that the more guns there are around, the more people get killed with them.
The reason is simple -- killing someone with a gun is easy; killing someone with a knife, in contrast, is harder and also there are no automatic knives that enable you to kill a dozen people with a slight pressure of one finger.
There's no point in grieving for the Aurora dead if America does not do something about this because it's going to happen again. America needs gun control. That's the reality.
It's a reality that almost all other developed countries have accepted, even somewhere like Ireland, in spite of our much more recent fight for national freedom and our rebel image as the fighting Irish. America could do worse than copy what we have done here.
Basically in Ireland, you can't have a gun unless you can convince your local Gardai (police) that you have a good reason for wanting one. That reason is usually that you are a farmer or you want to use the gun for hunting in the countryside -- well over 90% of guns held here are shotguns and sporting rifles used for hunting or controlling vermin. These weapons are usually single shot and never automatic.
If your reason for wanting a gun is to do target shooting, you have to belong to a recognized gun club where very strict rules will apply. Almost no handguns (pistols or revolvers) are allowed in private possession outside of gun clubs.
Anyone who wants a gun here has to get a firearm certificate from the Gardai, allowing them to have possession of a specified type of gun, as well as a relatively small quantity of appropriate ammunition.
The license or certificate has to be renewed every three years. A separate certificate is required for each gun, and the Gardai are very slow to issue more than one to a person without good reason.
Handguns are severely restricted with very few in private possession, and those are limited to small caliber guns or air guns.
No one here seems to find any of this a problem. I don't have the latest figures, but the number of guns per 100 population in Ireland is around five. It's an insult to the intelligence of the American people that nothing is done about gun control once and for all.