Nine-year-old girl shoots and kills instructor - time for a rethink of gun laws?
All over the UK, people checked in for their daily news fix, gasped, and thought "Only in America."
A nine-year-old girl was being trained in the use of a deadly Uzi submachine gun when it kicked back and she shot her instructor in the head. Charles Vacca, 39, died of his injuries.
Jaws drop – and after a little research into children and guns in the USA, they stay dropped. Two things stand out. One is that while in this case a child shot an adult, it's usually adults who shoot children or children who shoot each other. According to the ThinkProgress website 10,000 children are killed or injured by guns every year. The number has been rising over the last few decades to the extent that it's now one of the country's three leading causes of child mortality.
The second is the extent to which the gun culture is embedded in American society. Debate about this particular incident, for instance on the ABC news site, tends to focus on what the instructor did wrong. But kids are being targeted – and yes, that pun is intended – by marketeers who want to sell them guns as soon as they possibly can. Yes, there are companies making guns especially for children, like Crickett. All over the country, the ability to own and fire a deadly weapon is seen as the birthright of every American, and you can't start too early. There are even churches that use gun classes as a form of outreach and some states allow concealed guns to be carried in church.
Most Brits would say that that's just stupid. The whole "right to bear arms" thing was in the context of the need for a "well-regulated militia" to see off, well, people like us. Yet it's become a monster. The US has as many guns as people. With five per cent of the world's population, it owns up to 50 per cent of all civilian guns in the world. You need them for protection? Please. A gun in the home increases the risk of suicide, homicide and accidental death; you're safer without it.
Here's the thing, though. I'm completely on side with attempts at gun control. If I could vote in the US, I'd vote for whoever would limit the number being made, bought, sold and used. But I have a terrible feeling that it's all too late. There are too many guns out there. There are too many films being made that glorify their use. It's all too mainstream. That love affair with the loaded weapon that's rooted in the national myth of the rugged pioneers taming the savage wilderness is just too powerful.
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And even if the tightest gun controls conceivable could be enacted, would that make everyone safe? No. Here in the UK, in 1987 Michael Ryan killed 16 people in Hungerford. In 1996 Thomas Hamilton killed 16 primary school children and their teacher in Dunblane. In 2010 Derrick Bird killed 12 people in Cumbria. Bad people, disturbed people, will do terrible things because they can.
But here is my suggestion. Suppose churches were to say: "We know there's nothing wrong with owning a gun in principle. We accept that some people just like to shoot. Hunting is fine, honestly, and we're right behind all that Iron John wilderness stuff. We know that this will put us on the wrong side of the culture, but: we won't do guns. We'll turn our backs on them as a previous generation did on alcohol, not because there's anything wrong with them as such, but because their existence in such vast numbers and the acceptance that they make you safer – because you can threaten someone or kill someone with them – is killing our children, and turning our children into killers."
Suppose you did that, acknowledging your fear of going unarmed, acknowledging that you'd lose your appeal to vast sections of the population – and many more in some parts of the country than in others – wouldn't there be something a bit Christ-like about that?
The Dean of St Paul's, William Inge, once wrote: "If you marry the spirit of the age you will be a widow in the next." Let's be clear: there are all sorts of ways in which the Church in the UK does that. God knows, we have more to learn than we have to teach. So it is a suggestion made in all humility: the Church and gun culture – isn't it time for a divorce?
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and freelance writer.