Thursday, 19 April 2007

Virginia victims

Like the rest of the world, I was deeply saddened by the news of the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University - when 32 students and staff were gunned down by a fellow student before he turned his gun on himself, bringing the final death toll to 33. I watched the news coverage in horror, when we saw amateur video footage of the killer, striding across the campus looking like Neo from the Matrix - maybe that's how he imagined himself.

There followed the memorial service, where the President preached, and students and parents hugged and tried to find some solace and come to terms with this atrocity. I read and watched interviews with students who had been lucky enough to escape with their lives, describing their experiences and attempting to make some sense of it all. Even more horrible than the shootings perhaps, listening to these students, was their universal lack of recognition that there is a connection between gun culture and gun crime. One interviewee went as far as agreeing with the view of the gun lobby that the answer to the problem is to arm all students.

From a European perspective, the American obsession with guns is obscene and not acceptable in a civilised society. It is quite shocking to discover that bright young people, who have had such an intimate experience of the horrific results of lax gun control, are so totally blind to one of the main causes of that experience. To deny that there is a connection between easy access to guns and violence is to ignore the evidence of the U.S. homicide statistics which are higher than those in Europe by a factor of 10 or even 20 I guess.

Another thing struck me in the news coverage. One report spoke about the 32 victims of the carnage - but 33 people died. It seems that the shooter is not regarded as a victim by some which is a terrible shame. The sad loner who was so at odds with his peers and his society - is he not a victim also? And what about his poor parents, who have to add the guilt for his dreadful actions to their grief at his suicide? To lose a child is the saddest thing a parent can endure (some don't), but to lose a child in such circumstances - their lives since then must be a living nightmare.

For any good to come of this awful event, it is time America recognises the connection between easy access to guns and the all too frequent abuse of this freedom, not alone by criminals but also be socially-inadequate, emotionally-charged young people. Over on this side of the pond, we are overwhelmed with grief for all of the victims and their families and friends, but we are also astounded by the gun culture that enables it. If the tragic deaths at Virgina Tech are to mean anything, it is essential that America grabs this opportunity to review gun laws and put them beyond the reach of people without proper licensing and control. To do less is to disrespect their memories as has, sadly, been done already with the victims of Columbine and all the other tragic victims of meaningless murders on the streets of America.

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