Amended freedoms ... a man studies shotguns at the NRA annual convention in St Louis, Missouri, last week.

Amended freedoms ... a man studies shotguns at the NRA annual convention in St Louis, Missouri, last week. Photo: AFP/Whitney Curtis

The National Rifle Association held its annual conference in St Louis, Missouri, last weekend. Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney was a guest speaker.

The lectern at which he stood with his wife, Ann, was embellished with the slogan “Celebration of American Values” over a large photograph of an eagle. Here was a confluence of messages and symbolism both stridently defiant and subliminally insidious.

Romney may well be the next president of the United States. Although he has not been officially cast as his party's contender for the most powerful job on the planet, it is all but decided, with rival Rick Santorum pulling out of the race. Santorum, however, was also there, as was former UN ambassador John Bolton.

Where Romney appears, as indeed it does with any political campaigner, is where that person believes the power resides to deliver them votes. Hence Romney's bended knees in St Louis. Some gun-owners apparently don't think he is gung-ho enough, but anyone is better than a Democrat. Hence Romney's exhortation: “The right to bear arms is so plainly stated, so unambiguous, that Liberals have a hard time challenging it directly.”

It was, he said, an “attack on freedom” by the administration in trying to restrict gun-owners' rights.

Poor freedom, it is attacked every which way in the land of liberty. And, as everyone knows, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance, with a Glock in your hand, under your bed, in the kitchen cabinet, in your car and under your hoodie.

Just so the gun-toting folk of the NRA didn't feel too lonely at the convention, Newt Gingrich, also running for the Republican nomination but far behind Romney, also spoke to them. Gingrich told them what they wanted to hear. They loved it. How could they not? They were told their reason for being emanated from a higher source. It was sublime theatrical tour de force, and tripe.

Gingrich exclaimed: “The right to bear arms comes from our creator, not our government. A Gingrich presidency will submit to the UN a treaty that extends the right to bear arms as a human right to every person on the planet.

“We don't need to go across the planet trying to impose American values, but we do need to go across the planet spreading human values. The Second Amendment is a right for all mankind.”

I'll type that again: “The Second Amendment is a right for all mankind.” How generous. The people of Iraq, Grenada and El Salvador will be so pleased.

The Second Amendment to the US Constitution came to life in December 1791, eight years after the end of the war with the United Kingdom, during which the United States was born. These were revolutionary times. The amendment states: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” Thus Gingrich conflated a law from more than 200 years ago that dealt with giving a fledgling state the capacity to exist with a universal mandate. And, we'll bring God into too, because God's on our side. Not yours.

No wonder he received a standing ovation.

Running in the background to the conference was the death of African-American Trayvon Martin in Florida in late February. Martin, who was unarmed, but wearing a hoodie, was shot dead while visiting his father in a gated community. George Zimmerman, who was part of neighbourhood watch, reportedly told police he shot Martin in self-defence. He has been charged with second-degree murder and will plead not guilty, his lawyers say.

Florida is one of about two dozen states to have on its books the law known as “stand your ground”. It's a self-defence clause that allows people to use force, deadly force, to repel an attacker. There is also the Castle Doctrine, in which deadly force can be used to protect one's home.

It's no wonder gun sales are doing so well. This year, Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice-president, under an article on the NRA's website headed “More gun owners a good thing”, detailed the surge in gun checks over Christmas. “I'm glad more Americans are exercising their Second Amendment rights, but we need them to defend their rights as well by becoming NRA members. For our firearm freedoms, 2012 is going to be a crucial year.”

There's that word freedom again, and for crucial year, read election year.

The NRA was formed in 1871, primarily to improve marksmanship and foster shooting, including as a sport, an activity it still does. It helps gets the young involved, too, claiming a million youth take part in events. It is claimed to have more than 4 million members, which gives it considerable political clout. There is also the NRA Foundation, a tax-free organisation, that raises “millions of dollars to fund gun safety and educational projects of benefit to the general public”.

Education is certainly needed, to put it lightly. This is the most heavily armed country in the world, not just militarily, but internally. A report five years ago by the Graduate Institute of International Studies, based in Geneva, found that Americans owned 270 million firearms, out of a global arsenal of 875 million. More than half of the 8 million new guns bought each year were bought in the US.

Surely, this is insane. Yet people argue its sanity. Even the Supreme Court has come down in favour of the Second Amendment. There are anti-gun advocates, of course, but they carry too little firepower, and this lack of influence seeps into other areas of life. What sells in the culture? Violence does. The gun does. When a weapon of extreme violence becomes alluring, there is something seriously wrong. It's a point The Simpsons played out in an episode entitled The Cartridge Family.

It's true I'm writing this from afar. I don't live in America. It's a disconcerting notion to transport those figures and context onto the Australian landscape. What would you feel if you knew your neighbours were armed? Certainly not safer. But in this mutation lies the madness. Safety now comes with a bullet.

The sun is settin’ on the century and we are armed to the teeth
We are all working together now to make our lives mercifully brief
Schoolkids keep trying to teach us what guns are all about
Confuse liberty with weaponry and watch your kids act it out
Every year now like Christmas some boy gets the milk-fed suburban blues
Reaches for the available arsenal and saunters off to make the news
And women in the middle are learning what poor women have always known
That the edge is closer than you think when your men bring the guns home

Look at where the profits are that's how you'll find the source
Of the big lie that you and I both know so well
It the time it takes this cultural death wish to run its course
They're gonna make a pretty penny and then they're all going to hell
He said the chickens all come home to roost yeah, Malcolm forecasted this flood
Are we really gonna sleep through another century while the rich profit off our blood?
True, it may take some doing to see this undoing done
But in my humble opinion here's what i suggest we do:

Open fire on Hollywood open fire on MTV
Open fire on NBC and CBS and ABC
Open fire on the NRA and all the lies they told us
Along the way open fire on each weapons manufacturer
While he's giving head to some Republican senator
And if I hear one more time about fool's rights
To his tools of rage I'm gonna take all my friends
And I'm gonna move to Canada and we're gonna die of old age

Ani DiFranco, To the Teeth