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History lesson lost in translation

Upholder of gun rights ... former NRA president the late Charlton Heston holds up a musket.

Upholder of gun rights ... former NRA president the late Charlton Heston holds up a musket. Photo: AP

You can see this happening: stung into action by the massacre in Connecticut and with nothing to lose in the final term of his presidency, Barack Obama throws the power and prestige of his office into the reform of America's gun laws. A ban on semi-automatic assault rifles like the one used at Sandy Hook Elementary School would save countless lives and secure his place in history.

Yet formidable forces oppose him, led by the National Rifle Association, with its millions of members and bottomless pit of money. The propaganda war is fast and furious.

Sooner or later, some wild-eyed hillbilly in Sphincter, Alabama, fantasises that Obama is a commie Muslim bent on taking away his guns and liberty. Armed to the teeth, he travels to Washington to blaze away at the presidential motorcade, and the American agonising over guns begins again …

The NRA is behaving as it always does after one of these shootings. First, a few days of silence; then a statement saying it is saddened at the loss of life. There are conciliatory noises about trying to prevent the mentally disturbed getting gun licences.

But soon enough it retreats to its moral vacuum. Wrapped in Old Glory, basking in the virtuous afterglow of America's founding fathers, the bullies of the NRA flaunt that much-abused notion, the right to bear arms.

It is enshrined in the Second Amendment to the US constitution, they cry, conveniently ignoring the bit about ''a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state …''

This is worth a look. When James Madison, Patrick Henry and Alexander Hamilton pushed this Second Amendment through Congress in 1791, they feared that the federal government in the newly named capital, Washington, DC, might one day impose a tyrannous rule on the states. To guard against this, they thought it a good idea for folks to keep a single-shot, muzzle-loading, flintlock, squirrel gun on a hook above the fireplace.

Far-seeing though they were, they had not envisaged the likes of the AR-15 Bushmaster rifle used by Adam Lanza at Newtown, a ''civilian'' weapon almost identical to the US Army's Vietnam era M16 rifle and capable of firing up to 45 rounds a minute.

The NRA's cynical perversion of American history recalls Dr Johnson's famous aphorism about patriotism and scoundrels. This is not surprising when you scan the NRA board. It includes such luminaries of the lunar right as Grover Norquist, the prominent ''taxation is theft'' campaigner; barking mad John Bolton, George Bush's ambassador to the UN and a neo-con cheerleader for the disastrous war in Iraq; and Oliver North, a former US Marine and the architect of the Iran-Contra scandal that rocked the Reagan administration and now, inevitably, a TV host with Rupert Murdoch's Fox News.

For all the horror and hand-wringing, you know that nothing will change. America's infatuation with guns will continue.

Late this week, the Bloomberg news service reported that prices for large-sized handgun magazines were rocketing on eBay and that Walmart, the department store chain, was running out of AR-15s. Mass slaughter, it seems, is good for business.

This is my last column for the year and, like Tony Abbott, I haven't bothered to read much of the newsy stuff. Instead, I am doing very important things for the Australian economy by choosing prezzies, which I am not very good at. A few years ago I gave my wife a rice cooker for her birthday; a stylish and useful gift, really, but it turned out she'd been expecting diamonds, pearls and exotic fragrances, etc.

In the Christmas edition of Woolworths's Fresh magazine the other day, I found two pages headlined ''Gifts for Her''. There were perfumes and scented candles and a hair dryer on offer and, curiously, the ''U by Kotex Starter Pack … for comfort and protection any time of the month''. They came in assorted festive colours with ''a cool black clutch''. Woolies may know better, but I'd be amazed if there's a woman alive who would leap in the air with cries of joy on unwrapping a lime green packet of tampons from Santa on Tuesday.

Much of the week was spent reeling from the emails of soccer fans outraged by what I had written as a mild little wind-up on their game last Saturday. A few got the joke and fired back witty barbs about rugger buggers, which I enjoyed. Others shovelled out endlessly dreary facts and figures, some solemnly informing me that the Socceroos had never actually played Turkmenistan. Really?

And there were dead cranky ones like the bloke who claimed to be a PhD from Brisbane and who wanted me to know that ''everyone is entitled to their opinions, of course, however your [sic] are a person privileged to have an outlet like the Herald to put yours forward; to use rhetoric that anyone with half an interest in sport knows to be patently false drops you immediately down into the Piers Akerman class''.

A bit harsh, that, I thought.

The obscene emails, a lot of them, go straight to the spam folder. But I have been keeping another file labelled ''Idiots'', where I've saved some terrific efforts. Here are the finalists for this year, unedited:

Yet another diatribe against Julia Gillard. All abusive form and no substance. You should get a job with Murdoch, really. The reason Labour can't get traction is because you lot keep chucking crap.

You have only confirmed you are the biggest clown in the business. Barnaby Joyce represents real people's attitude to todays ''I'm in it for me '' politicians. Why don't you climb back under that rock you have been hiding under since leaving radio.

Despite you saying Barrack Obama is a Islamic born in Africa, you are totally stupid, Carlton. He is not even all that black.

Cretin. You can get help for your condition. I was a Customer Service Agent at Amex and I remember and recorded your attempt to extort. I may release it one day.

In all, I got nearly 9000 emails from Herald readers this year, more than I could ever answer individually. Most were from generous and thoughtful people offering kind words or constructive comment, and it was a pleasure and privilege to read them. To you, a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

smhcarlton@gmail.com

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