Looming large … but appearances can be deceptive. Photo: Reuters
It didn't take long for a would-be copycat of last week's Colorado mass killer to emerge - when Maryland police pulled in Neil Prescott on Friday morning, he was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with ''Guns don't kill people, I do''.
Prescott was armed to the teeth - he had 25 guns, including semi-automatics, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Reportedly he had dubbed himself ''the Joker'', as did the Colorado killer, and he was threatening to ''blow everybody up'' at his workplace.
Regrettably, the real jokers in the US these days are the country's political leaders.
At a time when leadership is required they have gone to water. In the midst of a presidential election campaign, when gun control should be a subject for serious discussion, the pretender to the presidency is overseas, making a fool of himself in Britain; and the incumbent is at home, cowering behind platitudes about grief and healing, but refusing to initiate genuine, substantive debate.
In an editorial, The New York Times excoriated Mitt Romney - as much for his flip-floppery on gun control as his seeming ignorance of how federal and state laws inter-connect. But the newspaper saved its harshest criticism for Barack Obama - because in his speeches the President has revealed that he does get it, before then uttering words that sound like calls for action but which on closer examination are remarkable only for their emptiness.
If, as the President observed, while speaking in the south, "for every Columbine or Virginia Tech, there are dozens gunned down on the streets of Chicago and Atlanta, and here in New Orleans"; and if, as he went on, "for every Tucson or Aurora, there is daily heartbreak over young Americans shot in Milwaukee or Cleveland", how could the man who refused to kowtow on the Iraq war, on gay marriage, on health insurance covering contraception and on a reprieve for young illegal migrants facing deportation, not offer a substantive solution on guns?
But rather than debate the need for greater control of guns in the US, the discourse in the last week or so has been more about why there is no debate. And some of that has examined the role of the National Rifle Association, which conventional political wisdom rates as a game- changing force for any candidate who dares to speak against the iconic status of the gun in what has become a culture war between urban and rural communities.
In 1994, the New York senator Charles Schumer, a Democrat, had the intestinal fortitude to head a campaign that successfully banned 19 military-style assault weapons. This week he's going out the door backwards, telling reporters: "We see the power of the NRA around here.'' And echoing from across the aisle, Republican Jon Kyle told the press: "This is not a time to be bringing out all those old gun-control bills."
Political cowardice, especially by Democrats, was on full display when almost 30 Democrat senators voted with the nominal Republican opponents to vote down a recent attempt to control guns. It's all at the behest of the NRA, which weeks ago cowed dozens of House Democrats to vote ''yea'' to a motion to find the Obama-appointed federal Attorney-General in contempt of Congress, all because he stood his ground in the face of a Republican witch hunt.
But maybe the NRA is a paper tiger. In campaign wars that now cost hundreds of millions, its resources barely constitute petty cash. Obama and Romney can pull more in a single fund-raiser event than the NRA spent in the entire 2010 mid-term campaign - a puny $7.2 million.
Obama is living proof of the NRA's toothlessness. In the last presidential poll he won in 11 of the 13 states in which the NRA ran attack ads against him. Similarly, the Colorado Democrat, Senator Michael Bennet, survived, despite NRA hostility in 2010.
In an authoritative four-part series for The American Prospect magazine, author Paul Waldman concluded that it's almost impossible to see a substantive impact from NRA spending and endorsements in the past four Senate elections.
With the average House of Representatives contest now costing north of $1 million, he found the typical NRA contribution to be paltry - about $2500.
And in Senate races, the NRA offering of $5000 was even smaller as a portion of a candidate's typical campaign costs. More importantly, in the last Senate campaigns, the NRA's preferred candidates won just 10 times compared with losing in 12 contests.
Despite the American love affair with guns, if you drill down into polling data, there are some reassuring findings. Yes, there is broad support for the notion of gun ownership, but 87 per cent of Americans support background checks on the private sale of guns and 62 per cent say it's more important for the government to ban the sale of semi-automatic weapons than it is to protect the right of gun owners to buy any weapon they want.
But such is the fear in Washington that the power of the NRA now extends beyond the confines of gun politics. When legislation was mooted in 2010, requiring groups mounting political advertising campaigns to reveal the sources of their funds, it was the NRA that led the charge against it - and won. The bill was revised to exempt the NRA and other such groups.
A lone, fearless voice in Congress is Representative Carolyn McCarthy, who won election by campaigning for greater gun control after the death in 1993 of her husband in what was dubbed the Long Island Railroad massacre. After the Colorado killings, she told reporters: "A lot of Congress members, in their hearts, believe and support commonsense gun-safety laws - but many members are definitely afraid of the NRA."
In the past, both Obama and Romney have made strong and clearly reasoned calls for a ban on the kind of assault weapons used in Colorado last week and seized by the Maryland police on Friday. As The New York Times demanded in an editorial: "What happened to their courage?"