Weighing the price of gun freedom
It is easy to get lost in the numbers. In Connecticut on Friday, 20 primary schoolchildren and six adults were shot dead by a man with a military-style rifle.
So far this year, more than 140 people have been killed or injured in mass shootings in the United States. There have been 70 mass shootings in America since 1982, and seven of those occurred this year.
According to an analysis by the US's The New Republic, 45 per cent of fatalities in mass shootings in the past 30 years were killed since 2007.
Rising toll ... more than 140 people have been killed or injured in mass shootings in the United States. Photo: The New York Times
But these numbers don't tell the story. Each year nearly 100,000 people are wounded or killed by gunfire in America and according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 1 million have been killed since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968.
Despite the carnage, the gun lobby has never seemed more powerful; each week it wins new victories. The day before the shootings in Newtown, politicians in Michigan ignored the protests of school boards and passed a law allowing people to carry concealed weapons in schools.
Now that even the most basic background check regulations have been neutered by the exemptions granted to purchases made at gun shows - where, by some estimates, 40 per cent of guns are sold - the gun lobby is concentrating on expanding ''concealed carry'' rights.
Victims of the school shooting identified
Anne Marie Murphy, aged 52. Photo: Supplied
At some level, America and its leaders have decided that this level of bloodshed is a fair price to pay for the defence of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
But it was not always this way. After the assassinations of 1968, governments across the nation began introducing restrictions on gun sales and ownership. In the following years, even the National Rifle Association's leadership was co-operating with governments to help restrict the sale of the cheap handguns that were flooding inner cities.
That all changed in 1977, when a group of hardliners led by Harlon Carter staged a coup and replaced the entire NRA leadership overnight during a Cincinnati convention. Suddenly an organisation that was once concerned with safety training and recreational shooting became a fierce single-minded lobby dedicated to defending the Second Amendment.
By the 1990s, the group was so powerful that Bill Clinton declared in his memoir that ''the NRA was an unforgiving master: one strike and you're out. The gun lobby claimed to have defeated 19 of the 24 members on its hit list. They did at least that much damage and could rightly claim to have made [Newt] Gingrich the House Speaker.''
Today, America's political right can rely on the NRA to provide it with a rump of single-issue voters who are easily scared up to the polling booth to vote against Democrats. In turn Democrats are mute.
In courts across America, where benches are still replete with conservative appointees of the Bush administration, the literal interpretation of the constitution remains in vogue.
Despite all this, a survey conducted just after a gunman killed 12 people at a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, by the Pew Research Centre (which has tracked attitudes to gun ownership for 20 years) found that 47 per cent of respondents said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 46 per cent said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns.
In his address on Saturday, the US President, Barack Obama, declared the time had come for ''meaningful action''. It is not yet clear what that means, but it is the strongest language he has used on the issue during his presidency.
His comment has spurred the usual pro- and anti-gun debate in the US.
Some of the arguments are tired, some are preposterous - if only the teachers were armed - and some make grim sense. It is a fair point to make that given there are 300 million guns in the US, it could be too late to try to control them.
Either way, Newtown's grief cannot be ignored.
Now it is for Americans to decide whether the literal interpretation of the Second Amendment - and the occasionally fanatical defence it engenders - is worth the price in blood the nation is paying; and whether the possibility that reform might fail is reason enough not to try it.