When my son Ben, then aged nine, came home from his second day at primary school in our middle-class neighbourhood of Chevy Chase in Washington DC, agog with news of practising code red and code blue, my blood ran cold.
Code blue, he explained, was when there was a threat outside the school. It involved locking down the buildings but lessons would continue. ‘‘It’s like when the Washington sniper was on the loose. You know about that,’’ he told me gravely.
Code red, he explained, was when there was a threat inside the school. The teacher would lock the classroom, cover the little window in the door with a piece of cardboard and the kids would huddle behind a specially reinforced wall in the store room. ‘‘ We had to be really quiet,’’ he said.
Why on earth I had brought my kids to America, I wondered.
That the school did not even bother to send a note home to new parents was symptomatic of just how accepting Americans have become of potential violence in their society.
By the time we left after my three-year posting, I too had become desensitised.
I routinely scanned for loitering strangers when I walked into car parks, a habit I only noticed when I found myself still doing it back in Australia.
I no longer gasped when mothers shared views in the playground about whether you should ask whether there were guns in the house before accepting a playdate.
I also came to understand – although not accept – why Americans were so wedded to the idea of gun ownership.
A visit to the National Museum of American History chronicles America’s settlement and its wars, starting with the War of Independence, in which the British, hated for their heavy taxation, were overturned in a popular uprising.
Then came America’s deadliest war, the civil war, in which an estimated 750,000 died, fighting ostensibly to end slavery in the south. Many of the early settlers had come to America to escape persecution and this armed struggle for freedom against government oppression is central to the US psyche.
Whereas Australians see governments as either benign or even good, a significant portion of American citizens believe that it is a force to be contained. The second amendment – the right to bear arms – springs from the revolutionary experience and still permeates modern political thinking.
Then there is the frontier heritage that is alive and well. Hunting is not a fringe activity as it is in Australia but something families across generations do together. The state parks run hunting lodges that can be booked. In towns throughout America huge hunting super-stores sell merchandise from high-powered rifles with scopes, to toddler-sized cammo gear and kids’ ghillie suits.
Then there are the people who believe guns in America are just a necessary evil: necessary to defend your family against all the other people who have guns.
And maybe they have a case. The numbers on gun ownership are surprisingly hazy but it’s somewhere around 300 million. Polls show between 47 to 62 per cent of homes have at least one gun.
The multibillion-dollar industry is on show almost every weekend, as travelling gun shows exhibit in spaces as big as football fields, selling everything from bulk ammo to military-style assault rifles like the one used in Newtown, Connecticut, last weekend.
A few kilometres from the White House is the National Rifle Association headquarters, a gleaming multi-storey office block dedicated to ensuring that guns thrive in the United States. It boasts 4.3 million members, although I discovered that membership is often offered as part of the entry price to gun shows.
The NRA is not just a lobby group but an upholder of a way of life. It funded BB guns and targets for the Boy Scouts of America camp my son attended; it offers training for youthful hunters; it provides a portal for military and law enforcement and it runs several digital TV channels on its website.
When I visited Iowa for the Republican straw poll in July 2007, the NRA had an enormous tent in which it was screening a video warning that politicians like John Howard in Australia were putting democracy at risk through his ban on semi-automatic weapons after the Port Arthur Massacre.
To Australians it seems incredible that US politicians will not move to control guns. It seems illogical in the face of global statistics and our own experience of the success of the gun amnesty.
But America’s belief in who they are and what they stand for is inextricably bound up with guns. The President, Barack Obama, should begin with a ban on assault weapons, something that has been accomplished before, albeit with a sunset clause after 10 years.
But the bigger task for American is to become a gentler, more trusting society, so that school children do not have to be drilled in cowering in store rooms.
Anne Davies was Washington correspondent for the Herald and The Age from 2007 to 2010. She covered the Fort Hood massacre.