US firearms crisis won't end until liberals and gun culture make their peace
'We don't have handguns in Britain." Even as I spoke the words, I was aware that they sounded almost apologetic. The conversation was with a former US Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land team) who is now helping out at a gun range in New Town, Ohio, where a business trip had taken me last week.
"I'm just really grateful that you've taken the time to be here, to fire guns and try to understand what it's all about," he replied to my British deference. And then he helped me load 30 rounds into the clip of a Colt semi-automatic rifle.
It was a slice of American life I had always wanted to sample, and had felt the appropriate level of guilt about the ambition. Wouldn't a visit to such a place, the handling of a lethal weapon, the enjoyment of the activity - wouldn't all this make me at least complicit in, if not an apologist for, America's love affair with guns, an obsession that has resulted, in the last 24 hours, in yet another horrific high school massacre, this time in Florida?
The guns themselves were safely behind the counter at the well-stocked front shop of the shooting range: hand guns below glass, rifles of bewildering complexity and power in racks behind where the salesmen stood. A single word of interest in any weapon and within seconds you could hold it, look through the scope and gauge its weight and balance.
My host, a senior and well-respected local businessman, owned "about ten" guns, keeping them in a gun safe he had bought specifically for the purpose. It had been so long since he had fired one that he had forgotten the code for the safe, and only released the door on his fifth attempt.
"Guns don't kill people…" said his colleague who accompanied us to the range. I could have responded with the much-tweeted joke: "No, guns don't kill people - people who say 'guns don't kill people' kill people. With guns."
Instead I bit my tongue and took careful aim at zombie bin Laden. That was the paper target I had chosen from the range of jokey images available from the front desk.
As soon as I fired my first shot, I was more aware than I ever expected of the power and deadliness of the weapon in my hand. This was no Hollywood prop or plaything: this was a device that could end the lives of everyone in the vicinity, including me. I had expected a rush of blood to the head; instead, it ran cold in my veins.
However grateful for the experience and for the hospitality shown by my gun-totin' friends, I was immensely relieved when we replaced the weapons in their secure cases and headed towards the local chicken wings restaurant.
My hosts that night were no redneck hillbillies. They were sophisticated, law-abiding, intelligent, successful people who just happen to enjoy collecting and firing weapons. When the anti-gun lobby fires off its latest salvo in reaction to the most recent massacre, it's often aimed at the wrong target (forgive the allusion).
There is a large and resentful community of gun owners in America who feel they are unjustly made to feel like the perpetrators of every outrage, even if they themselves are responsible citizens. The language used by politicians (mostly Democrats but also some Republicans) alienates the innocent deer-hunter while having no effect whatever on the lonely, aggrieved psychopath with a Smith & Wesson .357 revolver in his backpack.
None of this is to say that America doesn't have a problem with guns; it surely does. The absurdly high levels of gun crime and associated death each and every day of the year makes that abundantly obvious. The warning for politicians who wish to do something about it comes straight out of the Einstein book of misquotes: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Demands for gun control follow every civilian massacre as sure as night follows day, and yet no progress seems to be made. If anything, the determination of Americans to hold ever more tightly to their weapons grows with each sickening event.
Worse, this debate has become just one part of America's self-defeating and circular culture wars. To liberal New Yorkers and assorted East Coasters, gun owners can be put in the same categories as evangelical Christians who believe in creationism and who oppose abortion and feminism, while law-abiding gun owners grow ever more resentful of the liberal elite who seek to leave ordinary citizens at the mercy of gangsters and villains who will always carry and use guns, whatever the legal framework currently in effect.
Neither of these stereotypes is wholly accurate, but neither is prepared to shift ground. The more consensual approach, the more conciliatory language demanded for this crisis - and it is a crisis - is as distant today as it has ever been, perhaps even more so. American politics has led this great nation to a point where it is utterly, perhaps irreconcilably, divided, on guns - as in much else.
Politics should be about the art of creating democratic solutions, but for the time being, the goals and fears of these two Americas are so far apart, so utterly opposed, that a solution is simply unachievable. It is quite possible that, with the right national leadership and - crucially - with the right use of language, some form of compromise - say, on the availability of the most high-powered automatic weapons, flame throwers and rocket-propelled grenade launchers - can be reached.
But even such a modest stop forward looks depressingly far off, and will continue to be so while the two sides refuse to make the effort to understand each other, while they wilfully misrepresent and demonise each other. If the only thing Americans have in common is the stars and stripes, then many more families are going to share the agonies of those who have suffered such loss in the Sunshine State this week.