The Right to Bear Arms.

Since the Columbine school massacre last year Americans have been asking themselves what the law can do to prevent such horror ever happening again. Has the time finally come to break with a tradition that many see as an integral part of the constitution?

Think America, think violence. The USA is known worldwide as an unsafe place to live, with a gun-packing, drug-addicted criminal on every street corner, just waiting to take down a poor, unsuspecting citizen. Yet the reality differs quite a lot: enough guns exist in America for every adult to own one, yet only 25% of them do. And of that quarter, 75% own more than one. So many weapons are in the hands of a relatively few people.

But having a lot of guns around does not always mean you live in a violent country. Switzerland, Israel, Denmark and Finland are often used as examples of this point. In Switzerland, all men between twenty and fifty years of age are required to own an automatic weapon, for military use. Likewise in Israel, Denmark and Finland, gun ownership is high but the crime rate remains low. Why the difference then?

High school shoot-out

Why in America would two young men, aged seventeen, go to school and within an hour kill twelve students, one teacher, and then themselves? In April 1999, the infamous Columbine High School shootings stunned the country, and to a different degree, the world beyond it. Using shotguns, 9-mm semi-automatic weapons, pipe bombs, and even 20-pound propane bombs (which fortunately never exploded) these two kids let loose in a manner violent enough for a movie. A year later, the question of why remains unanswered.

Was it the boys, was it the guns, or was it the society around them? The boys themselves, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, did have a history of trouble. But guns are also easy to get; they got three through a girlfriend who was eighteen years old, and therefore legally able to purchase weapons. The fourth they bought illegally, and the men involved are both in prison for it. The girlfriend is not.

So the boys and the guns added up to a whole lot of trouble, but what about the world around them? Watch a movie, turn on the TV, play a video game - you have plenty of opportunity to soak up violent images in America. So all three - the individual, the gun, and the culture - made it easier for such a tragedy to happen. And all three are being examined as America tries to figure out what to do.

Control versus rights

The solution depends on how you define the problem: control versus rights. Gun control means just that: start controlling guns better. But how? By changing the guns themselves, by changing the laws, and by changing the way people think about them. To begin with, guns could be altered to make them safer. One way to do that is to add locks to the trigger, or use a fingerprint recognition system: only the finger with the right print could use the gun.

Gun control people also want to change the laws. Today, at government level, assault weapons are banned, and you must wait three days after you fill out an application to buy a gun. But the USA is a federation of fifty states, and each state has different laws. In Maryland, an adult can buy a shotgun immediately because shotguns are used for hunting. For a handgun, not used for hunting, you have to wait about two weeks for a complete background check.

What laws would the gun control groups change? You can be eighteen or nineteen to buy a gun privately (not in a store); they would change that to twenty-one, the same age you have to be to buy beer. You can buy as many guns as you want; they would change that to one a month only. You can buy a gun without proving you can use it properly or letting anyone official know you have it; they would require all guns to be licensed and registered.

Greater control means less freedom, and this is what the gun rights advocates resist. You could sum up their argument in this way: guns don't kill people, people kill people. If people are the problem, then the laws we already have are fine, but need to be better enforced. In cities where the police and courts work hard to enforce the laws, crime rates are lower. Also, if so many people own guns, you may need a gun to protect yourself from the bad guys. Gun rights groups point out that states that allow concealed weapons have a lower crime rate - if criminals can carry a gun in their pocket, allowing law-abiding citizens to do the same evens up the fight.

Battle for Congress

The gun rights side has been winning this battle for some time, partly because it is better organized. One of the most powerful groups supporting gun rights is the National Rifle Association, called the NRA. They have spent millions of dollars over the years to get Congress to agree to their point of view. Yet the gun control camp is gaining steam: they now lobby Congress as well, although spending much less money (some report a ratio of 23 to 1 - for every $23 spent for gun rights, $1 is spent for gun control).

But spending money is only one way to influence Congress. You can also get a big crowd together and march on Washington, which a 'million' mothers did this last May. The so-called "Million Mom March" hoped that the public appeal of a lot of moms would help sway not only Congress, but Americans as well. If you convince the people, then the politicians will follow.

And if that does not work, you can always sue. In 1997, the Supreme Court of Florida upheld a verdict against K Mart (a major chain of stores) for selling a gun to a drunk man who then used it to shoot his ex-girlfriend. The fine was $11.5 million. In the three short years since, others have jumped onto this lawsuit bandwagon, most recently New York State. It claims that a number of gun manufacturers, importers, and wholesalers violate the state's public nuisance law. How? By making and selling guns that criminals want to buy, they create a nuisance to the public. It is this third approach that gun owners fear most: once you start to hurt an industry's bottomline, change happens.

Guns and America: two words which occur together so often, most think it has always been so. Yet a brief look at history reveals the opposite. America's love affair with weapons blossomed after the Civil War, 150 years ago. When the war ended, the only gun manufacturer at the time realized his profits would shrink if he did not do something fast. So he began a marketing campaign, convincing Americans that owning a gun was a good thing. As we see today, it worked; guns are accepted in the USA as a fact of life. When a tragedy occurs - a woman shooting another woman dead after a fight in traffic - no one asks why she had a gun in the first place. They ask only whether she was right to shoot or not. Until the perspective changes, the debate will rage on.

Karolyn Andrews