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Bang Bang 

Gun culture rules the roost

The chap in front of me carried three semi-automatic rifles to the airport check-in. Three. I find it bizarre that a human being would want even one of these killing machines, let alone three.

They were obviously well used, with scarred and scratched stocks and well-oiled mechanisms. With a bored gesture, the airline clerk asked the gun owner to open the breech of each weapon to insure, I suppose, that there wasn't a live round in the chamber. There were plenty of ammunition clips in the cases, however.

The guns looked like the publicized pictures of the Washington sniper's weapon. Coming close on the heels of that tragedy, a shiver of apprehension rippled through the line of waiting passengers as the gunslinger casually hefted his weapons. No security guards seemed to take the slightest interest in this show of lethal firepower. Behind me, a tall bespectacled man in a business suit shuddered. "I'm from D.C.," he said. "It makes me nervous to see rifles like that waved around in public."

I filed away this unsettling incident in the compartment of my mind marked "Only in America." One certainly would never see such an incident in a European airport. In some African dictator's hell-hole perhaps, or Afghanistan, or the Middle East. But this was middle America, with families and young children standing around.

Only that morning I had woken to the news that a disgruntled Oklahoma teenager, annoyed with a neighbor for telling him to drive more slowly down the street where kids were playing, pulled a gun, shot the man and his two-year old daughter in their yard, and then went on a killing spree in the neighborhood. By the time I had deplaned in Charlotte, a nursing student in Arizona who was licensed to carry a concealed weapon had shot and killed three professors who had given him bad grades.

Sadly, gun violence happens everywhere. Terrible incidents in Scotland and Germany claimed the lives of many schoolchildren. In Paris, a madman killed several members of a suburban city council. Such incidents are often cited in this country by the NRA and their minions to "prove" that tough gun laws serve no purpose. But these tragedies are isolated incidents, and gun deaths in Europe are a tiny fraction of America's carnage. An average European would be more likely to scale the Eiffel Tower than to have a gun at home. It's simply not a concept that relates to people's everyday lives.

To be sure, farmers often have shotguns, strictly licensed and kept under lock and key, for use on the farm. Farming's a tough life, and not one that I'm cut out for. Many years ago, back in England, I was friends with a farmer who asked me to accompany him one fine summer's evening to flush out badgers who were thought to be carrying a bovine virus that was sickening his cows. He handed me a shotgun, showed me how to use it (I wasn't a complete novice, having shot in my school rifle club many years previously) and we set off across the fields beneath a glorious sunset. As we reached the copse at the brow of the hill where the badgers were thought to have their set, we split up.

"If you see the buggers, shoot "em!" commanded my friend. An early moon cast a pale light across the landscape. Given my lack of woodcraft, it was ironic, and hugely surprising, to find myself at the edge of a moonlit clearing, downwind of the unsuspecting badger family. I watched, fascinated, as the cubs played in the long grass under the watchful gaze of the parents. The shotgun weighed heavy in my arms. I picked the cartridges from my pocket and was about to slip them into the breech when I realized there was no way I could shoot these defenseless animals. I crept away, but a clumsy footfall alerted the badgers and they vanished into the undergrowth.

I should have kept quiet about the incident, but when I rejoined my farming friend on the other side of the wood, I confessed my inability to shoot. He was furious.

"You stupid bugger!" he yelled, his face turning crimson. "If them bloody vermin infect my cows, it'll all be your fault! You . . . you . . ." He searched for an appropriate epithet of derision. "You bloody townie!"

Guilty as charged. There is a distinctly different value system between townies and country folk. I abhor the hunting ethos, where people gain pleasure from killing animals with sophisticated hi-tech rifles. Where's the "sport" in that? In response, the hunter will waste little time in pointing out the urban hypocrisy of eating meat butchered purely for our culinary pleasure.

There's little middle ground. But I stick to my guns. I believe that killing a defenseless animal from a distance, with overpowering force, is a brutal and cowardly act. I wondered, as I boarded the plane, what kind of person gained pleasure from owning three deadly weapons, fashioned with only one purpose in mind: to kill. Somewhere, buried deep in the psyche, must be a desire to extinguish a life.

I was careful to sit where I could observe my fellow passenger.

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