It is impossible to write anything about what happens in America without being accused of some nefarious bias. It is almost as bad as writing about Israel. So let me start with a little story.

When I was about six weeks old I was taken to Westminster Cathedral to be baptised. This sounds rather a grand place to be baptised, but my father was working there as the assistant organist at the time so I suppose this was a perk.

Photo: Duncanh1, via Flickr.

The event was intended to be a tandem christening – I have a twin brother – and our uncle Philip was going to be godfather to both of us. At the last minute the officiating priest announced that it was against the rules for both of us to have the same godfather. No other men were present except my father, who then ran outside in search of a man — any man — who would be willing to stand in at no notice as my godfather.

The man who answered the call on the pavement outside was an American serviceman by the name of Floyd Puckett, who was still in London having done his bit in the licking of Hitler. In honour of his kindness I was given his name as my middle one. So I am reminded of the American gift for spontaneous generosity every time I look at my full name.

Having said which, you guys are crazy about guns. Have you noticed, by the way, that while “mankind” has been outlawed as a bit of male chauvinism, “guys” has become a perfectly acceptable downmarket replacement for “people” even though in its original usage it meant men. In “Guys and Dolls” the women are the dolls.

But I digress. Guns. The latest school massacre brought bubbling to the top of my YouTube feed some things I had not realised were going on before.

Many American schools now hold an “active shooter drill” about as often as they hold a fire drill. In an active shooter drill you rehearse procedure for shots being fired in your school.

The teacher is supposed to lock the classroom door, block the window in it, if there is one, and usher you all to the far side of the room. This does not actually guarantee safety. The high-powered rifle sported by serious active shooters will put a bullet straight through the door and anyone who is cringing on the far side of the room behind it. But at least he has to guess.

The problem with this is that the active shooter drill is the converse of the fire drill. In case of fire you are to leave the building as quickly as possible. In the active shooter incident this is a possibly fatal mistake. In the latest case the active shooter took advantage of this by setting off the fire alarm before he started, thereby creating what might in less lethal circumstances be considered an interesting dilemma.

A more developed variation on the “active shooter drill” is the “active shooter exercise”, a dress rehearsal for the local police force. This has teenagers splattered with stage blood playing dead in the school corridors while cops in full SWAT gear stride over them in search of a culprit.

I find all this quite shocking, to be honest. Nothing at all like this went on in the rural grammar school where I passed my high school years. The depths of Sussex are quiet. But is there another country in the world where schoolchildren are prepared as a matter of course for the arrival of a deranged gunman in the hall?

Watching this buzz-cut Pasionaria tearing verbal lumps out of her local politicians through a veil of tears – I felt the distant internal disturbance of a few long-neglected memory cells climbing reluctantly to their feet.

After a few days I remembered that when I was roughly her age, I also participated in a school protest. This was against the Cuban missile crisis, which is now a distant piece of history for most people but at the time was seasoned with the knowledge that if it all want pear-shaped we on the wrong side of the Atlantic would get four minutes warning of the arrival of Russian missiles.

Of course this was in a sense not so personal. We had not lost friends . But I think there is a common underlying theme. If adults are going to exhort us to plan and work and sacrifice for the future then they have an obligation to ensure with some degree of certainty that there will be a future and we will be in it. Otherwise what is the point?

Well it would be an abuse of language to imply that America’s schools are a war zone, despite the President’s appalling suggestion that the answer to the active shooter problem is to arm teachers. Florida is not Syria.

But then you look at calm collections of the facts like this one – from which I spotted the following chart:

And the interesting additional snippet that according to CNN, “The US makes up less than 5% of the world’s population, but holds 31% of global mass shooters.”

You then have to conclude that America’s gun laws are crazy. Then you will be told that it is none of your business, that you don’t understand American culture, and the right to bear arms is protected in the Constitution, so that is that.

Well it is none of our business. But then the way things are in Hong Kong is none of your business. Generally we both enjoy the right to comment, subject only to the hope that the comment will be well-intentioned.

This is not really a cultural matter. The obdurate fact is that international comparisons show very clearly the incidence of gun violence in a country is directly proportional to the number of guns in circulation. If you have on average more than one gun per person then the levels of gun violence will be stunningly high. There is nothing cultural about this. The workings of cause and effect are obvious.

I understand people who find guns exciting and interesting, as I do myself. But if this thought leads to the conclusion that everyone should have one then it’s a killer.

As for the Constitution, well, nothing is perfect. Amendments can be amended. Laws can be changed. Numbers can be reduced. Lives can be saved. And until, that happens I am afraid overseas observers will look at your beautiful country, shake their heads, and say, “wonderful place … nice people … pity about the gun thing.”


Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.