Hours after a gunman shot dead 20 primary school children in Sandy Hook, I stood with Monsignor Robert Weiss as he told me how he had waited with parents as the survivors were sheltered and released into their parents’ arms. He then stayed on with those parents whose children didn’t come back at all.
He knew the children well. Six years earlier he’d baptised eight of them. Days later he would begin to bury them. Today, no doubt, his thoughts will be with another community in Texas, where more families will be confronting the same needless horror.
After the first funerals, I returned home to my young family in Washington DC in December 2012, haunted by the experience far more than by the five other mass shootings I had covered as the US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
In the months that followed Sandy Hook, I reported on renewed effort to pass gun control measures.
Some time that year my two year-old developed a fear of tigers. Using the few words he had at his disposal, he talked about it from his high chair at dinner and sometimes again at bedtime.
We presumed it came from a story someone had read to him and dismissed it, but the fear lingered long enough for me to mention it one day as I dropped him off at the daycare centre he happily attended a couple of days each week.
The teacher explained she’d been running her little charges through survival drills. When she told the kids “the tiger” was coming, they had to huddle in a small room under her stairs in silence until she gave them the all-clear.
The drill was based on instructions issued after the September 11 attacks in 2001, but it had been adapted for shootings. Across the country, worried teachers were doing the same thing, just as school boards considered armouring doors and a cottage industry sprang up selling bulletproof school bags large enough for the smallest students to shelter behind.
Then US president Barack Obama visited Sandy Hook a few days after the shooting on December 14, 2012 and wept at a vigil in the school hall as he read the names and ages of the dead. I watched on with a crowd of journalists in a bar on the main street. I remember the sound of strangled weeping mingling with the hum of fridges during the long pauses in Obama’s fine oratory.
He had already instructed his vice president, Joe Biden, to lead a push to introduce meaningful federal gun law reform.
Biden’s efforts to ban semi-automatic rifles and introduce mandatory background checks for all gun purchases failed, opposed by the National Rifle Association and the politicians the organisation both funded and menaced.
A year after the shooting, a gun control group did a survey of state laws passed in response to Sandy Hook. It found 64 state gun control laws had passed around the country while 70 pro-gun laws had also been enacted.
They included a so-called “guns everywhere” law passed in Georgia that allowed permit holders to carry firearms into airport security zones without penalty, as well as into bars, nightclubs, classrooms and certain government buildings. Similar laws were passed around the country, including in Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
The gun control movement was so thoroughly beaten that it no longer sought to entirely ban any category of weapon – not the cheap handguns common in street crime, not the military-style semi-automatic rifles favoured by mass-murderers and by gun rights enthusiasts.
As Dan Gross, the president of one of the nation’s leading gun-control groups, the Brady Centre to Prevent Gun Violence put it to me at the time, “We don’t want to see some guns banned from all people, but all guns banned from some people”.
Which is to say the best his organisation hoped for was the background checks that Congress had already given up on.
Gun control is now a settled issue in America.
A powerful minority of Americans believe that the horror now unfolding in Texas is a price worth paying for their unfettered right to bear arms.
The rest watch on with mounting grief and impotent rage.
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