The Bible Belt South has always been in awe of Virginia. When my grandfather described his mother as being ‘Virginia-bred’, to our ears he might as well have been saying ‘our people’ were kin to the Queen of England. When I made pencil rubbings of my nickels, I always started on the Monticello side, Thomas Jefferson’s country house on a Virginia mountaintop. To this day, I believe that the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, founded by Jefferson in 1819, gives Oxford and Cambridge a run for its architectural money.
Before we could read, we knew the state of Virginia was named after Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, and that Jamestown, the desolate, marshy site of the first English settlement, was named after her successor, James I. Somewhere along the way, we also learnt that the English colonists who settled at Jamestown introduced guns to the North American continent, although we knew in our savage country hearts that the arrows of the Indians, carved from bone and stone, were faster and more accurate than the English muskets.
In fact, the principal value of the guns was to intimidate the natives. One of the written directives of the Virginia Company, the high-risk venture capitalists who put up the cash for the expedition, had been never to let novices shoot in the presence of the natives, for ‘if they see your learners miss what they aim at, they will think the weapon not so terrible, and thereby will be bould to assault you’.
That nugget of historical spin wasn’t taught in my history lessons. While a crazy lone gunman was making his way through a campus in Virginia, killing his fellow students in what the writer Lionel Shriver calls an ‘extroverted suicide’, I was reading a book called Savage Kingdom: Virginia and the Founding of English America. It’s a heart-breaking story of perilous and pestilential conditions, of bitter animosities and gruesome deaths, of meagre houses huddled together against the Indians and the weather and the unknown.
Perhaps it’s stretching the historical truth to say that America’s gun problem is older than America, that it began when the English colonists took the guns out of their packing cases. But the notion of every man’s right to own a gun was planted on Virginian soil from the beginning. With-out the guns, the colonists couldn’t have wiped out the Indians, couldn’t have claimed the land and named it for a queen. They weren’t carpenters or farmers or blacksmiths or cooks. Their only common skill was pulling a trigger and they soon understood that their lives depended on it.
The next few weeks might see a shuffling of feet, a cry for greater gun control, especially as the realisation that background checks?the only gun law on the books in the US?isn’t enough to prevent a massacre. Nothing will happen because Democrats are as scared of the gun lobby as the Republicans.
But I’d like to think that Britain could show Americans what it is like to live in a country where gun ownership is tightly controlled. After Dunblane, a law was passed making handguns illegal. I reckon it’s saved a lot of lives. But now illegal handguns are making parts of London like American inner cities. Whatever it is ?law, politics, fear?that makes the police hesitant to stop and search, to plug the holes that allow these guns into the country, needs to be tackled, and tackled fast. One thing that the tragedy in Virginia has proved is that guns kill people.