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By Richard Wallace, US Editor

THE blood was barely dry on the sidewalks in and around Washington DC when 18-year-old Daniel Fears shot two people dead and wounded eight others in Oklahoma because a neighbour criticised his driving.

Hapless pundits were still unravelling the murderous motives of the sniper killings when Robert Flores, 41, gunned down three professors at an Arizona nursing school then turned the weapon on himself because he'd failed his course.

And Thriller Killer suspects John Muhammad and Lee Malvo were kicking their heels in a maximum security facility just seven miles from where an anonymous young man was found shot dead in a West Baltimore street in the early hours after an apparent robbery.

Inexplicably America's masochistic love affair with the gun continues.

FBI figures released on Monday show that two-thirds of America's 15,980 murders last year were by the gun.

After the extraordinary horrors of the past three weeks one would expect the issue to be at least on America's political radar, especially with mid-term elections less than a week away.

Wrong. Completely wrong. Apart from the odd - and predictable - liberal newspaper columnist chuntering into his beard over the issue, the rest of the US seems to have suffered a bizarre collective amnesia.

Americans are fighting every day against a tidal wave of crime, against random acts of violence by screwed-up psychos who let some illogical hatred or perceived slight fester - then go out and buy a gun from the nearest supermarket and start blasting. It is, after all, the nutcase's constitutional right.

But there is no apparent desire to grasp the nettle, to take the politicians and the gun manufacturers to task. And so the bodies continue to pile up.

There are 200 million guns in private hands in the US - more than all the guns in all the armies in the world.

One million weapons alone are in the hands of students, some of whom take the guns to school or college each day.

Every year around 35,000 deaths are as a result of guns.

On average, a child a day dies in gun-related incidents, and it's predicted that the rate will overtake child deaths in car accidents within five years.

American children are 12 times more likely to die from firearms than those in any other supposedly civilised nation. Overall, the highest firearms death rate is for men aged between 20 and 24, with 30 in every 100,000 dying from a bullet.

There are an average 38 "rampage killings" every year - incidents where individuals just run amok shooting at anybody and anything.

The Thriller Killers have joined the club. The cost to the American taxpayer in medical care, disability and actual death is a breathtaking $150billion (100billion) a year, yet there is no significant movement to ban or even reduce access to weapons.

For many Americans, including the 4.3 million members of the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has a $180million (120million) annual war-chest, the right to bear arms is not only enshrined in the constitution, it is a key civil liberty.

The right was born out of the War of Independence when armed militias had the right to protect property and people.

But that was more than 200 years ago.

Gun control campaigners say the case for scrapping what they regard as an anachronistic right is now overwhelming. It was particularly grotesque that, as the Washington DC sniper or snipers went about their murderous business, screen legend Charlton Heston continued a nationwide tour of cheering NRA rallies, delivering his sick catchphrase: "From these cold dead hands," as he raised a rifle aloft.

Alzheimer's or no Alzheimer's, Heston and his cronies showed no respect or concern for their fellow Americans.

The people whose freedoms they brazenly claim to defend were living in terror and they were out celebrating the very tool of that terror. Shameful, even by their standards.

Because NRA members hold the balance of power in a number of key states neither major political party has been brave enough to take them on.

This enables the NRA to avoid blame while pointing the finger elsewhere - normally with a not-so-subtle racial codedness about "criminal elements".

Despite the evidence, polls show the American public is remarkably schizophrenic in its attitudes to the gun.

While 80 per cent would like to see tighter controls, only 36 per cent would back a move to outlaw guns completely.

SOME states allow the purchase of both rifles and handguns without any form of prior licence, usually in rural communities where guns are part of the fabric of society.

Others have totally banned the carrying of handguns and are moving against "concealed weapons".

Opponents argue that people have a right to protect themselves, but statistics show that a gun kept at home is 43 times more likely to kill a member of the household, or a friend, than an intruder.

Nobody really knows the numbers of rogue weapons that go unregistered in America.

There are around 340,000 reported firearms thefts each year. Those guns, the overwhelming number of which were manufactured and purchased legally, are now in the hands of criminals.

The old credo: "When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns," is redundant. The guns bought legally are sold or stolen, and can then be used for crime.

If those 340,000 guns were never sold or owned in the first place, there would be 340,000 fewer weapons in the hands of criminals every year.

But logic has never driven the argument in this most controversial of issues.

After all, for John Muhammad and Lee Malvo there was no need to trawl the underworld for their weapon of choice.

Muhammad is alleged to have walked into a Washington state gun shop and bought one over the counter. Just like that. No questions asked.

What a country.

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