11 Feb 2013

In Texas with the gun-lovers

Asia Correspondent

It’s hard for gun-phobic Brits to get their heads around America’s love affair with guns – so I went to Texas to hear some locals explain it in their own words.

It was the disconcertingly matter-of-fact manner in which Ashley recounted what had happened that made what she told me so shocking.

“It was the summer of my freshman year,” she began. “I’d gone to visit my boyfriend in Dallas. After a late-night movie, we had gone driving up a hill. Another guy came up behind us in a truck. He had a gun and he came up to the window wanting a wallet. We didn’t have much… 20 bucks.”

They handed over the money. But this was just the start of their ordeal. Ashley continued, deadpan; no pauses.

“After that he ended up taking me away and left my boyfriend tied up in the truck and lit it on fire. He took me to a different location, where he raped me. I tried to get away. That’s when he shot me.”

The gunshot, she said, entered her lower leg, went through her thigh and into her stomach.

“How on earth did you get away?” I asked.

“I played dead, waited for him to drive away, then walked to where I could get some help, about a mile away.”

“Walked? You’re kidding.”

She wasn’t. In Texas, they make ’em tough.

Ashley is now a fourth grade teacher. (And in case you’re wondering, like I was, her then boyfriend – now husband – survived.) We filmed Ashley reading stories in English class to her clutch of 10-year-olds, in Little River Academy, Bell County. She was caring and gentle with the children, protective.

And it was her protective instincts that led to my meeting Ashley in the first place. She stuck out from the others. It was her posture: slightly hunched; focused; arms straight, hands steady; her eyes, shaded by a baseball cap, fixed on the target. She squeezed the trigger on the instructor’s command: “Fire!”

“Are you not a bit scared of guns now?” I asked afterwards, as Ashley rolled up her target, an orange, male silhouette, now with a cluster of holes in his chest.

“No. I grew up around guns. I feel they are important for protection.”

And would she use hers, I asked, if some maniac started killing kids in her classroom?

“Oh definitely. I feel like even if they’re not my children, they are still my kids, that I need to protect. Seems as though as soon as a good guy with a gun shows up, the bad guys with the guns then to flee.”

That echo of Wayne LaPierre, CEO of the National Rifle Association – the powerful US “gunners” lobby group – has become a mantra for the apparently huge number of Texans who believe that only riposte to gun violence is putting more guns in the right people’s hands.

People like Ashley, or people like Gloria, a fifty-something physics teacher and the hundred-or-so other teachers I watched being trained in “concealed carry” one Sunday morning last month. All of them were convinced that ending the weapons ban in America’s schools would end the campus killing epidemic.

 Since the Sandy Hook school killings in December, there has been a rush among teachers in Texas to gain their firearms licence. Already, at least one Texan school has permitted concealed carry by teachers in classrooms; others are sure to follow. There are similar moves afoot in six other states.

I was sent to Texas to try to get into the heads of the followers of Wayne LaPierre; not just teachers, obviously, but those who believe the time has come to stand and fight. To fight the bad guys and to fight what they think is Barack Obama’s misconceived notion that gun control is the answer.

Read more: FactCheck on guns in America

With 300 million guns already in circulation, and with many of those in the wrong people’s hands, the Texan “gunners” are those who think their right to fight back is second only to their precious second amendment – that gives them the right to bear arms in the first place.

Hundreds of them turned up outside the Texan State Capitol building a couple of weeks ago to celebrate Gun Appreciation Day. Speaker after speaker regurgitated stats and clichés extolling this right to bear arms – all to thunderous applause. Their children ran around sporting T-shirts and banners emblazoned with the slogans of gun-love.

And I’ll bet you that none of them gave a thought, on that sunny afternoon, to one astonishing irony: their pro-gun rally was taking place within eye-shot of the site of the very first campus massacre of the modern American era.

On 1st August 1966, an ex-marine and engineering student at the Texas State University in Austin, called Charles Joseph Whitman, climbed to the 28th floor observation deck of the campus bell tower. He was armed with seven guns, spare magazines and boxes of ammunition. He had a bolt-action hunting rifle, a semi-automatic 12-guage shotgun, an M1 Carbine, a Smith and Wesson revolver, a Luger pistol and a Magnum.

By the end of his shooting spree, the Texas Belltower Sniper – as he was dubbed – had shot dead 15 people and an unborn child and wounded 32. Texas and America were in shock. An Austin shopkeeper was quoted in a local paper as saying: “He was our initiation into a terrible time.”

How prophetic those words seemed to me as I interviewed a former Texan state legislator called Suzanna Hupp, in the garden of the Capitol. She had survived a massacre herself, 20 years ago. Her parents had been executed by a crazed gunman who’d entered a café just north of Austin and shot dead 23 people. But like Ashley – the teacher – Suzanna did not think restricting gun ownership would end this American affliction.

She wished she’d had her gun in the café that day. She’d have fought back, she said, and that would at least have changed the odds, as she put it. More guns, less crime, she believes; simple as that. She went on to spend six terms in the Texan state legislature authoring bills aimed at removing any remaining restrictions on the right of Texans to carry guns.

For more of Jonathan Miller’s pictures from Texas, click here

It’s hard for gun-phobic Brits to get their heads round what a friend of mine brands “America’s blind spot.” Around 10,000 firearms murders a year; nearly ten times that many shot and wounded; and still they say more guns are the answer!

If you don’t get it, watch my report and listen to these lovely, generous, warm-hearted gun-toting Texans spell out their convictions in their own words. Then make your judgement.

Follow @millerC4 on Twitter and watch the Channel 4 News special reports, Guns in America, this week.