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United States: Sandy Hook lessons

Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Ana. Dylan. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. James. Grace. Emilie. Jack. Noah. Caroline. Jessica. Benjamin. Avielle. Allison. In an especially emotional moment during a prayer vigil, Barack Obama read out the first names of the 20 children killed in the December 14 school shoot-out in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. The children were all six or seven years old. Six adults at the school were also killed, including the principal, who died trying to save her charges.
The shooting has shocked a country long accustomed to gun violence. There were a dozen mass shootings in 2012. Last summer, murderous gun rampages occurred at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and at a cinema in Colorado. President Obama’s visit to Sandy Hook was the fourth time he has been to a community devastated in this way. Fighting tears, an unusually emotional Obama said in an address to the nation that action is needed, “regardless of the politics”.

Since the shooting, more than 180,000 Americans have petitioned the White House to introduce gun-control legislation. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Warner of Virginia — both given A ratings by the National Rifle Association (NRA) — are now calling for gun control. But reformers have a huge task ahead of them. According to one survey, roughly a third of all American households own firearms. Three-quarters of them own more than one. Around 300 million guns are in circulation, about one for every person in the country.

Any serious new gun-control law is likely to face opposition from the NRA. The lobby group has bragged that it defeated 19 of the 24 congressmen it targeted in 1994. The NRA kept a low profile the week following the attack, though it promised a statement which would make “meaningful contributions” towards gun safety. Others have acted already: California’s legislature moved to require a licence for anyone buying ammunition, and Cerberus Capital, a private equity group, said it will sell its stake in the firm which made the semi-automatic rifle used in Sandy Hook.

Michael Bloomberg, New York’s anti-gun mayor, recently urged President Obama to introduce legislation. If the president fails to act, Bloomberg forecasts that 48,000 Americans will be murdered by guns during his second term — several times more Americans than died on September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. Tightening existing laws would be a start. The 1994 Brady Bill, named after Ronald Reagan’s press spokesman who was critically injured in an assassination attempt, prompted federal background checks for gun purchases. The refusal rate is very low, just 0.6 percent of the 157 million checks processed. Besides, 40 percent of firearms purchases are not from licenced gun-dealers but from gun shows, and do not require even this background check. That is one change that may well now be made.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida, has called for a study on how to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill. This distracts from the main issue of gun control, but it is true that gunmen in recent mass shootings have indeed been mentally ill. A federal law is already on the books to prevent dangerous mentally-ill people from buying guns. Not all such people are included in national background-check databases, however. The Virginia Tech shooter, who killed 32 people, had recorded problems of that sort which his state did not send to the federal database.

Adam Lanza, the 20-year-old gunman at Sandy Hook, did not submit himself to a background check. His mother legally bought and owned the Bushmaster and the two other guns he carried. She was his first victim. He shot her in the face numerous times and took her weapons before he went to the school.

Obama has said he will act within weeks. He should follow the example of America’s friends. In 1996, a massacre in a Scottish school in Dunblane killed 16 children and one teacher. The next year the private ownership of most handguns was banned in Britain. Also that year John Howard, Australia’s conservative prime minister, ushered in a semi-automatic-weapon ban a fortnight after 35 were killed in a gun massacre in Tasmania. If similar laws had been in effect in Sandy Hook, some of those lost might have lived. Instead, last Christmas, parents attended the funerals for six and seven-year-olds.

Home schooling revolution

Every morning five-year-old tristan starts his school day by reading in bed with his mother. He especially likes Enid Blyton. And quite often he doesn’t bother to get out of his pyjamas in time for his first class of the day. But at age five he has a reading age of between seven and eight. He is also ahead of his peers in a variety of subjects — all, his mother reckons, due to home schooling.

Three decades ago, home schooling was illegal in 30 states of the US. It was considered a fringe phenomenon, pursued by cranks, and parents who tried it were often persecuted and sometimes jailed. Today it is legal everywhere, and is probably the fastest growing form of education in America. According to a new book, Home Schooling in America, by Joseph Murphy, a professor at Vanderbilt University, 10,000-15,000 children were taught at home in 1975. Today around 2 million are — about the same number as attend charter schools.

Although home schooling started on the counter-cultural left, the conservative right has done most to promote it, abandoning public (government) schools for being too secular and providing no moral framework. Today the ranks of home-schoolers are overwhelmingly Christian, and 78 percent of parents attend church frequently. According to a National Household Education Survey, 2007, the main motivation for home schooling was for religious or moral instruction (36 percent), followed by school environment (21 percent) and the quality of instruction available (17 percent). After this comes concerns about special education, the distance of travel and even nut allergies.

Home schooling is not exclusively white and Christian. In 2007, a report found that Muslim children were one of the fastest-growing groups; black home schoolers are around 4 percent of the total and comprised 61,000 children. The super-wealthy, and parents who must move around a lot, are also taking up home schooling in increasing numbers because of its flexibility.

According to Murphy, the movement is all part of the breakdown of American schooling from public monopoly. Home schooling, he says, “is the most radical form of privatisation”. Public schools can do little but co-operate these days, and most offer access to school facilities, websites, books and other materials. Some even allow home-schoolers to take specialist courses — allowing the school to tap into a portion of public financing they would otherwise lose entirely. Home schooling still has its enemies, but pragmatism is becoming the order of the day.

(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist)