Europe awoke yesterday to the horrifying news of yet another mass shooting in an American education institution.
The shootings at Virginia Tech University, which claimed the lives of 33 people, registered as America's deadliest peacetime shooting incident.
Police say the gunman was Cho Seung-Hui, a young English major student from South Korea, whom a university official has described as ‘a loner’.
Not much is known about the mental state of this man, but what is already clear is that these events have sparked a new level of debate on the vexed issue of gun rights in America.
Outside the USA, people are left to wonder how the world's most prosperous country and one which is billed as the world's model democracy can allow events like this to take place.
If this were the first such event, things might be different; but we all remember the mass killings at Columbine high school just a few years ago and others before that.
From an American point of view, there are two fundamental issues involved.
The first has to do with the second amendment to the US Constitution. It states that: ‘A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a Free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.’
There are two interpretations of this clause. The gun lobby says that it clearly gives every citizen the right to carry arms, including modern high-tech weaponry.
The anti-gun groups say that it refers only to the bearing of arms within a well-regulated citizen militia. The founding fathers, they claim, were simply ensuring that America could always raise a volunteer army -- something the British had refused to let them do.
Opponents of gun rights also point out that even if the founding fathers intended people to have the right to bear arms, outside of a militia, the amendment was written for 18th-century conditions, in a world of muskets not semiautomatics.
The second issue from an American point of view is just as important -- and it is often missed by most of us living beyond American shores. It is the issue of states’ versus federal rights.
In the American system, states have the power to make many laws, including those covering gun ownership. As long as those laws are deemed by the courts to be constitutional, the federal government cannot interfere.
For many Americans, the issue of gun ownership is one of states’ rights. They are suspicious of what they fear could become an ultra-strong central government in Washington. By this thinking, to limit gun ownership is to deny states their rights to govern – and to threaten the grass-roots nature of democracy.
At the end of the day, however, all that matters is the preservation of human life. The only way forward is for state governments to have the courage to put an end to the farce of gun ownership in a country where senseless violence by a few is ruining the lives of the many.
Federal figures must lend their weight to such a stand and the Supreme Court, America’s protector of the constitution, must be willing to back it up.
Wiping out gun ownership would not be an easy thing to do. There are an estimated 200 million guns in private ownership in America today. One in three families possesses at least one gun. However, a radical stand must be made before the problem gets worse.
While most of America's politicians have focused on the threat of terrorism to Homeland Security, a new breed of political minds must arise with a commitment to ending the threat of violence in-house.
The gunning down of students as they prepare for a day of lectures, by one of their own, is just as horrific as the blowing up of buildings by terrorist groups from outside the country.
The principle that must guide Americans forward has nothing to do with the right to bear arms; it is about the right to life. The bottom line must be: human life is the most precious gift on earth, one we should fight to protect at all costs.
We should never be surprised that human beings are capable of horrendous evil and laws on their own will not end violence. It takes a fundamental heart change, a shift in the spiritual condition of the individual, to bring about a true end to violence.
Yet laws can and do serve to limit the behaviour of people who would otherwise be free to act out their inner turmoil in violent behaviour.
We can but hope that America's leaders will do the right thing and, even if public opinion in the longer-term seems against them, begin the process of removing guns from everyday life.