Byline: James Fenton VIEW FROM AMERICA
AS THE bulletins came in from West Cumbria on Wednesday afternoon, a key phrase cropped up as soon as the information permitted it: the killer acted "before turning the weapon on himself ". This gave us the key to the kind of story we were listening to.
A man goes out on a killing spree which will end, it is understood, either with his suicide or with his death at the hands of the law. Such a man plans such a day as if it is going to be his last.
It is a rare story in Britain, as has been emphasised. In the US it is much more common, and everyone knows why. In Britain, the overwhelming consensus favours strict control of personal weapons.
In America, one of the two major parties most vigorously opposes it, and this political opposition is a popular cause and rallying cry.
You would think that since September 11 2001 all efforts would have been made to prevent terrorists from acquiring weapons. Yet only last month the gun lobby was insisting that terrorist suspects who had been placed on a "no-fly" list should nevertheless not be denied the right to buy and bear arms.
And the Republicans have no problem with this.
The chairman of the Republican National Committee, Michael Steele, said last year that "whenever they can, wherever they can, the Democrats want to turn away the rights of lawabiding citizens to own and purchase a gun -- a right that is guaranteed under the United States constitution."
He went on: "It is ironic, to say the least, that at the same time Democrats in Congress are threatening to deny Americans their second amendment rights to own a firearm and defend their families and homes, they are considering bringing terrorists such as 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed and other al Qaeda detainees to our communities once President Obama follows through his campaign promise to close Guantanamo Bay."
In other words, upholding a suspected terrorist's right to bear arms is OK. Transferring him to prison in the States is not.
This key difference between Britain and the US has a direct bearing on those who, for whatever reason, are driven by a desperate hatred and anger to stage their own personal Armageddon.
In Britain, they act alone. In the US, they have an ideological context: they can believe they are acting as free men.
In Britain there seems to be no exact equivalent of the case of Jerry Kane who, last month, shot and killed two police officers who pulled over his white van for a traffic stop. Kane and his son, who were themselves killed shortly afterwards by the police, had been touring the country speaking to meetings.
Kane's pitch was to those facing bankruptcy and mortgage foreclosure, and his message was that, because the lending banks used a fraudulent procedure (according to his arcane reasoning), no one was obliged to pay their loans. …