07/31/2012 01:00 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2012

Self-Preservation or Principles: A UK Perspective on the U.S. Gun Debate

In the wake of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, there have been the predictable cries for tighter gun controls, and the standard incredulous noises coming from some British commentators about how remarkably easy it is for crazy Americans to get hold of guns. Yet after the Cumbria shootings in 2010 and events in Norway last year, it's clear that even in countries with some of the strictest firearms laws, safety from shooting rampages is by no means guaranteed.

The worst shooting spree in British history (at least in terms of the age of the victims) was Scotland's Dunblane massacre in March 1996. Thomas Hamilton, a former Scout leader, had walked into Dunblane Primary School near Stirling with four handguns and opened fire, killing sixteen children aged between five and six years old who were taking a PE class along with the teacher who tried to protect them. In a nearby room which the killer had walked past on the way to the gymnasium, the future world number two tennis player Andy Murray, who was eight at the time, hid under a desk as the shots rang out. After Dunblane, the ownership of practically all handguns became illegal, and made the UK's already strict gun control laws among the tightest in the world.

Many years after the massacre, however, it became apparent that the existing firearms legislation at the time should have been adequate, and ought to have resulted in Hamilton's weapons licenses being revoked following complaints about him from parents and children. But due to failings by police and other public agencies he was able to hang on to his two .357 Magnum revolvers and two Browning 9mm pistols. Dunblane highlighted the drawbacks associated with any type of gun control regime, where the effectiveness of the measures in place ultimately hinges on how well they are enforced.

It's certainly true that in the UK we do have a greater sense of reassurance that a bullied teenager or failed graduate student won't be able to take their sense of grievance to a whole new level with a Glock or an assault weapon. However, many British commentators make the mistake of viewing the U.S. debate on firearms through the prism of our largely gun-free culture, failing to recognize what Andrew Sullivan calls America's "unique DNA" when it comes to guns.

Far from leading to curbs on guns, massacres such as Virginia Tech have even led some students to call for the right to carry concealed weapons on college premises. A friend of mine from Germany who is a professor at a university in Virginia summed up the different mindset compared to Europe: "We have student groups here on campus demanding to carry guns for protection, and at one of their rallies, which featured a speaker from the NRA, the first 15 RSVPs got free ammunition!" It seems that the gun genie has been out of the bottle for so long in the US that there are no simple solutions when it comes to shoving it back in.

One obvious question raised by the student campaigns to carry concealed weapons is whether the death tolls in any of these massacres would have been lower if the teachers, tutors or moviegoers had been able to shoot back? This is the contention of gun rights advocates who maintain that getting more guns into the hands of sensible people represents the best way to counter the threat posed by the crazy minority. It's definitely a good way to sell more weapons, and when gun laws in some states are so weak that police lacked the power to revoke a man's firearms license even when his own father warned that he was a danger, the NRA's rather shameless strategy of encouraging more gun ownership to counter the fear of guns is going to resonate with some.

Against Kevlar, though, it is far from clear whether carrying a gun will deliver anything but peace of mind. If Aurora was a foretaste of shooting sprees to come, then one of the most troubling developments was the perpetrator's use of full body armor, which can have no justification other than to prevent law enforcement from dealing with the threat. Body armor also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the NRA's hypothetical Good Samaritan with a gun to take out the heavily armed shooters carrying out attacks of this type. But then try telling that to the people in Colorado and many other states who have rushed out to buy guns since the shooting.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. While people in the West have had to get used to the security-related stress associated with airports and flying, the idea of not being safe in a movie theater -- where one goes to escape reality -- pushes all the most instinctive emotional buttons in anyone seeking ways to protect themselves or their children. If the government can't stop potentially deranged individuals getting guns and letting loose during a movie, even those opposed to the NRA agenda might well conclude that in a country awash with almost 300 million guns, they'd rather choose self-preservation over political principles, and carry a weapon to even the odds.

Mitigating the side effects of gun ownership by having to carry guns is surely the most maddening corollary of the Second Amendment. Recognizing this paradox is the key to understanding why guns are always going to be the problem for some Americans and the solution for others.