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Wednesday, April 21, 1999 Published at 05:16 GMT 06:16 UK

World: Americas

Denver massacre reignites gun debate

The "right to bear arms" is cherished by many Americans

Just over a year ago Americans recoiled in horror at news of a shooting at a school in Jonesboro, Arkansas, in which four students and a teacher were killed.

The BBC's Mark Connolly says: "Even small gun control measures have been blocked"
Politicians, churchmen and media pundits all vowed to make sure that nothing like Jonesboro would ever happen again.

That was in March 1998.

On 20 April 1999 Americans were again rocked by a horrific school massacre.

The attack at the Columbine High School in Littleton, a nondescript suburb of Denver, Colorado, is thought to be the worst school massacre in American history, with 15 pupils and one teacher killed.

Sad list

Littleton now joins Jonesboro, Paducah and Springfield on a bloody list of small towns blighted by school massacres.

The latest killings will inevitably reopen the debate on US gun laws, some of the most relaxed in the Western world.

[ image: In December 1997 two children were shot dead at a school in Paducah, Kentucky]
In December 1997 two children were shot dead at a school in Paducah, Kentucky
But it seems unlikely President Bill Clinton will impose significant further restrictions on the availability of guns.

Tellingly, perhaps, Mr Clinton made no mention of gun control during his first news conference after the shootings.

The debate on gun control in the US has raged for over three decades.

World's largest private arsenal

The US has the largest number of guns in private hands of any country in the world - some estimates put the arsenal available to ordinary Americans at 200 million firearms.

The powerful firearms lobby repeatedly points out that the ability of every citizen to bear arms is a right under the US constitution.

Advocates of gun control point out that times have changed since the constitution was drawn up in the 18th century.

The US is no longer a frontier country and ordinary Americans no longer need arms to defend themselves against "Red Indians" or hunt wild animals.

'Vicious circle'

Proponents of gun control say murder and violent crime will only be contained if access to firearms is dramatically curtailed.

During his first term as President, Mr Clinton forced through the Brady Bill, which required background checks on all those purchasing firearms. It also banned on the sale or import of certain types of automatic weapons.

But further gun control measures have been stalled since the Republicans gained control of Congress.

In October 1997 gun manufacturers agreed with the President to introduce child-proof locks on handguns - in 1994 nearly 200 children died from accidentally discharging weapons.

But preventing youngsters from obtaining guns may prove virtually impossible in a society where gun ownership is so widespread.

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