The movie gun myth starts to pale

I'm not so sure about that University College London report about the brains of London taxi drivers becoming bigger. In a fleeting visit to London the other day, they seemed much the same to me - as eager as ever to enlighten their passengers on current affairs.

I'd been in London only minutes when a driver sussed out that I lived in the US. "I mean, look at that little girl shot dead by that six year old," he harangued me in a dialogue that could not have been dreamt up by Private Eye's best Bore of the Week writer. "He doesn't deserve to live, does he?" The man who let the little boy have a gun, I suggested helpfully? "The kid. I mean, they should string 'im up, shouldn't they?"

I pointed out that, if George Harrison and his assailant had lived in the US, a gun rather than a sword would have been used - and both Harrisons would now be dead, like John Lennon. An average of between four and five people die every hour from gunshot wounds in the US, I added. "Yeah, that's a good point," our man with the large hippocampus - that is what UCL researchers say London taxi drivers develop - conceded.

The lack of effective gun control laws in the US, I went on, is the real problem and the reason why so many handgun atrocities occur there - and not in Britain. Did he know that there are roughly the same number of guns lying around the US as there are men, women and children?

Flying back here last weekend, I found a very American drama going on in no less a place than Gunpowder Falls State Park - about 50 miles north of where I live. Helicopters, tracker dogs and hundreds of armed cops eagerly swarmed in to hunt for a mentally disturbed 31 year old who had shot dead four people.

The bloodlust was truly up: they were soon joined by groups of local men brandishing shotguns and (they had presumably seen this in movies) organising themselves into maniac-hunting posses for what the cops called the "kill zone". A friend tells me that one of these men assured him that he was "loaded for bear" - he had enough ammunition to take on bears, in other words - notwithstanding the total absence of one single bear anywhere near the place in living memory.

It was all a vivid vignette of just how much that fatal combination of guns and movie-inspired macho fantasy continues to poison this country.

Meanwhile, the pathetic 74-year-old actor Charlton Heston - a man who made his career playing oafish roles but who now has the most oafish role of the lot, as president of the National Rifle Association - launched a televised attack on President Clinton for daring to suggest that the gun industry was blocking gun control legislation: "Mr Clinton, when what you say is wrong, it's a mistake," the actor opined in a paid television ad. "When you know it's wrong, it's a lie."

Clinton - himself awarded lifelong membership of the NRA when he was Governor of Arkansas - responded (rather well, I thought) by dismissing the NRA as a "ruthlessly brutal" lobby.

Seeing that Heston was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of the American heartlands following the death of that six-year-old girl, the NRA promptly wheeled in one Wayne LaPierre, their executive vice-president: "I've come to believe he [Clinton] needs a certain level of violence in this country," LaPierre said, landing himself and the NRA permanent niches in nutters' corner. "He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda. And the vice-president, too."

I yield to nobody in my cynicism towards the motives of either Clinton or Gore, but this was a peculiarly wicked allegation - and so over-the-top that it is clear evidence, I suspect, that the propaganda war is beginning to unravel for the gun lobby.

NRA membership is believed to be around three million, but falling. Polls show that, as each school shooting tragedy is reported, more and more Americans want to reverse the movie-gun psyche by tightening gun controls.

A poll a few days ago suggested that 47 per cent of people preferred Gore's approach to gun laws compared to 36 per cent who favoured Boy George's. And only last week, the Republican Governor of New York, George Pataki, called for the ballistic fingerprinting of every gun manufactured or sold in the US.

Yet the NRA still wields disproportionate power in Washington, making politicians terrified of crossing it and the $1.4 billion American gun industry. The reason? They spend between $20 million and $25 million lobbying the politicians every year, and the result is that the only gun law currently making any headway is one sponsored by the NRA: it would make it illegal to sue gun manufacturers for any of the 30,000 deaths that their products cause every year.

As I was telling Jimmy Young recently, the country will probably have to endure yet more school shootings before common sense finally breaks the gun lobby - but that day is coming, agonisingly slowly but surely.

The last word must go, as ever, to my cab driver. Did he know - I was slightly carried away by the light-headedness of having spent the night on the plane - that more people now commit suicide with guns than kill other people in the US?

"You know what they do here now, don't you?" he responded. "They throw themselves under trains. Can you believe that? I mean, it's so messy. And you've no idea what it does to the traffic for us. I mean, if I had my way . . ."

I was truly back in London, back in a culture still so benign compared to the killing fields awaiting me on my return to the States.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us