"A tragedy of monumental proportions" was how Charles Steger, the president of Virginia Tech, described the slaughter at his university yesterday, the worst campus mass shooting in US history. But whether it is of sufficient proportion to dent America's love affair with guns is quite another matter. Similar disbelief followed other mass shootings in recent years - from the 24 people gunned down in a fast-food restaurant in the Texas town of Killeen in October 1991, to the Columbine school massacre in Colorado in 1999, to the five little girls shot dead at an Amish school in Pennsylvania in October last year. But the practical effect has been very little.
Gun control, along with abortion and same-sex marriage, has long been one of the litmus test issues defining the debate in the US between liberals and conservatives. Guns tend to be more common and more entrenched in the culture of southern, central and mountain states, which tend to vote Republican and where hunting is a popular sport. Gun crime is rife in big cities on the east coast too, which are invariably Democratic, but gun ownership among the general population is notably less common.
The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is one of the most powerful in the US and gun owners are a constituency no one wants to alienate. John Kerry, the thoroughly liberal Democratic presidential nominee of 2004, was careful to have himself pictured on a duck hunt in Ohio as that year's campaign neared its climax.
Many of the Democrat gains in the 2006 midterm elections came thanks to conservative candidates running in states traditionally dominated by Republicans. Amusement, rather than shock, was the general reaction earlier this year when an aide of Jim Webb, the shock Democratic victor in the Virginia senate race last year, was arrested when he was caught taking a gun owned by his boss into the US Capitol building.
"I believe that wherever you see laws that allow people to carry [weapons], generally the violence goes down," the strongly pro-gun Mr Webb told reporters afterwards. To which the tens of millions of US gun owners (by some calculations there are as many guns as people in the country) would say, Amen.
The passionate feelings of the gun lobby may be traced to the second amendment of the US Constitution, enshrining "the right of the people to keep and bear arms". Although the provision stems from the times when "well regulated militias" were deemed necessary to protect against a British attempt to regain the lost colonies, it is the default position of any argument against greater gun control here.
As such, it has trumped every other consideration, not least the fact that on any given day about 80 people are killed by firearms, the vast majority by murder or suicide. Gun violence may cost $2.3bn (£1.2bn) each year in medical expenses, but it is a price, gun supporters believe, that is worth paying to protect a fundamental freedom.
Virginia's gun laws are fairly typical for what has been (until recently) a reliably Republican state, part of the old Confederacy. Non-Americans may be amazed, but a state law of the 1990s limiting handgun purchases to one per person per month was regarded as a step towards curbing Virginia's reputation as a source of easily acquired "illegal" weapons used for crime.
There is no sign of attitudes hardening. Despite the opposition of every police force in the land, Congress in 2004 allowed to lapse a 10-year federal ban on semi-automatic assault weapons, a particular favourite of violent criminals. The reaction was not exactly deafening. Even amid yesterday's shock, the initial calls were for stricter security measures on campuses - not serious moves to reduce gun ownership.
© 2007 The Independent