A teenager is attached to a mobile phone as if it were a life support system.
Young people nowadays have tunnel vision to see only the screen in their hand and not ‘the big picture’, so I was surprised when two GCSE students at Cherwell School in Oxford wrote and asked me to help them get tighter gun laws in the UK. This was going against the grain because they weren’t supposed to be interested in politics.
I decided to meet these two 15-year-old world changers, Giorgio Rand and Robert Webb.
“We believe that gun laws in the UK are not tight enough,” they said. “In 2011/2012, according to Parliament’s own website, approximately 170,000 people were affected by gun crime in the UK. Currently control is under the 1979 HM Revenue and Customs Act and if you smuggle guns into the UK you could get away with only a £2,500 fine and six weeks in prison.
“We want this changed. We want a higher fine or sentence to act as more of a deterrent for gun crime.”
This ‘in your face’ gun control debate was sparked off by their Citizenship Studies class at Cherwell, so I asked if this was just part of their homework.
“No,” they said. “We believe in this and we’ve started an e-petition on the government’s website, written to the Chief Constable asking for Oxfordshire statistics on firearm offences and called the office of our local MP Nicola Blackwood.
“If we don’t get any help from the House of Commons we’ll go to the House of Lords because one of the members, Baroness Ruth Deech, is coming to talk with Cherwell students on Valentine’s Day and we’ll ask her to push it.”
I could see this was not just an exercise or requirement for their Citizenship Class. Their teacher, Michelle Codrington, explained: “The whole class has to show they are active citizens so we ask them to pick any campaign they like and run with it. This is not just a project but something they are passionate about to show people they do care.
“The main purpose is to give them the skills and knowledge of how to make a change. Young people might think ‘why bother, the problem’s too big’ or ‘I haven’t got a voice and even if I did no-one would listen to me anyway’. We at Cherwell try to empower the pupils.”
Giorgio and Robert brought the debate home to me when they argued: “The UK can’t even begin to resemble the USA.”
When I was their age I lived in the USA and what was I doing to change the world?
In my high school, run by Benedictine monks, they also empowered the pupils, but in a slightly different way. We had one gun for every pupil, which came to about 500. These were M-1 rifles or military style assault weapons and in addition there were ample howitzers and handguns and the two cannons at the front entrance.
Marmion Military Academy in Aurora, Illinois, did what it said on the tin – prepared us for life in the military – but also prepared us for life hereafter.
Religion classes were followed by a Military Science and Tactics course. A monk in his black robe handing out our religion textbooks in freshman year told us “the colour of your book is green, the colour of hope”.
Forty-five minutes later a sergeant in green fatigues handed out a black book and told us “the mission of the military is to close with and to destroy the enemy”.
This is the kind of contradiction that could encourage psychopathic tendencies in the unwary.
We had the means available to turn such a tendency into a terrible headline – guns, live ammunition and training. We also had the motive. This was a highly competitive school.
Each pupil was ranked every six weeks on leadership and scholarship and everyone was labelled publically in order of preference. We knew who the top dog was and everyone else was an underdog. We even knew who was the bottom dog.
Add to this mix the money of some rich parents and their ‘donations’ to the school and the ‘faces that fit’ around the communion rail in the better parish churches and you had a recipe of advantage for some and resentment for others.
But it didn’t kick off. Why?
Because they controlled us by appearance. Individuality was banished. We all had crew cuts and wore the same olive drab military uniform, except for the officer class who commanded the school in their Senior year. They were allowed to wear sabres: real, polished, sharp, cutting edge, long knives. I reckon mine could have skewered a pig, but I was 18 and didn’t want to do that.
Most of all we controlled ourselves and knew the boundaries and how far we could push things. Where I lived in smalltown America we talked to each other and we listened.
We were a part of a community and knew the local gravedigger talked to himself. The chief of police crocheted d’oylies at night as lamp base decorations to be sold at the annual church bazaar.
We all knew ‘Spot’, the Dalmatian mascot at the fire station. We were connected because it was a small enough society and we couldn’t hide.
So no-one went ballistic at my military academy except, in a way, me, in my quiet, almost desperate, manner.
I was a member of the military band at this academy and played the b-flat clarinet…badly as it happened, very flat; but this gave me an excuse not to carry a gun. And yet I had to pass the same weapons tests as every other cadet in the school.
Every time I handed the gun back to my instructor I had a few spare parts left over. To save embarrassment and to hide my inadequacy, I just put them in my pocket and took them home.
Fortunately my five-minute-long test experience was so boring for the instructors they adopted a lackadaisical approach and didn’t notice all this kit I was carrying away.
At the end of four years with Marmion Military Academy I probably had sufficient rifle ‘housing’ parts to re-construct enough guns to kill everyone in the whole school; but I quietly, desperately, kept them under my bed. No-one ever knew.
But just imagine…