By Toby Harnden

A HAND-WRINGING Boston Globe editorial lamented the \"nightmare that stalks the nation\" and \"bright river of blood\" bursting forth because the country \"refuses to pass stringent controls on firearms\".

Just as with the Columbine school massacre and the Michigan six-year-old who shot a classmate, the tragedy in Wakefield has already ushered in calls for \"common sense gun control\" and more laws to limit the Second Amendment right of Americans to own weapons.

Expect an appearance from President Bill Clinton, his bottom lip trembling as he feels the nation\'s pain, in which he all but blames the Republican Party and the National Rifle Association for McDermott\'s actions. While such performances no doubt help liberal consciences, they can all too easily act as a substitute for thought - the terrible events in Wakefield on Boxing Day could well be used to illustrate the argument against further gun control.

Massachusetts, the most safely Democratic state of the 50 in the Union, is something close to gun control heaven. An FBI instant background check has to be carried out on anyone buying a gun and there is a seven-day waiting period for handguns. There are strict licensing requirements with mandatory jail sentences for breaking them and no one under 21 can buy a gun. McDermott, it seems, had no license for any gun.

He also used an AK47 the world\'s favorite terrorist weapon and the subject of a federal ban since 1994. Curiously, one Democratic aide in Boston used these facts to reach the conclusion: \"Massachusetts has some of the nation\'s toughest gun laws but this demonstrates that even those laws can be improved.\"

OK, let\'s follow the logic here. A wacko ignores every gun law on the books and blows away his work-mates. But if there had been even tougher laws, then he would have meekly laid down his AK47 and spoken to the human resources manager instead.

Mr. Clinton used a similar logic himself when hammering Republicans over the death of Kayla Rolland, the Michigan six-year-old. If only Congress had passed a mandatory trigger-lock law, then little Kayla would be alive today, he said. But the unpalatable truth is that if the weapon that killed Kayla had been the last gun in America it would not have had a trigger-lock. The boy who killed her lived in a crack house. His father was in prison and his mother an addict. The gun was stolen. All the gun laws in the world would not have saved Kayla.

While the Michigan shooting and the Wakefield massacre prompt worldwide headlines, much of the hysteria about violence in America is the result of carefully twisted statistics. Democrats are fond of stating that13 children die every day from gun violence. But about 70 per cent of those \"children\" are aged between 17 and 19, the vast majority of them killed in gang-related murders.

Another favorite is that American children - it was Mr Clinton who taught Tony Blair that the justification \"it\'s for the children\" is the best substitute of all for reason - are more likely to die from gunfire than the combined total of juveniles in the next 25 industrialised nations. These nations, however, include Hong Kong (ask Chris Patten but it wasn\'t a nation the last time I checked) and Kuwait but not Russia or Brazil - countries that have largely banned guns but have murder rates four times higher than in the United States.

That is not to say that America does not have a problem with gun violence or that politicians and police officers should not be doing all they can to tackle it. But this is difficult to do without defining the problem\'s scale and nature.

Gun ownership in America is both enshrined in the constitution and one of its citizens'most cherished rights of freedom. Al Gore found this out to his cost in the election when his gun control rhetoric was one of the factors that cost him the presidency. George W Bush, in contrast, emphasized enforcing existing gun laws - an approach that seems sensible enough in the light of Wakefield.

Moreover, America is already awash with guns and preventing the law-abiding from having access to a means of self-defense would be little more than positive discrimination for the criminal. If there is any answer to why Mike McDermott finally decided \"enough already\" on Boxing Day, it lies in the dark recesses of his mind rather than any draft legislation.

However, as Bob Geldof concluded in his 1979 song I Don\'t Like Mondays - about Brenda Spencer, the San Diego schoolgirl who opened fire on her teachers and schoolmates - even the search for psychological explanations can be fruitless. \"He can see no reasons \'cos there are no reasons,\" Bob Geldof sang of Spencer\'s father.

More than 20 years on, the reasons why the \"silicon chip inside a head gets switched to overload\" are as elusive as ever. Perhaps evil is just evil, no more and no less.