Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

A gripping podcast about America’s obsession with guns

Plus: Radio 4's Night Train really is one to listen to in bed, in the pitch dark

National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston speaking at an NRA convention in 2002. Photo: Candice Towell / Getty Images

The love affair between so many Americans and their guns – long a source of international fascination – appears to be getting more painfully intense. The greater the publicity over gun crime, the more Americans think they’d better acquire a firearm to keep themselves safe. There are now roughly 400 million guns in the US – but most citizens feel more unsafe than ever, and with some justification. Last year featured both the highest level of gun ownership in US history and the highest recorded number of mass shootings.

This really is one to listen to in bed, in the pitch dark – even better, pretend you’re in a couchette

‘How did we get here, and how do we get ourselves out?’ asks Garrett Graff, the host of the Long Shadow podcast In Guns We Trust, which examines the trajectory of US gun ownership and the gradual sanctification of the right to bear arms. Graff owns a gun himself, has a subscription to Garden & Gun magazine, and grew up in the hunting grounds of Vermont, where ‘the first day of deer season was almost like a state holiday’. Still, he’s clearly worried. While guns were once chiefly tools for hunting, pest control and recreation, now they are most often purchased for personal protection – or, in the most horrific scenarios, for attack.

Attack is where the podcast opens: 25 years ago, in 1999, when two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, opened fire in Columbine high school, Colorado, killing 12 fellow pupils and one teacher before turning the guns on themselves. This was not the first US school shooting, but it was the deadliest up to that date. The killers’ extensive documentation of their planning, and the ensuing media coverage, entrenched the massacre in other unhinged imaginations, spawning copy-cat attacks in the years to come.

What I’d forgotten – but that Graff explores – was the response of the National Rifle Association (NRA), scheduled to hold its annual convention in Denver, Colorado, the week after the shooting. The mayor asked the NRA to cancel, but the event went ahead, albeit a scaled-down version. Charlton Heston, the actor turned NRA president, made a speech in which he explicitly defied the mayor, reminding listeners his organisation was ‘a 128-year-old fixture of mainstream America’. Heard here, his resonant proclamation takes on a curiously sinister edge.

In fact, Graff reveals, there wasn’t a consensus in the NRA about holding the event: some argued strongly that they should delay or call it off. But a forceful voice against concessions was that of Marion Hammer, Heston’s predecessor as NRA president, who – despite being under 5ft tall – had an outsize talent for intimidating opponents and legislators. In later episodes Graff explores how Hammer, and another former NRA president, the late Harlon Carter, ramped up political pressure to turn the second amendment from a ‘constitutional afterthought’ subject to restrictions, to a ‘sacred right’ which, for many, went to the very heart of what it meant to be an American. It doesn’t reassure one to learn that Carter, at 17, was convicted of shooting dead a 15-year-old Mexican-American boy. Thus far this is a gripping podcast, providing a map for the evolution of a grim status quo.

A more poetic experience was to be found on Radio 4, where the writer Horatio Clare boarded a sleeper train from Paris to Vienna while reflecting on the role of the night train in culture and history. Except, he didn’t: that train was cancelled due to heavy snow at Munich, so he had to go via Frankfurt instead, which meant a lingering wait on a chilly platform in the small hours for a very late connection. Luckily Clare is of a meditative disposition, although his cheery acceptance, ‘I rather love these accidental, off-the-plan times’ did eventually give way to the poignant confession: ‘I’ve seldom looked forward to a train so much.’

En route the programme traversed the charms of the Gare de l’Est, a conversation with the author and railway enthusiast Andrew Martin, the faded glory of the Orient Express, and a friend of David Bowie reminiscing about his 1970s trip with the rockstar on the Trans-Siberian express, both shivering in their flimsy fashion gear. Later it rolled through more sobering territory of Holocaust transportations and the modern-day refugees boarding trains out of Ukraine.

Clare’s narration was often lushly romantic, recalling his arrival in Paris as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, but it fitted well with the spirit of its subject. And I know I’ve said this before – but this really is one to listen to in bed, in the pitch dark. Even better, pretend you’re in a couchette.

Does Interrailing hold the same heady magic for youth today? Catherine Carr’s timely, touching series of 15-minute investigations into the mindset of teenage boys suggests that they’re at home much more, worrying. Steeped in the internet, stalled by Covid and confused by porn, they talk about the social pressure to be strong, good-looking and well off while navigating conflicting social signals. ‘There’s a lot of weight on your shoulders,’ said one. Sadly, I don’t think he meant a backpack.

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