As President Barack Obama fought back tears when speaking of the Sandy Hook killings, no-one could doubt that the most powerful man in the world was, for a moment, overcome by sympathy.

But one suspects he was also bitterly aware that he is helpless to make things better. His promise to take "meaningful action" to ensure such an atrocity won't happen again must have sounded hollow, even to his ears. How many presidents have taken to the podium in the wake of such crimes to assure people that a "serious conversation" would follow about gun laws? And how many have, like Mr Obama, not simply done nothing to restrict access to weapons but actively given more ammunition and authority to those whose belief in the American citizen's right to bear arms is as fanatical as a fundamentalist?

Sandy Hook was the seventh lone-gunman's rampage Mr Obama has faced in the past year. Yet even though young children were the main targets, and the country is reeling at such an outrage, will anything change? One very much doubts it.

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It's often said that ordinary Americans are the barrier, that their insistence on owning guns, as enshrined in the Second Amendment, is what holds back change. But that's not the whole story. While almost half of the country owns at least one gun, an increasingly vocal number want to see tighter controls. Clearly, modifying legislation on weapons would not be the wholesale vote loser politicians tells themselves, and their parties.

The reason why Americans' political masters are in thrall to the gun lobby are complex and, to the outsider, deeply sinister. One begins to wonder who is actually running the country. Why, for instance, was the law outlawing the use of assault rifles allowed to lapse in 2004? As Sandy Hook and other scenes of carnage attest, such machine-gun rifles allow maximum killing in the minimum time. As one commentator wrote in yesterday's New York Times: "I'm tired of hearing fellow citizens argue that you need that kind of firepower because it's a pain to reload when you're shooting clay pigeons. Or that the founding fathers specifically wanted to make sure Americans retained their right to carry rifles capable of mowing down dozens of people in a couple of minutes."

It is hard to see how a country that sets itself up as the epitome of civilisation, as champion of the free world and moral arbiter on the world stage, can uphold the right of everyone to own a lethal weapon. It is also staggering to think that an educated, middle-class woman such as Adam Lanza's mother, appears to have had five guns, one of them a semi-automatic rifle similar to those used by troops in Afghanistan. What possible use could she have had for such an arsenal? If she'd lived in the heart of gangland Baltimore, one could perhaps understand, though even there it would be extreme. But in leafy Connecticut?

In 1791 when the Second Amendment, empowering all citizens to own guns, was written, America was carving out its own territory. In those lawless days, the country was dangerous and self-defence was a part of everyday life. As many point out, the original clause implied that the use of guns was intended to ensure that America had a well-trained militia ready at a moment's notice. In 2008 and 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that modern gun-owners were not bound by the military implications of that part of the constitution, but had a right to possess guns for "traditional purposes", such as defending their own homes. This hallowing of the right to own guns happened on Mr Obama's watch. No wonder he wept.

Shamefully, what no American President seems willing or brave enough to address is that the right to bear arms is antique, a relic of a bygone and backward age. Two hundred years ago guns were a necessary evil. Now they are not. In this era, Americans are, or ought to be, beyond the need to take the law violently into their own hands. That so many consider owning a gun to be a fundamental right is not, to my mind, the sign of a civilised nation, but of one that is profoundly and alarmingly primitive.