RICHMOND

When we were in Northern Ireland in 1985, we figured we'd be perfectly safe from IRA (not a retirement plan) bombs because peace talks were underway in London, and the major players were supposed to talk, not fight, for a while.

Still, it was disturbing to be a pedestrian at a crosswalk waiting while a military armored vehicle with a gun sticking out of its turret rolled by. It was disturbing to have a polite but thorough official go through every blessed thing in your handbag -- lipstick (opened and closed again), hair brush, scraps of paper, wallet, pens (covers off, covers back on), camera (lens cap off, power on, look through, cap on), etc. -- before you could go shopping.

We had already been stunned when the lilting Irish voice of the small woman at the airport in London had taken everything out of the tightly packed camera bag. She opened each film canister, this being in pre-digital days, took off lens caps, inspected everything. It had taken an hour to pack all that, and it seemed unlikely it could be done again before our plane left. But she deftly put Humpty together again and wished us a lovely trip.

Getting to the hotel was not reassuring. A long boardwalk between the street and the front door zigged and zagged its way, with guard stations at intervals, to the entrance because this hotel, they said, had been bombed 60 times. Sleep tight, oh, yeah.

But after a day we were like the rest of the people in Belfast. We didn't look over our shoulders. And we didn't panic when we found out the peace talks, with Margaret Thatcher at work were just down the road a piece in the very country we were in.

In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombing, it's interesting to consider that some of the very people lining the streets to watch the runners may have helped finance the bombings in Belfast. We have become a world in which it's okay to blow somebody up if you don't agree with him -- or like him. The Klu Klux Klan did it for years.

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Still, we are not a nation of scaredy cats, and Boston, like Belfast, may become more cautious, but will not stop living its life. That is surrender, and Americans don't much care for surrender. What is scarier in terms of our future is the cowardice of those United States senators who could not vote on principle rather than personal gain. They mouthed a lot of reasons, some of them based on false assumptions or fallacious thinking, about why we should not have background checks.

Background checks won't affect criminals, they said, because criminals don't shop at gun shows -- they get their guns elsewhere. How do they know?

Many of the senators who voted no did so because they feared the wrath of the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers whose donations are crucial to their campaigns.

But their fear of losing their careers is nothing to the fear we ought to have of the unchecked gun owners. The AR-15 rifles so visible during the Boston manhunt made it very obvious that no civilian needs one or should have one.

Among those voting no, even in the face of the bereft Newtown, Connecticut, parents, was Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire. With that vote, she made New England a less safe place to live.

Our founding fathers had some horrific fights while they were piecing our nation together. But they tended to act on principle, not selfishness. And history doesn't indicate that they were cowards. We have more than a baker's dozen of cowards at work in D.C. today.

Ruth Bass is a freelance writer who lives in Richmond. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.