America is a relatively new country with few of the buried skeletons of older cultures, but if you spend much time overseas, there are still a few aspects that are tough to get across to the host country. One is race; another is guns.
On the last day of January, a toddler staying with his parents and sister in an Albuquerque, N.M. motel room reached into his mother’s purse, pulled out a loaded gun, and with one shot hit both his father and pregnant mother. At the tail end of 2014, a two-year-old boy shot his mother in a northern Idaho Walmart while shopping with his cousins to spend their Christmas money. Back in August of 2014, a nine-year-old girl accidentally shot the instructor who handed her an Uzi at a shooting range near Las Vegas.
These incidents are hard to explain to foreigners not only for how they happened, but for how they changed nothing.
In 1996, a deranged man with a gun killed 16 schoolchildren in Dunblane, Scotland. The reaction was public revulsion followed by further tightening of already strict laws on gun ownership in Britain.
The same year, a massacre by a man in Tasmania using multiple semi-automatic weapons killed 35 people. Australia reacted by banning several categories of weapons, a legislative feat which required concerted action by all its states as well as a one-time national program to buy back guns, funded by a temporary tax, which spent $AUS 350 million to purchase 643,000 firearms.
Whether the legal response in Britain and Australia lowered their annual toll of gun-related deaths is still debated, but theirs were already fractions of ours: According to figures from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for 2012, Britain suffered 0.07 gunshot homicides per 100,000 and Australia 0.14, where the United States had 2.97. When you add in deaths by suicide and accident, the U.S. rate of death rises to 10 in 100,000 each year, yet the UK to only 0.25.
Citizens from countries with low rates of death involving firearms have a hard time understanding America’s acceptance of an annual toll of around 32,000, of which 11,000 are homicides and the rest suicides or accidents (and police shootings, for which accurate statistics are not compiled). Our public response to each disaster – Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Fort Hood, the Washington Navy Yard, Sandy Hook and so on – follows the same pattern: There is a wave of public revulsion, sympathy and anger.
Those in favor of some restrictions attempt to use the momentum to pass laws requiring background checks or limits on magazine size or the sale of assault weapons. Those who believe gun ownership should not be limited, while condemning the criminal act and sympathizing with the victims, keep quiet and wait out the wave of public anger, which each time dissipates without legislative result. There does not seem to be an act so egregious that it breaks this pattern — if the murder of 20 elementary schoolchildren in Sandy Hook didn’t, nothing will.
What foreigners should understand is that this is part of our culture, not a lack of progress toward some world norm. Americans own 88 guns per 100 people, but that doesn’t mean ownership is evenly spread. For many, especially in rural parts of the country, owning and using guns is just a completely integrated part of life, like using household appliances.
Unlike rural Afghans or Chechens, for whom weapons are also an important cultural accessory, here the family is included, with guns designed to appeal to female customers and even children (like the “My First Rifle” by Crickett that a 5-year-old boy used to shoot his cousin in April 2013). This is easily caricatured as a rednecks vs. urban elites ideological divide, but the truth is that for a significant percentage of intelligent, vocal and politically active Americans, guns are part of a lifestyle worth defending at high cost, and the positives of guns simply outweigh the risks.
For Veronica Rutledge, the mother in the Walmart shooting, one has to assume the pleasure of owning and carrying her handgun and the protection she felt it afforded against harassment, rape or other crime was worth the low, mitigated risk of it being used by the wrong person — in this case her own toddler.
This is a facet of America that visitors should be well aware of, along with the risk of occasional tragic results: On Oct. 17, 1992, Yoshihiro Hattori, a Japanese exchange student was looking for a Halloween party, knocked on the wrong door in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and was fatally shot by the owner, Rodney Peairs, who was acquitted of murder. In April 2014, German exchange student Diren Dede was shot dead by a homeowner in Missoula, Montana. This time, the homeowner was convicted of deliberate homicide, as he had apparently been lying in wait with intent. On Feb. 13, he was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
To those with strong beliefs in Second Amendment gun rights, the annual accidental deaths and homicides are tragic but not sufficient reason to change existing laws: They are caused by people and thus the solution lies in people, not hardware. The American gun divide is almost religious in nature; it is nearly impossible to convert someone from one side to another, and probably pointless to try. What we must do is find a way to live with two radically different philosophies side by side in the same country.
At this point, gun rights advocates have won the campaign over who can be armed and what with, so where people carry is the focus of debate: Should states and towns be allowed to determine whether citizens can be openly armed in Starbucks or the grocery aisle? Does the 10th Amendment ever trump the Second? The constitutionality of efforts to limit public gun-carrying in Washington, D.C., are currently before federal court. The issue is whether requiring a permit, for which a special need related to employment or protection must be shown, infringes the Second Amendment.
So far, the city has lost. The Virginia legislature is debating whether people should be allowed to drive around the state with loaded shotguns in the trunk. (Delegates might want to Google “road rage in South Africa” as background research.) They’ll probably approve the measure. As this issue plays out in each state and town, the only certainty is that there will continue to be thousands of shootings, mass or individual, accidental or on purpose, each year.
The one thing Europeans should not expect as a result of the New Mexico, Idaho or any American gun tragedy is that it will bridge this cultural divide and lead to legislative change.
Simon Hankinson has lived in Europe, South Asia, Africa, and the Pacific Islands is currently an MA candidate in International Security Affairs. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of the State Department or the U.S. Government.
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