While sorting through today’s stack of junk mail, I sifted through the usual fare: preapproved credit cards, coupons for carpet cleaning, and sales on a bunch of AK-47’s at the local Walmart.
If you aren’t American, that last item might have jumped out at you.
I say “if you’re not American,” because around here, most people are unfazed by the fact that you can pick up a shotgun or semi-automatic handgun at the same place you buy diapers. Most Americans hardly realize how surreal this seems to many foreigners.
In California, you aren’t allowed to buy a handgun until you’re 21, but you can use them with adult supervision. There is no minimum age for owning shotguns or rifles. Unlike, for example, drinking a beer…
But in Western Europe, the idea of guns is taken seriously. I’ll never forget reading the chapter in Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love where the protagonist fears for his life so much that he ends up using criminal connections to get his hands on a gun. It’s a huge deal in the book: the last resort that shows how far he was willing to go.
Over here, of course, he could’ve walked into the local Walmart and taken his pick.
The idea of guns in anyone’s hands is terrifying to the Europeans I’ve met. When I was at UCLA, some British and Scottish exchange students told me all about the self-protection classes they had to complete before staying in Los Angeles for a year.
They perceived the United States as an incredibly dangerous place where you could be mugged or shot on sight, day or night. They were frightened to be here, viewing our country much the same way we would imagine war-torn Beirut or the fields of El Salvador.
It seemed silly to me at the time, since I’m used to the place. Sure, Los Angeles is more dangerous than many places, being a big city, but it’s not as though we live in a combat zone.
Or do we? Checking out our personal crime statistics can be sobering. We have, for example, higher rates of gun deaths than Pakistan and almost as many as the Democratic Republic of Congo. New York has about five times the murder rate of London, and we lead the world in mass shootings.
Mass shootings splash the news in America several times a year, and every time, folks on both sides of the issue rear up for a fight. Gun control advocates recoil at the embarrassing amount of personal violence in our nation while pointing out the easy availability of firearms.
Those who firmly believe in our “right to bear arms,” on the other hand, see the violence as all the more reason to keep your arsenal stocked. “Make it harder for law-abiding citizens to protect themselves,” they argue, “And then only criminals will have guns.”
I don’t know if Europeans have any notion how divisive an issue this is over here. We Americans slapped the second amendment (the right to bear arms) on our Constitution back in the 18th century, hoping to keep the King of England from telling us what to do, and some people believe it’s the most important element of freedom to this day. Many gun advocates still believe we need firearms, in case the government needs overthrowing, even participating in militias that were founded on the idea.
For them, owning a gun is a downright patriotic act, part of the American identity. It goes back to cowboy ideals of rugged individualism: the idea that without adequate protection, government agents may as well walk into your living room tomorrow and inject a mind-control chip right into your brain. They think 9/11 would never have happened if enough passengers were packing heat on the planes.
They point to mental illness as the cause of our violence, though I wonder why mental illness would supposedly be so much more prevalent in our society than in Western Europe.
Then I remember that a bunch of Americans think they could overthrow the government with a shotgun.