There are countless times in the past 10-12 years of living overseas that I have been forced to explain my country – or the actions of my countrymen – to virtually everyone I come across in my daily life. The check-out guy at Waitrose asks me to explain Trump. The coffee person at Starbucks questions me about the racial violence. In discussing sports at dinner parties, there’s always one person who asks “Why is it called the World Series? No one else plays in it but you Americans!!”.
After living in South Africa for 3 years and now London for more than 7, nearly everyone I know has asked me about the gun culture in the U.S. and how the heck do people put up with it. “What is going on in America?” people say. “Why do you love guns so much?” “Explain this to us.” I can’t. [Although, similarly, when I ask anyone here in the U.K. who is my age or younger to explain the Northern Ireland issue or Brexit, I’m met with uncomfortable shifting and clearing of throats.] The U.S. gun issue is a phenomenon, and I’m as dumbfounded as they are. But for me, it’s personal. It hurts my heart. My eyes ache, my lips tighten into a thin line and I feel my brow knit into a frown. The grimace is obvious.
America is ahead by miles in gun ownership & mass shootings. The only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen.
In countless interactions I stammer to explain this. “The Democrats…” I start. “The Republicans have….” I try. “The polls show…” “International statistics point to…” “The Second Amendment…” I’m grasping at flimsy straws. “The NRA…” “After Sandy Hook…” But the fact is no argument can explain the reality on the ground in the U.S. The horror that has become almost daily. The numbness to which everyone somehow – staggeringly — accepts this as their new reality.
And then there’s the all too familiar arguments that fall on deaf ears. The definitive statistics we’ve seen pointing out gun control in Great Britain or Australia and making those Before and After comparisons from when the laws went into place. The thread that follows how – after one shoe-bomber – laws were put into place to take off our shoes as precautionary measures or how, when seven people were killed by poisoned Tylenol bottles, new packaging made it nearly impossible to tamper with pills (I don’t remember anyone saying “Don’t worry about making safer pill bottles, it’s just the mental health of one deranged person”).
The charts, statistics, polls and studies are endless. This one from the BBC is a good start. And in the New York Times earlier this week with excellent charts and statistics, Max Fisher and Josh Keller methodically put forth and debunk every argument out there on why America has so many mass shootings. Mental health issues? No. Society more violent? No. Racial divisions? No. Violent video games? No. Bottom line is we have more guns – by a lot.
I found it particularly disheartening that we are ahead by miles in gun ownership and mass shootings, and that the only country even remotely close to us is…Yemen. That’s not a country you thought the U.S. would be in the same category as. Yemen? Imagine my next encounter with chatty Waitrose guy: “Hey, America and Yemen: more guns than any other country in the world! And a higher rate of mass shootings than everyone else. What’s up with that?”. I will try to grab my groceries quickly and leave.
My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”
More worryingly, however, is how do I explain this to our daughter. She is of the age where these larger, more complicated issues are being discussed. She is in what Americans would call “Middle School” at a co-ed secondary institution brimming with multinationals: Brits, French, Aussies, Indians, Russians, Italians, Spanish, South Africans, Greeks, Americans, Canadians, Chinese, Japanese, Nigerians, Senegalese and more. They all wear their nationalities on their sleeves and are starting to challenge each other in an intellectual but healthy way. As a half-American, she is beginning to get the typical push-back and teasing that often comes from less powerful nations (an Australian boy needling her about Trump has become a fun joke between them).
So how do I explain to her that the country I love and grew up in has had 1745 deaths from mass shootings since January of 2013 (according to The Guardian)? How do I explain that our government stands by, idly, and does nothing? And that we, the people, elect those officials who do not vote as we would. So far, no protest loud enough has changed this. But it must stop.
Would I raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder?
America is getting a terrible reputation abroad for many different reasons, but the gun issue is front and centre as perhaps the worst. Asked if I would ever move back to the U.S., I definitely pause and wonder whether I would want to raise our child in a place that allows someone to walk into a store with an assault rifle thrown casually over his shoulder while he does his shopping. Closer to home, I understand the Concealed Carry Laws means that a citizen in Virginia can stand outside a polling booth with a gun. How do I explain that to our daughter? Of course, no place is perfect and certainly every place has its difficulties, its negatives, its issues that we all must put up with and deal with. In the US, I have to explain terrorism and Brexit to everyone. And both of those are somewhat unexplainable too. So there’s no nirvana. But I cannot comprehend doing some back-to-school shopping, squabbling over the last notebook on the shelf with another customer, followed by escalated pushing and shoving, and then the customer pulls out a LOADED gun on me. What?!? Here’s the full article. Granted, no one comes out squeaky clean, but a Mom with her 20-yr-old daughter, shopping in Walmart with a loaded gun?? Just in case?? I worked and lived overseas in some dangerous places and I know that having a gun pointed at you can leave you with PTSD. Or I would probably be somewhat traumatized if I took my daughter to a polling booth where a man is carrying a gun outside the door as voters go in and out to vote. As one of the voters said “I had my 9-year old son with me. I felt intimidated…had to explain why a man with a 357 magnum is standing outside the polling station”.
No, this is not the country I know. The country I grew up in. Of course I have friends with hunting rifles and/or hand-guns, but all agree on stricter controls and bans of assault weapons. I sincerely hope the tide is turning with all the election wins by Democrats countrywide earlier this week. History was made with many “firsts” from New Hampshire to North Carolina to Montana as candidates who are women, transgender, people of colour and part of the LGBT community won their respective races. My first question to every single candidate who won on Tuesday would be “Where do you stand on gun control legislation?”. Let’s hope momentum is shifting and we can take that forward to insist on new measures and bans that will change the future history of the US that has yet to be written.