Explaining Gun Ownership in the US

September 30, 2013

When the reports come in of a school shooting in the US, as an Australian I would wonder how a gun ever got into the hands of a teenager? How that teenager could drive themselves to a school and press the trigger down on a semi-automatic weapon and spray bullets at children? Too many levels of unfathomable to take in. A teenager with a gun. Who drove himself to high school. Who wants to kill children. It becomes something that happens in the US and we file it away under Crazy Shit Americans Do.

When I visited my sister who lives in California, the first thing she said was, “Let’s do something you want to do and then something I want to do”. I really wanted to visit Berkeley campus and see where Alan Ginsberg first read ‘Howl’ aloud. It was still an unfinished poem and in the recording, you can hear the audience murmur and shout back with all the unsaid things, heard for the first time. My sister replied, “Whatever. Then we’ll go to a shooting range.” An indoor range is terrifying for the noise and the strange collection of people who are taking it seriously. I shot a single bullet. My hands trembled and then I was done. In the cubicle next to me, a boy of ten or eleven blasted away at a rifle. I wanted to leave as soon as I got there.

When I finally moved to the US, I had a cup of tea with a lovely yoga devotee, the first date I’d been on – an American date with an American man! Whilst we sat cross legged on his couch drinking herbal tea, I asked him what the vault across the room was for? “My gun safe,” he said and looked sheepish. How many guns were in there, I asked. “Six or seven,” he lied. It turned out to be ten rifles and ten handguns. Glocks, Berettas, M1A, and my personal favourite for its sheer butchness, a fancy sawn off shot-gun called The Alaskan. He had enough ammo to supply a militia and that’s where I learned something about the second amendment and the American psyche. They are woven together in a way that’s hard to understand, looking in.

The second amendment gives every American the right to bear arms and form a militia. The sentiment with so many Americans is that government is a group of people elected to perform an impossible task: managing three hundred million people with two porous borders. Americans often feel it can’t be done to good effect and that they are alone. They watched the images from Hurricane Katrina, people stranded for days on the top of their house, waving listlessly at the helicopters. It confirmed their fears: you will not be rescued in your time of need. In most of the houses I’ve been welcomed into in America, there are emergency provisions; enough canned food to last three or four days, torches and water. It’s tucked away in the garage without much fanfare. Other houses have full on bug-out bags stocked with enough gear to last three or four months if they have to scurry into the hills. Hell, Mormons are required to stock enough food and water to last two years and outlive the rapture. As an Australian, if you’ve ever wondered what would happen in a drought/flood/fire that left you stranded, I would like to think we’d co-operating with our neighbours, at least before the chaos set in. In America, it’s game on. No one is coming to get you and if they do, it might be for the water in your swimming pool and they’ll kill you if they have to. That’s when you’ll need a gun.

You can’t really hold a handgun or a shotgun in your hands without considering the circumstances of when you would use it. You don’t fasten on a pair of skis and never consider the snow. What you weigh in your mind, as you hold that gun in your hand, is whether or not you could pull the trigger on another human being. Going to the gun range, you’ll find the elderly Vietnamese man, the young tough guy, the Persian, the father and son combos. I don’t know how they feel about killing a person, but the idea has been squared away because of so many handguns on display, and you don’t shoot a deer with one of those.

I think I’d rather die than live knowing I killed a person, but that’s what the Americans call a Victim Mentality and so I tried getting into the spirit of things. If I was robbed by someone with a gun? Nope, I probably wouldn’t. What if my beloved was about to get shot? Okay, maybe then. To hold a gun is to feel out your moral boundary and see where the lines are drawn. For a lot of the men at the range, it’s to play out the hero scenarios on high rotation, at least it was for the guy I was dating. Is it the culture that’s emasculated them or the gun that plants the idea?

Americans are perceived as being disingenuous; both friendly and cunning is the cultural identity. International politics and multinational interests, the NSA, the Iraq/Afghanistan war, the aggressive free-trade agreement with Australia, that’s a lot of cunning. But as an Australian living in the US, I understand why Americans are this way with each other. They have nothing to fall back on and they are alone. It’s a very thin social fabric here, the taxes are low but the roads are poor, the food is cheap but public school are funded by local council rates on their homes; wealthy area = wealthy school, poor area = poor school. Wouldn’t you make nice-nice and take care of your own interests under these circumstances? The other day, my GPS took me through Skid Row in Los Angeles’ downtown area and I got to see what happens when you fall through the cracks. This isn’t just a row, it goes on for blocks and blocks and it’s the stuff of horror films. You can’t have a Skid Row in the middle of downtown and not feel it echo through the rest of the city. The sky really is limitless in the US, but the fall is Wile E. Coyote over the canyon’s edge. Beep, beep. Whistle.

What surprised me about the people in America is that if you are trusted and loved by a friend, the bond is deep; survival deep. You only have each other after all and in a way, you form your own militia. And the gun. You have the gun. And if you want to throw a couple of rifles into the back of a pick-up and drive through endless national forest, no one can damn well-stop you. Americans fight to maintain as much personal freedom as they can, as if they were still on the wagon, riding it over the plains. Freedoms I didn’t know I had the right to exercise in Australia, because they’ve already been taken away. But I think they get it wrong on the guns.

What do you think about gun control in the USA vs Australia?

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