Gun culture a mystery to this Brit expat
Guns … firearms … shootings … it’s one of the hot topics in the USA that, as a British expat, I’m always asking Americans about.
An American mom friend recently invited me to an event entitled Moms Demand Action. This event was all about promoting gun safety for families. Wow, I thought, this is something that would never be an issue in the UK, because, guess what, we don’t have guns and exposure to guns in our culture in the same way the USA does …
Guns are alien to me and I do try my best to understand them, along with the 2nd Amendment and all its ingrained history, and what the appeal of guns might be. This article is an observational attempt to do that in as much of a balanced way as a non-gun toting Brit can.
Some people might ask if I am “anti-gun” and I don’t know the answer. I do know that I am intrigued, confused, fascinated, curious and repelled all at the same time. I’m trying always not to judge on this very controversial and deeply-rooted issue, but rather I try to understand the concept and fierce passion that many have of that 2nd Amendment, and to try to understand how gun violence not only affects people, but how it can be reduced. It’s a tricky topic, let me tell you.
My knowledge of guns and the whole ethics and issues around them are pretty limited. Guns have not been part of my life and lifestyle. In order to have some experience of guns I secured a day at a shooting range with a Baltimore Police Officer through my UK Desperate Housewife USA blog . I handled guns — rifles and pistols — and my aim wasn’t that bad. I learned to hold a gun, to ‘respect’ a gun, and to safely manage a gun, but when it boiled down to it, I didn’t feel totally comfortable with a gun and had no intention of including guns in my life, because I guess the 2nd Amendment is not part of my constitution and therefore not part of my culture nor my psyche.
American views on gun culture
Nonetheless, guns and firearms and gun culture and ownership intrigue me from a non-gun yielding British perspective. Such is my inquisitive nature that I often ask American folk I meet their thoughts on it all, and the reactions and comments are, as you would imagine, varied.
Check these out from a recent bout of conversations I’ve had with a very mixed group of Americans:
“At camp when I was a kid I got taught to shoot alongside waterskiing as part of the activity schedule.”
“In NYC better you carry a gun because it is better to be safe than sorry. In NYC you better have a gun.”
‘Schools in the USA have metal detectors in case kids are carrying guns. Really. Oh my God, this should not be the case. We’re not living in Tripoli.”
“I had a PR internship at NBC one summer. Tom Brokaw did a report called ‘America the Violent’ with a segment on the gang bangers doing drive by shootings in Oakland. The NRA sent letters to all of its members encouraging them to call NBC to protest. I fielded many of those phone calls at Rockefeller Center. The people I spoke with were deranged nuts completely unhinged from modern society. ‘You tell that Tom Brokaw he better come with a bigger gun, ’cause I’ll blow his ass away.’ I’m embarrassed by certain constituencies in this debate.”
“It’s open carry in Texas, West Virginia and Florida and why not. That’s the law.”
“So, at gun shows you can just buy one and go shoot. Job done. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing.”
“In Maryland you need a license and background check. The rules are getting tighter and people are getting fed up.”
“What am I supposed to do if someone breaks into my house and rape my wife – I need that gun. We need to defend ourselves. Politicians are trying to take our guns away. Guns can save people’s lives. I heard about a lady who was approached by two guys and had had her firearm training and she was carrying her gun, pointed it at them and they ran.”
“In American culture we have the right to bear arms; it’s all about freedom, being able to do it for yourself. We had to have guns in the old days to defend ourselves [against the Brits] and its part of the American psyche. What do you have if you disarm the citizens? Our government is for the people by the people and we want our guns. People are moving out of Maryland because of the strict gun laws. It took me forever to get a pistol and some people love guns for their artistry. I love them from my youth and for me it’s for protection. I found my dad’s revolver when I was six and I had knowledge of guns not to mess with it. Gun violence was part of growing up in the city in the projects and I knew not to mess with anyone who carries a gun and they will use it if they need to. My uncle in Queens shot at people trying to steal his car.”
“There are different demographic mentalities to guns.”
“Look, if someone wants to come into my house and steal my TV, take it. I’m not taking a life over a TV.”
“In NYC I follow a Bronx Facebook newsfeed and someone posted a video of two men arguing. One got mad and shot the other guy and everyone walked over the dead guy’s body – people are numb to it and keep on moving. That was the norm for me in NYC; it’s not frightening to me, but for my kids who are growing up in MD it’s different.”
“Guns are like sugar in America. If you take away the sugar, less people will get fat and die. If you take away the guns, less people will get shot and die.”
“I have no idea why we have the archaic 2nd Amendment in our Constitution. It dates back to the days of frontiers and cowboys and Indians, struggles for land and survival and defending our territory (from the Brits). Are we not a progressive country? We look at other countries and condemn their violence, but by keeping guns in our lives we condone our own access to violence. We can’t be shocked anymore by the gun violence if we choose to allow access to guns and have them as a proud part of our culture, as much as 4th July parades, tailgating, donuts and chicken wings are.”
So, some mixed views directly from the mouths of a variety of Americans, as you can see. I’m sure the NRA would have a few views on some of the comments in there.
British in the USA
Since I’ve been in the States there have been five shootings that will, sadly, stay with me as part of my expat experience. The Columbia Mall shooting (very close to home, and from this event I felt the impact and effects on a whole community), the guy who shot someone for texting in a movie theatre in Florida, the Sandy Hook shootings, the Ferguson shooting, and the nine year old girl at the range who shot her instructor.
There also is a sixth event that took place half a mile from my house in Clarksville, MD, when, last summer, a kid got hold of a shotgun from his parents’ house and shot himself. That story didn’t make the papers and I’m still not sure why. If a kid is getting hold of a gun in the neighborhood, we need to be helping our children understand what happened and seek to prevent it happening again.
Mostly, though, as I mentioned, this is a piece about me trying to understand “gun culture.” Long reigns the argument that the gun is not the issue, it’s the person behind it, but I often wonder what the outcome would have been if access to guns and the guns themselves were not even featured in the equation. This is how many Brits think, I imagine.
This was a comment from a Brit living here in the USA, which echoes my own confusion about guns:
“My overwhelming feeling is that at the heart of the heartache the US has experienced in recent times (Ferguson, the girl in the shooting range, the subsequent shooting in St. Louis, etc) is the existence of guns, whether it’s at the hands of the ‘law,’ a 9 year old or whomever else. People say ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ … well, I say if the guns didn’t feature it’s unlikely there’d be a death in many circumstances. Gun culture is so entrenched in this society though, I wouldn’t know where to begin … and saying that, the argument is too politic to face.”
The UK has crime and violence, certainly, but on our streets knife attacks are more prevalent. Gun crime is pretty well unheard of — I don’t know the stats, though. Guns are just not part of our “culture.” I do expect, however, that if I were an expat in London I could write a piece about the stabbings that have occurred on the streets there in two years, so you know, swings and roundabouts …
But, I am a Brit in the USA trying to understand something so very foreign to me. As government workers in the USA we are given information about gun ownership. We’re basically told you can own one if you like, but they don’t encourage it, but if you do, then keep it safe and keep it secure — however, at the end of the day YOU are responsible for your actions. I am sure that Americans I visit have them at their homes, I just don’t have it on my agenda to ask.
I recently stayed with a British friend in L.A. with my family, and afterwards he said to me that he should have mentioned that he stores a gun in the house. This, I guessed, was for protection. As I mentioned at the start of the piece, to ask the question beforehand as to whether someone has a gun in the house would not cross my mind, and I don’t know how I really feel about asking.
This conversation came up at the Moms Demand Action event. One person suggested that it needs to become a question that is asked without fear of offending, much like asking if someone is allergic to nuts. They say the question shouldn’t be a taboo one.
Other Brits who have come to reside in the USA have embraced the 2nd Amendment and find pleasure in the gun culture. A Brit on the West Coast of the USA told me how he fell in love with guns:
“Up until I came to live in America, guns were only something I had seen and read about in Commando comics and WWII books. I had always maintained a keen interest in the history of British firearms and WWI & II military history, so when I moved to the US and came to reside in California I decided to not just read about them, but to experience what it was like to shoot them as well.
“I bought my first rifle at 18 (an old WWII Canadian Lee-Enfield .303) and have been collecting & shooting ever since. To fully explain the exhilaration of target or clay pigeon shooting cannot fully be described in writing, the ability to track an inanimate flying object and break the clay in midflight, or to score a perfect bulls-eye on the long distance range is both an accomplishment and an achievement. For me it is a very satisfying feeling and one that I feel that anyone who does it would be proud of their accomplishments.
Firearms ownership is a serious decision, one which many of us cannot agree upon, but I believe a responsible, decent law abiding citizen should be able to make that conscious decision him or herself. I believe the 2nd Amendment to the US Constitution was written for a reason, and I fully support the rights of responsible and law abiding firearms owners to purchase and own whatever their particular hobby or sport calls for, whether it be pistol shooting, sporting clays, long distance rifle, or merely personal protection and self-defense.
It is very hard for people outside the US to understand the freedom which we Americans [I am now American] have, and for this reason I do not debate “gun control” ideas with friends in the UK because unless you live here you cannot understand or comprehend the laws and rights guaranteed under the Constitution. Up until 1989 private ownership of firearms was legal in the UK, with permits and licenses, but with the stroke of a pen, the government took the individual rights away, which as far as I’m concerned is an intolerable liberty into the freedom of decision of the individual.
I do not believe it has made the UK a safer place, if anything it has made it worse. Bottom line, I’m glad I live here in the U.S., and can enjoy the rights to collect and preserve the great history of antique and old relics.”
It’s the open carry law in some States, and the different laws that each State has about many things, that do sometimes confuse me. A curious book about this was brought to my attention: My Parents Open Carry, which is described thus:
“Come join 13-year-old Brenna Strong along with her mom, Bea, and her dad, Richard, as they spend a typical Saturday running errands and having fun together. What’s not so typical is that Brenna’s parents lawfully open carry handguns for self-defense. The Strongs join a growing number of families that are standing up for their 2nd Amendment rights by open carrying and bringing gun ownership out of the closet and into the mainstream. If you want to learn about the open carry of a handgun, or if you’ve wondered if open carry is right for you, then this book is what you need. My Parents Open Carry was written in the hope of providing a basic overview of the right to keep and bear arms as well as the growing practice of the open carry of a handgun. We fear our children are being raised with a biased view of the 2nd Amendment. Our goal is to provide a wholesome family book that reflects the views of the majority of the American people, i.e., that self-defense is a basic natural right and that firearms provide the most efficient means for that defense. We truly hope you will enjoy this book and read and discuss it with your children. As you read this book, you will learn about the growing practice of open carry, the 2nd Amendment and the right and responsibility of self-defense.”
I’ve read this over and over, and I kind of get what they’re trying to do, and yet I still don’t get it. It doesn’t still naturally in my British non-gun-culture head.
A British mother of a high schooler was taken aback at a school presentation in the USA recently. She told me: “When colors are presented at high school in the auditorium, two of the cadets carry guns (mock hopefully). It always makes me chuckle, as in the UK we tend to have moral/religious undertones to our assemblies and when the kids get together as a school here, they see guns.”
A fellow Brit recently shared with me an interesting piece he had written, which showcases his observations about gun history in the USA. He says:
“The USA’s many wars pre and post-independence stresses how warfare and the gun were central the creation and continuance of the United States. It not only figures in the Constitution but is central to the folk memory of what it is to be an American. If Congress had the will the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution could be modified, clarified or scrapped.”
What gives us Brits in the USA a right to have an opinion about guns anyway? Should we not just respect the law of the land? Well, yes, of course, but it doesn’t mean expats of any culture always need to agree with the law, much like some of the Americans born and bred with the 2nd Amendment who commented earlier. I’m sure expats in the UK have views on some our laws (I know I do!).
Being a Brit in the USA means we also have a right to choose whether or not to obtain a weapon, so if we have choices, we almost certainly have views, and it’s not just like choosing to have a car or not …
These are some other Brit views from expats in the USA, both pro- and anti-guns:
“I am so glad that my kids have all graduated. To have to send your kids to school every day and wonder if today is the day that some deranged person shows up at your kids school with a guns is not something anyone should have to live.”
“I don’t own a gun, have no desire to own a gun, I cannot imagine a scenario in which would shoot someone, certainly not to protect property. I do think there needs to be some changes made to the law here, maybe allow some guns but do what Israel do and limit the amount of ammo a person can buy.”
“I will never understand why individuals are allowed to own military type weapons.”
“I think there is a culture of fear here that isn’t seen in other countries. Few people ever face violence, especially from strangers, either in their homes, workplace or out and about, however, the perception of violence is that it is much more commonplace.”
“There is something odd about a country that thinks the sight of a naked boob is damaging to a young child but that an Uzi isn’t. Or that 18 is too young for a glass of wine or pint of beer, but not to own an arsenal of weapons.”
“I have a concealed pistol license and carry a gun fairly often. When I’m at home my gun is either on a kitchen counter top or in the drawer next to my bed, it is loaded with +P hollow point bullets. The gun is kept in a leather holster and the trigger area is completely covered so that no object can brush into the trigger and cause an accidental discharge. The CPL training is very good too and is largely ‘scenario based’ which really gets you thinking. I regard my guns as being perfectly safe and in the event I needed to defend myself, I would have that capability.”
“I’m a former British Soldier who served for over 10 years with the Royal Engineers, I did operational tours of Northern Ireland and Iraq, on both tours I patrolled the streets armed. I had a different state of weapon in either theater (loaded in NI and ‘ready’ — one in the spout ready to go in Iraq). I’ve been in the USA for almost five years, I enjoy that people have the privilege of owning weapon systems. However, I do believe that there must be some degree of weapon handling training be given to people, as the ‘good old daddy teaching’ quite clearly isn’t always the best option for many. On many occasions when I have been to the local range, or just out on the mountain fun shooting, I have witnessed kids running down to check their grouping out with the muzzle of the weapon flailing everywhere. I didn’t feel safe! I admit, I will be teaching my children how to use a weapon system SAFELY; I used to be a Skill-At-Arms-Trainer (SAAT) when in the Army, so I believe I can teach them the correct way to clean, load, unload and make safe a weapon system before they ever fire it. My overall view … yes, it’s great people have the privilege, however there does need to be more training before people can buy them.”
Moms Demand Action
During the Moms Demand Action event, I garnered some facts about gun deaths which did kind of take my British breath away:
- There are more than 31,000 gun deaths per year in the United States. American citizens are 20 times more likely to die from gun violence than citizens in other developed countries.
- Between 2012-2013, more than 100 children were killed (basically two per week) in unintentional shootings in which a gun was not properly stored. (This number is very likely understated due to inconsistencies in how coroners track these deaths from state to state).
- In the United States, 46 women each month are shot to death by their spouse or boyfriend. For an American woman, living in a home with a gun increases her risk of death by homicide by over 500 percent. You can find these stats here.
- Police carrying guns means that there is a significant amount of fatal shootings involving law enforcement here in the United States. As indicated by this link, in the relatively small city of Albuquerque in New Mexico, its police force shot and killed 23 civilians; seven times more than the number of Brits killed by all of England and Wales’s 43 forces during the same period. See here.
Moms Demand Action says this:
“Moms head to the grocery store on a weekly, sometimes daily basis — often with kids in tow. We don’t expect to face armed strangers when we shop with our families. That’s why we’re asking Kroger, the country’s largest grocery retailer, to prohibit open carry at its supermarkets. In recent years, man shootings and gun rallies have taken place at Kroger brand stores, which include Fred Meyer, Ralph’s, Smiths, Food4Less, Harris Teeter, and others. The company policies says that its core values include creating a ‘safe and secure workplace and shopping environment.’ It’s time for Kroger to live up to that promise.”
They add: “The arrival of Moms Demand Action will be looked back as the moment the debate began to shift. It will take time, but we see us eventually achieving our goal of universal background checks at the federal level.”
I also learned that Moms Demand Action launched a campaign asking Target to stop allowing open carry around our children and families. Target announced that it heard the concerns and will no longer allow firearms inside stores. Moms Demand Actions says: “This huge change made by one of our country’s largest and leading retailers is proof that when women and mothers collectively use our voices and votes, we will change the culture of gun violence in America.”
I’m not going to get a gun, and I am thankful that I am not in a position to “need” one, whatever that might mean. I do, however, support the Moms Demand Action Group because I understand that their focus is on gun safety and reducing gun violence, and all parents surely have a responsibility to do that. Several of the members of the group own guns in their homes, but their mission is to protect and educate kids as long as guns exist in society, and to prevent kids accessing guns full stop. I totally know that if my son came across a gun, he’d pick it up, mess with it, and I shudder to think of the consequences. So, maybe, whilst I’m here in the USA it’s time to educate my six-year-old about guns. That’s something this British mother never thought she would say.
As part of my continued learning process about guns I should like to experience some time in an open carry state to see how it feels, to try to get in the head of someone who puts that weapon on every day, just as I do with my wedding ring, and to talk more deeply with those men and women who feel so passionately about their right to bear arms. I have so many questions about self-defense, gun-identity and, for those who have done it, how it might feel to shoot someone in any given situation. But, on the other side, I also have questions for victims and their families of gun violence, and for those family members of someone who has been a perpetrator of gun violence.
I will never fully understand that deeply ingrained culture of the right to bear arms that defines many Americans, but as is my mantra as an expat in the USA, “one way is not right and one way is not wrong, we’re just different.”
Whatever you choose, be safe.
But just don’t get me started on American roundabout etiquette … 😉
Claire Bolden McGill is a British expat living in Maryland, which means she still drinks tea, but now has it with a corn muffin instead of a crumpet. Coming from a full- time job as a communications and PR manager in the UK, Claire and her family made the move the States in August 2012 and haven’t looked back since. Claire is a fitness instructor and blogger. She blogs about fitness and what it’s like to be a Brit in the USA, as well as trying to find time to write her novel and short stories, make lists about things she should do like clean the house and bake things, and be an utterly doting wife and mother. @ukhousewifeusa