This column has been bouncing between the synapses of my brain for quite some time in one form or another. There is a difficult reality we Americans must face. Difficult words need to be spoken, and difficult choices need to be made. The fact is, we have a violent culture, and we cannot continue to treat each mass shooting like it is a rare tragedy or the act of a deranged mind. Of course, it is a tragedy and the act of a deranged mind, but what it is not is rare.
More than a dozen people were killed this week in the “Batman Massacre,” which is just the latest in a long line of mass shootings in the U.S. Last year, half as many died in the attempted political assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, two years prior 13 were killed at Fort Hood, another 14 dead in New York, and 11 more in Alabama. The fatal shooting in 2008 at the Knoxville Unitarian Church, which left two dead, barely made a blip on the national radar. The list of these mass shootings, sadly, goes on. While these are the most visible examples of violence in America, they are merely a drop in the bucket compared to the horrific homicide statistics in the U.S. Last year, there were nearly 17,000 homicides in the U.S., over two-thirds of which were committed by guns.
This is not a post about gun control, but I think it should be in the discussion. Over the last ten years, we have allowed the assault weapons ban to expire, allowed loopholes to be created to get around background checks, and decriminalized extended clip magazines (such as the one used in the Gabrielle Giffords shooting). Second Amendment advocates argue that more guns make us safer, but it is easier to buy guns in the U.S. than in any other liberal democracy, and our homicide rates are double, triple, even quintuple the rates in these other countries. In my view, widespread availability of guns is a big part of the problem, and yet it is becoming easier to buy guns, not more difficult.
Unfortunately, the political situation is such that no one can mention gun control after a tragedy, for fear of “politicizing the issue.” Perhaps the issue needs to be “politicized.” Although policies with foresight–ones that actually prevent shootings before they happen–would be preferred, reactive policies are better than no policies at all. However, that is all but impossible. Instead, we do nothing while mass shootings grab the headlines, and another ten-thousand victims die each year from gun crime.
But this is not a post about gun control. Let me switch tack for a second to draw a parallel to another controversial topic in the States: abortion. One of my biggest problems with the pro-life movement is not their stance, which is a moral judgement that I happen to disagree with, but their combative attitude toward related, but separate, issues that would actually reduce abortions in America. These groups, by and large, want to do away with sex education and access to contraception. If the goal were truly about reducing abortions and unwanted pregnancies, these groups should be for any strategies that will ultimately help. The goal should be to save lives; abortions will likely always be legal (and they certainly will never go away completely), but anti-abortion groups would go a long way toward achieving their goal of fewer abortions in America by promoting these policies.
Conversely, we cannot save lives in America, regardless of the number of gun control laws we enact, without first addressing the culture of violence in the U.S., and the prevalence of guns. I think the answer is one and the same: an inherent lack of trust in one another and in our government. The U.S. gained its independence from one of the greatest empires in history with a few thousand men and muskets, so it is understandable that we have a strange reverence for guns. Very strange indeed, we own the most guns, both per capita and total. For every 10 Americans, there are nearly 9 guns in the States. I’ll be the first to admit, I’ve never understood the “we need our guns to protect ourselves from the government” philosophy (since they now have tanks, fighter jets, and nukes), but it is a philosophy that is deeply embedded in the American psyche.
Given the culture of violence in America today, distrust is a natural reaction. The media, especially cable news, only exacerbates the problems of fear and distrust, and have for decades. Political polarization also adds fuel to the fire, further separating us, and making it impossible to come to a solution for any problem, particularly ones as complex and serious as gun violence. If educated, millionaire politicians work next to each other on a daily basis and don’t trust each other because of philosophical differences on some issues, how are the rest of us expected to trust random strangers?
For this reason, above all others, I am a couchsurfer. By forcing myself to trust a stranger and letting them stay at my home, I shatter the cycle of mistrust. Also, by interacting with people from very different backgrounds, I’ve been exposed to new ideas, and I’ve been shown that the rest of the world isn’t as scary (or different, or bad) as is commonly presumed in America. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: couchsurfing has taught me that most people are mostly good most of the time. This is a lesson that we must learn as a nation in order to stop the cycle of violence.
Not all Americans can (or should) be couchsurfers, so what else can we do to curb violence? For one, we need to stop exporting our violence. We’ve been at war in Afghanistan for more than ten years, and in that time we have become desensitized to other acts of aggression. Drone attacks in Pakistan? Sure. Libya? Go ahead. New wars or military actions barely grab our attention for more than a fleeting moment. When and where does the War on Terror end? Do we just bomb countries until there are no more countries left to bomb? If it is justifiable for the state to kill, why wouldn’t it be justifiable for its citizens to do the same? Ultimately, the costs–human and financial–are far too high to continue this aggression.
Having lived in both Japan and Korea–two of the safest countries–the comparison is stark. While I would not necessarily consider either “ideal,” there is an inherent and profound respect for others, especially others’ property. At some point in the past, these societies decided that stealing and violence (at least within their own borders) were unacceptable. Can Americans change over time? Certainly, but as Americans, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and change what we don’t like. Gun control might not be the answer, but it will probably have to be one of many solutions to make America safer, and prevent the next deranged mind from committing the next mass shooting.