Illustration by Adriana Psaltis
Attempting to understand the American gun crisis can be a baffling and frustrating experience. Just a mere glance at the mess of social fear, legislative gridlock, and ingrained impressions of constitutional rights, and you’re ready to cancel that dream trip to New York before you’ve had a chance to compare flight fares. If you’re confused as to where to start pointing the blame, you’re not alone.
Having been born in the States, the gun debate has floated around my subconscious for a long time. But in all honesty, the crisis was only associated in my mind, for longer than I care to admit, with one-dimensional stereotypes accumulated from the media. It wasn’t until the December 2012 Newtown, Connecticut shootings and the deaths of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School that the reality really hit home. Sandy Hook was only an hour away from my own childhood elementary school—the students massacred were the same age as I was when I attended. Since that tragedy, 74 more shootings have occurred in American schools.
Let me break that down. Not including accidental shootings or other public massacres, 74 armed individuals have walked into separate schools in the last two years, and proceeded to kill children. I guess the first question that comes to mind when considering the gun debate is, quite frankly, how? How has this continued to happen on such a regular basis? Now, instead of aiming at the root of the problem—ready access to guns—schools are attempting to protect their students by treating the symptoms. A recent development in Oklahoma will see children using bulletproof blankets in the (likely) event of a shooting. It’s been thirteen years since I lived in the United States, and during that time guns have lost none of their social prevalence, with the prospect of change nowhere in sight.
Despite an excess of factors weighing into this debate, one uncertainty has been brought up time and time again. Do gun laws and their restrictions actually work? Despite many states attempting to enforce gun control within their own jurisdictions, it is the federal government and its weak gun laws that have left much of the country exposed, by bureaucratic gaps, to gun violence. Despite attempts from the Obama administration, many states still do not carry out background checks on all firearm sales or prohibit the sale of assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines. What’s more, just because gun sales may be controlled in one state, this does not stop guns travelling by other means into other states. All in all, a failure to implement nation-wide restrictions and control has left the country divided and ultimately unprotected—despite contrary belief.
We were taught at a very young age to be wary of guns. Much like receiving a lesson on stranger danger, I remember having ‘the gun talk’ on multiple occasions. Unlike any other lesson in self-protection, guns were a complicated issue to address. For starters, how do you tell a child why we have guns in the first place? Despite the disturbing cause and effect of firearms, there was no specific person or side of the road to avoid. Bad guys had guns, but so did good guys. When our first-grade teacher sat us down, it was not to explain the country’s increasingly controversial and heated debate surrounding gun laws. Rather, we were told what to do when we found a gun in a shoebox on top of our parents’ cupboard. Essentially, what this conversation entailed was pretty basic: don’t touch the thing whatever you do, and find an adult. We may have only been children, but we were old enough to accept, and consequently forget, that firearms coincided with our daily lives. We were prepped for the possible scenario that a gun could be living with our neighbours, our friends or even in our own homes.
As a seven-year-old child, however, the reality of the gun situation in the States was never applied to my own life. In my mind, guns and I were never in the same context. It was only after my family moved back to Australia that my mother revealed the pains she had gone to ensure this mindset. I should at this stage emphasise my ignorance to gun culture as a child. Despite a hazy knowledge of their existence, I had never seen a gun before. With two Australian parents, guns were not a factor within our own household. Guns in other homes, however, were harder to avoid. Though estimates vary, it is believed that America is in possession of 270 million to 310 million firearms. That’s almost enough to arm every person in the country with a gun. The number of citizens to actually own a gun is surprisingly low considering this availability. According to a poll researched by Gallup in October 2013, as few as 37 per cent of Americans were recorded as holding a gun in their home. What that amounts to is a minority of households owning the majority of guns.
During our time living in Connecticut, my brother and I did manage to befriend one family of gun enthusiasts. With a hunting trophy room to match, this family made a single handgun seem casual in comparison to their gun locker. Though my brother and I were in almost complete ignorance of the guns stored within our friends’ home, cue our mother’s dread. Unbeknownst to us, my mother had made a phone call to this family before a play date. Unless all guns were locked into the gun safe, my brother and I were not allowed over to play. For the most part, I think the family understood. Though their children may have had a strong awareness of guns, my brother and I did not. But as my mother later told me, just because they removed the gun from under the bed for our sake, who knows whether they considered the gun stowed in their car’s glove box? There was only so much she could do to ensure a normal, yet gun-free, childhood for us living in the States.
Since the age of four, I have been able to pledge allegiance to the American flag, without fault. This has never been a problem to me. If anything, the pledge has become a reflex in the back of my mind—a pulse of nationalism that comes with nostalgia for my childhood. When considering my preschool indoctrination, however, it’s hard to ignore my utter failure to understand the sense of the words. Not that anyone noticed or seemed to mind. As far as the majority was concerned, if you chanted the words in unison with a hand over your heart, somehow it would amount to loving your country more. Only now can I actually distinguish the meaning of words like ‘republic’ and ‘indivisible’. And it is only now that I can recognise the sheer audacity of other words, ‘with liberty and justice for all’.