May 5, 2013

Of Guns, Manhunts, and Other American Pursuits

Most expats will agree that the best time to tell people about another country is during the first few months you've moved there, when your capacity to see the new and different is the greatest and the freshness hasn't worn off.

It's no different when you're moving back home. If not exactly new, everything still registers as different from before, and you're driven to dig deeper to fully grasp the psyche of your new surroundings. In my case, this prompted me to write about shopping, about the weather, and about church and religion soon after we arrived in Tennessee.

But so far I've stayed away from the gun issue. Even though of course it's the one glaring difference between the U.S. and most other countries, and one that the newly arrived expat/repat can't fail to notice.

I stayed away from it because it's just too touchy a subject.

Except when your neighborhood has been on lockdown for an entire night, with helicopters circling overhead to assist  scores of police in a manhunt for a guy who is believed to have murdered his wife practically nextdoor and is now prowling the woods in a ski mask with a quiver of arrows on his back.

When all that happens to you, you may be forgiven to want to talk about guns.

And I warn you that I will talk about them. You may not like my opinion, but I'll say it anyway. I have no boss to please, no lobby group to kowtow to, no constituents who'll make angry calls to me. The only constituents I care about are my husband and children, and it is for their sake and everybody else's spouses and children that these things must be said. I know that I'll be preaching to the choir, as those of you who consider yourself gun rights supporters will probably have stopped reading by now. But even if I can just build a tiny spark of momentum for what I believe must change, then I'll consider it worth it.


Call me a hypocrite for allowing such realistic looking toy guns
in my house, but the irony is that they are from South Africa -
in America, it's easier to go and purchase a real gun than a
real-looking toy gun, due to toy gun regulations.

To get on with my story, since I promised you a manhunt: Just days after the nation was gripped by the terror at the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt to kill and capture the perpetrators, we had our very own manhunt right here in Brentwood, TN. Right here in our very own gated community where people move to get away from those kinds of things happening. Consider the irony, if you will, of us having just moved away from one of the most dangerous cities in the world, as some will have you believe, to the relative safety of American suburbia.

It was a Sunday night. We were all watching Lincoln, the movie, and apparently were so enthralled by it that we failed to take note of the helicopters hovering overhead, and the phone messages beeping in the background. It's a good thing we have teenagers in the family who can't go to bed without checking their phones first, and so we learned, while scanning about twenty group messages sent in the preceding hours, that a neighbor who had just shot and killed his wife in their home had been on the loose for hours evading the police. The two-year old daughter was found, unharmed, in the house and taken away. All residents were urged, needless to say, to stay in their homes and lock all their doors. When the name of the suspect was released, it sounded familiar, but I couldn't place it at first. I was sure it was just a coincidence. And then it suddenly hit me. This was our  new orthodontist's last name. Meaning that it was her who had been killed.

I didn't know her well. We had only been at her office twice, once to have everyone assessed, and the next time for Impatience to get her braces in. But the thing is, once you know someone who these bad things happen to, it's different. It's more personal. She was a super nice woman, very successful to boot, young and good looking, with a beautiful family judging by the picture on her desk. That just goes to show how little we really ever know about other people. The husband, from what is now coming to light, had apparently acted increasingly strange over the last few months, being spotted with a ski mask creeping along ravines - we are on a golf course, not a military obstacle course - on several occasions and having been arrested at least once for drunk driving.

It is such a tragedy. And it was far more excitement in our quiet neighborhood than I can wish for ever again. I'm just grateful we were at home with our kids and not out with them home alone, as we had been the previous night. In the end, the man surrendered to police early the next morning, and we were free to move on with our lives again.

Except the one who didn't survive.

So, about those guns. He had one in his home, of course, and, as happens far too often, used it to kill his wife. Whether premeditated or in a rage, no one knows, although it is hard to imagine that he would just let his little girl watch and then leave her alone if he had planned this ahead. But then the whole thing is hard to imagine. While the gun in the house might strike you as unusual if you're coming from another country, it is of course a very common occurrence here in the United States. Everyone is entitled to own one, or an entire arsenal for that matter. There are different rules as to how openly or concealed you can carry your gun around with you, depending on which state you reside in, and they are prohibited in certain places, but as to your right to keep one in your very own home, that can't be infringed upon. It's right there in that fabled Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Or, I should say, it can be interpreted to be in there, because the language in it isn't as clear as one might wish. It all might come down to a comma, quite frankly. The semantics of the second amendment has spawned many a legal essay.

Anyway, ever since the Newtown shooting last December, the American gun debate has been taken up with renewed vigor, culminating not long ago in the defeat of a proposed law to tighten background checks, among other things.

That is where the substance of the debate becomes quite incomprehensible to the outsider. What argument could ever be made against requiring that people's backgrounds are checked thoroughly to make sure they won't be a danger to anyone, before letting them walk away with such a potentially deadly instrument, you might ask?

Apparently, many arguments. Most of them driven by the fear that once on the slippery slope of any kind of closer scrutiny of people's lives, we will soon find ourselves on the path to a totalitarian government. We already got a Socialist who wasn't even born here leading it. And which to defend ourselves against is why we need to accumulate all those weapons in the first place. That's what it says in the Second Amendment, right?

Please excuse my sarcasm. I should stop watching the Daily Show.

Perhaps I'm just one of those liberal types who doesn't understand about guns. But I should tell you that I did grow up with a gun in our house. As unlikely as that was - and still is - in Germany, my father, by virtue of working in a prison - though as a teacher - was issued a permit for a handgun. I was very impressed by this in a Scout/Atticus Finch sort of way, as I probably didn't know anyone who struck you as less likely than my father to aim a gun at anything. But he could shoot. I vividly remember the day he finally gave in to my incessant begging and took me target shooting, behind the barn at the vacation home we'd started going to when I was about twelve years old.

I absolutely loved it. Shooting at - and, especially, hitting - a target is an exhilarating feeling that nothing else comes quite close to. It is really cool. I'm pretty competitive, and if you give me something to shoot with, I want to hit something. Bow and arrow, rifle, clay pigeons, laser tag - I've tried a little bit of all of that and loved it every time. (The only kind of shooting I really suck at is when I play Call of Duty against one of my sons).

If I'd grown up in America, there is a good chance guns might have become a hobby of mine.

But none of that takes away the fact that they are, of course, quite dangerous. Can we all agree on that? Guns. Are. Dangerous. And can often be deadly.

The analogy lies in another very deadly instrument, albeit one with a very different purpose. I am speaking, of course, of the motor vehicle.

Do we not all agree to submit ourselves, quite voluntarily, to a whole host of rules so that we can be permitted to steer one? From having to obtain a license to purchasing costly insurance, from cumbersome safety devices to regular inspections, from a minimum age to steep penalties associated with any misuse that could potentially endanger others? And, lo and behold, we register it, putting a big fat license plate on it for the world to see so that police can track us should we behave with it in any potentially harmful manner. A license plate that can be traced right back to the owner.

All this bother and intrusion we accept. Because it has been proven to save lives.

Not everyone's life, of course. Accidents happen, and misuse happens, and recklessness happens. But it happens less often because there are rules. And when we see any new dangers contributing to higher casualties, like texting while driving, we come up with new, stricter rules. Just in the name of saving a few more people from harm.

The same parallels exist in other areas. There are a gazillion safety standards for the workplace, for baby cribs and toys, for ladders, for drugs, for paints, for pretty much anything you can think of.

Incredibly, guns are the exception. The American gun debate has not followed the pattern of rules and regulations to preserve lives. Every time a new rule is proposed, however watered-down and weak it might be, and however common-sense it would be considered in every single other country on this Earth, what's known here as "the gun lobby" rears its head in an uproar and somehow manages to shoot it down.

The mantra of the pro-gun crowd is that bad people will always get guns. Ergo, no need to regulate the good people with guns or look into their backgrounds. If the good people will always behave responsibly, and the bad people will disregard rules anyway, why bother with rules? They won't work!

Well, I don't know about you, but to me that line of reasoning is a bit, well, stupid. Why do we bother with police, then? If the good people will always behave well and the bad people will do their bad thing anyway, regardless, why not just save a whole lot of money by no longer sending out any police patrols? It's like throwing out our entire history of human civilization and, yes, rules of living together peaceably. It also totally disregards the entire matter of accidents.

Quite frankly, I don't know why this "gun lobby" is so strong and only seems to grow in influence. Yes, there are some powerful interests involved, but aren't there enough voters out there who are appalled at the innocent lives lost to insist that our politicians do something about it?

It's not like we aren't willing to respond swiftly when innocent lives are lost. Just look at what happens when there is a terrorist attack. Everything in our power is mobilized to deal with the current threat, like the Boston bombings, and we seem to be quite willing to talk about suspending a few rights here and there in order to prevent such threats in the future. Freedom of speech? Freedom of religion? Freedom against searches? Fifth Amendment? Nah. They're all in the constitution, that's true, but not really sacrosanct. Except, of course, the Second Amendment. That one IS sacrosanct. As Jon Stewart so aptly observed, "God help us if the Muslims ever decide to form a well-regulated militia; then we'll have no way to stop them."

And while we're on Jon Stewart or rather the Daily Show, you have to watch this series on Australia and why you absolutely can't compare its success with gun control to the United States, because of course there are no parallels at all:



It's  hard to believe that anything will ever change in a country so obsessed with guns, and where the balance between gun owners' rights and gun victims' rights is so thoroughly tilted towards the gun owners. Once again, many Americans won't even agree with me in this assessment, but to anyone looking in from the outside this is as crystal clear as the air above Joburg after a rainstorm.

I do have hope. Look at the tobacco industry and how the tide finally turned against it, how people finally didn't buy its lies and false statistics anymore, how it was forced to acknowledge it was responsible for a health problem.

But it won't happen anytime soon in the case of guns. A lot more innocent people will have to die before our collective disgust will rise to the level needed to really do something about it.

What will YOU do about it?

You could start by sharing this post. I won't even hold a gun
to your head to make you do it.