“An International Embarrassment”: What America’s Gun Problem Looks Like from Abroad

Last week President Biden announced modest gun control proposals and referred to gun violence in the U.S. as “an international embarrassment.” I’ve certainly felt that it is during my time abroad–every time we see another mass shooting in the news, I feel embarrassed and frustrated by my home country. Gun violence in America feels like an intractable problem. There needs to be a deep cultural shift. It’s going to take a lot of work to convince the American people that guns are not essential to your individual freedom. Living in a place with no guns and free healthcare has shown me that this is what “freedom” actually looks like. It’s the freedom to not get shot in a road rage incident, the freedom for my kids to spend their time at school learning instead of practicing active shooter drills, and the freedom to go to the doctor when we need to without worrying about a co-pay.

Mass shootings account for a tiny proportion of overall gun deaths in the U.S. each year, but the persistence of mass shooting events does raise eyebrows in countries where the first mass shooting was the only mass shooting, because gun policy changed as a response.

  • Canada: “In 1989, a student armed with a semiautomatic rifle killed fourteen students and injured more than a dozen others at a Montreal engineering school. The incident is widely credited with driving major gun reforms that imposed a twenty-eight-day waiting period for purchases; mandatory safety training courses; more detailed background checks; bans on large-capacity magazines; and bans or greater restrictions on military-style firearms and ammunition.” (CFR)
  • Australia: “The inflection point for modern gun control in Australia was the Port Arthur massacre of 1996, when a young man killed thirty-five people and wounded nearly two dozen others. The rampage, perpetrated with a semiautomatic rifle, was the worst mass shooting in the nation’s history. Less than two weeks later, the conservative-led national government pushed through fundamental changes to the country’s gun laws in cooperation with the various states and territories, which regulate firearms.” (CFR)
  • United Kingdom: “In 1987, a lone gunman armed with two semiautomatic rifles and a handgun went on a six-hour shooting spree roughly seventy miles west of London, killing more than a dozen people and then himself. In the wake of the incident, known as the Hungerford massacre, Britain introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act, which expanded the list of banned weapons, including certain semiautomatic rifles, and increased registration requirements for other weapons. A gun-related tragedy in the Scottish town of Dunblane in 1996 prompted Britain’s strictest gun laws yet. A man armed with four handguns shot and killed sixteen schoolchildren and one adult before committing suicide in the country’s worst mass shooting to date. The incident sparked a public campaign known as the Snowdrop Petition, which helped drive legislation banning handguns, with few exceptions. The government also instituted a temporary gun buyback program, which many credit with taking tens of thousands of illegal or unwanted guns out of supply.” (CFR)
  • New Zealand: The 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings led to the Arms Amendment Act, which banned semi-automatic firearms, magazines, and certain types of parts, and instituted a buy-back scheme.

Why doesn’t the U.S. react to mass shootings in the same way? Is it “gun culture”? Is it the Second Amendment? Is it the lobbying power of the NRA? Possibly all of the above. Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s Loaded offers a compelling explanation for the difference between the U.S. and these countries:

“Violence perpetrated by armed settlers, even genocide, were not absent in the other territories where the British erected settler-colonies–Australia, Canada, and New Zealand–but the people of those polities never declared the gun a God-given right; only the founding fathers of the United States did that. And the people of the other Anglo settler-colonies did not have economies, governments, and social orders based on the enslavement of other human beings. The United States is indeed “exceptional,” just not in the way usually intoned by politicians and patriots.”

Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2018) Loaded: a Disarming History of the Second Amendment, San Francisco: City Lights Books, p. 202.

America’s “original sin” of slavery is directly linked to the problems of gun violence, white supremacy, and systemic racism as they are perpetrated today. It’s an international embarrassment that needs to be addressed comprehensively–and President Biden’s reference to statistics on gun violence against African Americans is a good step in this direction.

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