Reflections on America’s Gun Culture

by Jessica Stahl - Posts (449). Posted Monday, December 17th, 2012 at 6:39 pm

A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook Village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting

A woman puts a photo of a child on a makeshift memorial in the Sandy Hook Village of Newtown, Conn., as the town mourns victims killed in a school shooting

“Shootings in high schools and colleges are unfortunately very ‘American’ things in my mind,” Nareg once wrote on this site. “Maybe it’s because of the media coverage, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard of such tragic incidents with such regularity in other parts of the world.”

Nareg was reacting to a 2010 incident in which a student at the University of Louisville was arrested after pulling a gun at a meeting with faculty. Luckily no one was hurt in that incident, but it certainly wasn’t the first gun-related incident at an educational institution – universities are still reeling from the 2007 shooting at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, when student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people – and, as we found out last week, it’s far from the last.

On Friday, December 14, the U.S. and the world were shocked by news that 20-year-old Adam Lanza had opened fire at a Connecticut elementary school, killing 20 young children and six women.

“I heard the news of this unfortunate event on Friday afternoon as I was coming from my final exam for my first semester in an American college,” said Phillip, a Zimbabwean freshman at Bates College. “I wanted to cry for the loss of the young lives. I wanted to cry for the loss of the creativity, intelligence, talent and enthusiasm for life in those young boys and girls.”

He also said he began to think about the gun culture in America, as did many other international students.

“I arrived in August, just a few weeks after the shock of the Colorado massacre [in which 12 were killed and dozens wounded at a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises"], and yet this ugly and tragic issue has come around again so soon,” reflected Tom, who comes from England and is studying at the University of Maryland.

“I have to admit, one of my earliest concerns when coming to America was my vulnerability to gun crime.”

“I feel safer in my country,” agreed Silu, a Chinese graduate student at Michigan State University. “In China, no individual can own a gun.”

Silu added, “Of course, violence can be presented in different ways,” a fact underscored by a knife attack that wounded 22 children at a Chinese primary school on the same day as the Connecticut shooting. But for her the response to the massacre in Connecticut was simple: “Maybe it is time for the U.S government to reconsider gun control, after all these tragedies.”

A complicated issue

For Americans, however, the issue is not necessarily so clear-cut. While many are vehemently calling for stricter gun control laws to prevent future violence, those defending gun ownership rights react with equal intensity, arguing that self protection is the best way to stop incidents before they turn to mass violence.

It’s not the easiest position for many international students to understand.

“The gun culture of this country is probably the most bewildering thing about America to me,”  said Tom.

The U.S. is divided almost down the middle on the issue of gun control, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.  In their most recent survey, 47% said it was more important to control gun ownership, while 46% said it was more important to protect the rights of Americans to own guns.

The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is interpreted as providing the right to bear arms, and as a result some pro-gun groups argue that the government does not have the authority to restrict gun ownership. Gun rights groups also argue that gun ownership is a crime deterrent, and that restricting ownership will only prevent law-abiding citizens, not criminals, from obtaining guns.

Tom described his classmates’ views on gun control like this:

“We have debated this issue a few times in one of my history classes, but in this class full of Americans we always reach the same couple of conclusions; either that ‘this is America, we are free, we are entitled to do what we want’ or that ‘too many people have them now so it would be impossible to suddenly outlaw them.’”

A 10-year federal ban on assault weapons expired several years ago, and the Associated Press wrote that ”since that ban expired in 2004, few Americans have wanted stricter laws and politicians say they don’t want to become targets of a powerful gun-rights lobby.”

The massacre in Connecticut seems to have revived some of the momentum for instituting federal regulations around gun ownership.

How prevalent are guns on campus?

College campuses have been a central focus of the fight over gun control in recent years, with several states reopening the question of whether weapons should be allowed on campus.

Like many other public policies in the U.S., most gun regulations are currently set at a state or local level, rather than by the federal government.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), in 2012 16 states introduced legislation to allow concealed carry of firearms on campus, and three states introduced legislation to prohibit concealed carry. All of those measures failed, save two that are still pending.

Legally, the issue of whether guns are allowed on college campuses isn’t always decided on the basis of whether guns on campus is a good idea, but rather by whether universities can go against the laws of the state. This was the deciding factor in a 2011 case in which the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that the state’s Board of Higher Education could not prohibit weapons on college campuses. “The courts are not considering the sort of philosophical or policy issues. They’re looking at the statutes,” University of Denver law professor David Kopel told the Wall Street Journal.

In March 2012, the same reasoning decided a case overturning the University of Colorado’s ban on firearms. As of this year, students 21 and older may carry a gun on campus, as long as they hold a concealed carry permit and keep the weapon hidden. Guns are still banned from sporting events and dorms, and the university has created a special dorm for students who want to bring their guns into their residence.

But Gawker reported that as of November 25, not a single student had elected to move into that special dorm.

In fact, despite the U.S. having the highest rate of gun ownership in the world, weapons are not a common site on college campuses.  Firearms are banned at the overwhelming majority of colleges and universities.

Twenty-one states currently ban carrying a concealed weapon on campus, and in 23 additional states the decision is made by each college or university individually, according to the NCSL. There are only five states in which legislation and/or court rulings have allowed the carrying of concealed weapons on campuses.

Feelings of safety

“Today, as I sit writing this, at the Mount Holyoke College campus, I feel very safe,” reflected Javaria, a Pakistani undergraduate student. “I feel that I can walk out of my room and not fear getting shot or robbed by thugs. Yes, the elementary school shooting occurred just a few miles away from me, but I still feel safe.”

She’s not alone. Our bloggers reported their colleges or universities have a number of services to help students stay safe while on campus.

“Living in College Park, I am frequently reminded by the locals that I have to be vigilant since this is a rough area. Having said that, I have never felt particularly unsafe around here as our university has emergency phone booths dotted all around the campus, as well as CCTV and well-lit paths,” reported Tom. “Our student organization has a program to walk home with students who leave after 9 o’clock in the evening,” added Silu.

Phillip shared a link to his college’s protocols for dealing with an active shooter situation.  He said finding that information “gave me some relief because it showed that the responsible authorities were somehow equipped to handle such a situation.”

And Nareg and Sebastian, a Bolivian student at the University of Kansas, both reflected that their campuses offer mental health services to help any student who is having a hard time. “If a student shows worrisome tendencies, they usually become clear to those around him, who can hopefully take responsible measures,” said Nareg.

Added Javaria, “It is impossible for them to watch out for any Adam Lanza or Seung-Hui Cho, but I know they will watch out for as long as they can.”

2 Responses to “Reflections on America’s Gun Culture”

  1. Derek says:

    The vast majority of our shools are safe & we should not assume the tragedy of the Newtown, CT will be repeated in every school. Such shootings are statistically rare. We should take reasonable precautions like locking school doors during the day and having security guards but it will not be a common occurrence.

    According to DOJ, the crime rate in the US has decreased every year in the past 20 years even as firearm ownership has increased. Studies show more Americans use guns for self-defense each year, often w/o firing a shot, than used in a crime. In DC v. Heller the US Supreme Court held the 2nd Amend protects an individual right to keep & bear arms. It’s not an absolute right (none are), but it probably means you can’t ban semi-auto rifles like the AR-15 (which is not an assault rifle) and which are commonly used in shooting competitions.

  2. Mike Rowley says:

    If you feel you need to spell out every word to people about where it’s legal or illegal to carry a gun you are only making more work for the courts. Connecticut already has laws that do exactly what you want. The problem isn’t the laws. It’s the people, and no matter how much you would like to, you can’t outlaw a lack of intelligence or wisdom.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-fix/wp/2012/12/17/connecticut-gun-laws-among-the-nations-strictest/

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