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Blogs

The Foreign Journalist’s Path to Enlightenment

13 March 2008

6:25 PM

13 March 2008

6:25 PM

As we all know, Americans’ love affairs with God and guns baffle foreigners. In that respect this Reuters story is obviously not aimed at the wires’ US clients. It’s meant to be helpful and explanatory and is, therefore, a good thing. In fact it’s a kind of journalistic rite-of-passage you need to pass through to demonstrate that, to some extent at least, you’ve moved beyond the cartoon stereotypes of America that editors – and many readers – love so much.

Still, one can’t help but smile at this sort of stuff (emphasis added):

The American affinity for guns may puzzle foreigners who link high ownership rates and liberal gun ownership laws to the 84 gun deaths and 34 gun homicides that occur in the United States each day and wonder why gun control is not an issue in the U.S. presidential election.

The owners are not just urban criminals and drug dealers. There are hunters and home security advocates, and then there are the gun collectors.

"People are ‘Oh, you collect guns, you must be bad.’ That’s nonsense. Gun collectors aren’t criminals, they are nobody to be frightened of," says Black, one of several hobby collectors in this small Arizona town.

[Alt-Text]


Still, I shouldn’t mock the Reuters reporter. Like I say, it’s an important stepping stone along the road to understanding America a little better. I made some of the same points in a Scotsman piece the morning after the dreadful shootings at Virginia Tech last year:

"By road, Blacksburg is only a few hundred miles from Washington DC; psychologically, it belongs to a different America altogether. This was once frontier territory, the front line of the American colonies as the fledgling republic began its relentless expansion west. These hills – the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smoky Mountains and the rest – were largely settled by Scots-Irish immigrants whose ethos and culture played a still under-appreciated part in the formation of the United States. If America’s gun culture has a spiritual home, it is to be found in Appalachia.

As Jim Webb, the Vietnam hero who was elected to the Senate last November, writes in Born Fighting, his history of the Scots-Irish in the US, the people here "are a culture founded on guns, which considers the Second Amendment sacrosanct, while literary and academic America considers such views not only archaic but also threatening". It’s not, of course, only "literary and academic America" that struggles to understand this proudly redneck culture; the rest of the world does too.

If Webb is right – and I think he is – then the gun is an inescapable part of America’s sense of itself. If the colonists had not been armed, they could not have rebelled against King George. Such sentiments may seem anachronistic or even callous in the wake of the worst mass shooting in US history, but no attempt to understand why America, alone* of western countries, remains an armed society can hope to be successful without appreciating the historical – and constitutional – place the gun has played in its history. Wishing it otherwise is not enough to wish it away.

That culture still thrives. Three summers ago, I attended what proudly billed itself as "America’s Largest Machine Gun Shoot and Military Gun Show" in rural Kentucky. Guns from all over the world were on sale, while patrons could rent .50 calibre machine guns to blast away at wrecked cars, buses and boats. Time after time, I was asked if there was anything like this in Scotland. "No, not really," I would say, mustering as much understatement as seemed sensible. "You could see how people could twist this into something it’s not," one sub-machine gun wielding man told me. "But," he insisted, "these people are just average Joes having fun."

And for the most part, he was right."

*An error, of course. Switzerland for one has a very high rate of gun-ownership. But that slipped my mind at the time.

[Hat-tip: Jacob Sullum]

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