I miss the sense of space. The way you can drive for miles on straight roads where the only variation in the scenery is the swapping of cornfields for soybean fields. I miss the wide stretches of sky. I miss the energy of a young country exploring its cultural identity separate from her parent society. A country still trying to figure out who she is and what she wants to be when she grows up. I miss front porches and screen doors that slap you in the ass if you don’t get out quick enough. Also rootbeer.
Then something like Aurora, Colorado happens and that screen door smacks me in the face.
When my Yorkshire high school students learn I am American, one of the first questions they ask me is “Did you live in Florida?” followed quickly by “Do you own a gun?” Their voices express horrified fascination at the idea their teacher might know her way around a firearm or even have one she could produce at any given time. If I were a lesser person I would use these prejudices to my advantage. I am sure classroom management would be easier if my pupils believed I kept a handgun in my desk drawer.
Once the topic of guns comes up in serious conversation, horrified fascination generally morphs into derisive confusion. They don’t really understand why Americans want/need to own guns. Being from a rural community, many of them have hunted with rifles—usually birds—but they just don’t grasp gun ownership on an American level.
So I explain the Second Amendment. “The constitution guarantees the right of all American citizens to keep and bear arms.” That causes blank stares, so I explain the Constitution.
“In the latter part of the eighteenth century America achieved freedom from the British. The Founding Fathers of the new nation wanted their rights, responsibilities and freedoms clearly spelled out, so they created a flexible written document to serve as the foundation of the infant government. That is the constitution. It’s like our book of rules and regulations. The right to keep and bear arms is part of the Constitution. To Americans that is pretty important. Our entire political and legal system begins and ends with the Constitution.”
More blank stares blink back at me. “But why Miss? Why is the right to keep and bear arms important?” So I put the Constitution into context.
“At the time it was written there was no organised military or police force. The first part of the Second Amendment makes provision for the creation of one and makes certain that no one can take away the rights of the people to defend themselves.”
“But,” points out one brave, clever student, “you have the Army and the Police now. Why do ordinary people still need guns?”
Now it is my turn to blink blankly back at them. “Good question,” I say to stall. I have to make a choice. Do I give them an academic answer or tell them what I think? This might be the only chance they get to hear an actual American comment on an American issue which resonates across the globe. I choose.
“You are absolutely right. They don’t need guns anymore. America has a well regulated military and police force which provides for the security of a free state. Just like the constitution says. There is no reason why Americans need guns for anything other than hunting, which could easily be controlled under the same regulations you have in the UK.
“So why do Americans still insist on their right to own guns, Miss?”
Sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness? The constitution says they can so they will, gosh darnit? The same rationale allows organisations like the Ku Klux Klan to exist, even though their mission flies in the face of democracy. The First Amendment gives them the right to free speech, so they exercise it.
“Americans are proud of their Constitution and rightly so. Any challenge to the rights laid out in the Constitution becomes not only a political issue but a deeply personal one. It is one of the most significant political documents in the history of the world.” But we cling onto it too tightly. Infants do not part easily with a beloved teddy which has comforted them through dark nights and lonely moments.
The brightest student who has listened mostly closely interrupts. “Amendments can be repealed, right Miss? Like when you had prohibition and then you changed your minds. Couldn’t you do the same thing with the Second Amendment?”
Sigh. I am not going to get out of this easily. Bless their innocent confusion and clear-headedness.
“There is a well-organised and heavily-funded coalition called the National Rifle Association which puts political and economic pressure on the government. Most politicians are too frightened of the impact on their careers if they suggested a repeal of the Second Amendment. Even restrictions on guns is not politically popular in the US.”
“But kids keep dying.”
“Yes they do.”
“Doesn’t anyone care? They can stop it. Don’t they want to change things?”