When my partner Bill encounters a bad driver I plead with him not to hoot. “Remember we’re in America,” I say. “They might have a gun.”
In my doctor’s waiting room, a clearly mentally ill patient was ranting. I pretended to read, watching her from the corner of my eye. When she reached in her bag I readied to react – in case she pulled out a gun.
Some estimates say half of US households have at least one firearm. But I’ve also read that gun ownership is down to ‘only’ one in three. Phew, that makes me feel better.
Sometimes I look at friends and wonder what category they’re in. It’s not generally done to ask about guns in California, a state at the forefront of firearm control.
I sometimes hear Brits blithely say the US should ban civilian guns. That might have worked a century ago, but not now. How do you ban something that’s everywhere?
Pinning down gun ownership is notoriously tricky for researchers, partly because owners – fearing future confiscation – often lie. And nobody knows how many buyers are first-timers or existing gun owners stocking up. Plus, forgotten old guns often work. But without doubt, sales are skyrocketing. Every time someone calls for restrictions people rush to buy while they can. President Obama has inadvertently become a gun salesman. Fear after mass shootings is also driving sales.
America has more than half the world’s civilian firearms. Gun dealers outnumber all the supermarkets, Starbucks, and McDonald’s put together.
Our nearest gun shop is three minutes’ drive. We occasionally take curious visitors, though I prefer to stay in the car. It’s chilling to see so many weapons up close. Last time I went I took a leaflet telling me that $75 would get me a four-hour course in using a gun safely for ‘home defense’. Attendees are asked to bring a brimmed hat, 25 rounds of birdshot, and eye protection – sunglasses will work fine. Ammo pouches are optional. Shotguns are available for use free.
Gun ownership is not restricted to the hardcore right who call California ‘Commiefornia’ and complain about gun-grabbing governments. A left-leaning pastor told me he used to keep a gun in his bedside drawer. Now his children were toddling, he was locking it up, but he worried it would take too long to access in an emergency.
A retired teacher I know, a gentle soul, was called for jury service on a gun case. In these trials potential jurors are usually asked about their attitude to guns before selection. One after another of her fellows said they owned firearms. When she did the same the judge couldn’t contain himself. “Even the kindergarten teacher!” he exclaimed. She, like many Americans, has never bought a gun, but had inherited a few, plus ammunition, from her dad who had been in the military.
Civilians can’t carry firearms openly in California. In 1967, when the future President Reagan was Governor, he banned ‘open carry’; seeing armed cop-watching Black Panthers patrolling the streets had put the wind up him. Perversely, some pro-gun folk like this ban. They think if people saw guns while queuing in Starbucks they might be frightened into supporting gun control.
Most firearm owners are over 55, white and overwhelmingly male. Gun ownership is tied up with being macho. Bushmaster Firearms even ran an advertising campaign saying that buying one of its semi-automatic rifles meant your ‘man card’ was reissued. But the demographic may be widening to include more women and more ages.
The vastly powerful National Rifle Association, which pours millions into pro-gun lobbying, says the number of over-65s taking its firearm course has quadrupled since 2012. Some senior centres now include shooting along with bingo and film shows.
The people’s right, given by the Constitution’s second amendment, to ‘keep and bear’ arms is defended with ferocity – though, considering the shooting by police officers of gun-carrying black men, this right seems only for white people. The late Charlton Heston summed up the mindset of some gun owners by holding his rifle aloft and declaring, “from my cold dead hands.”
They hate the Government telling them what to do. They say, with cold logic, if guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns. That good guys with guns ward off crime and stop the bad guys with guns – and there are lots here – having the advantage. That guns guard against the possibility of a police or military state.
Forget counter arguments. That guns are rarely effective for self-defence, usually doing nothing at best and at worst raising violence. That guns would not protect them from a determined onslaught from tanks. That in mass shootings the innocent get caught in crossfire or mistaken for terrorists.
Arguing against feelings is hard. British journalist Piers Morgan did that and it contributed to the loss of his prestigious CNN talk show. He came across as an elite foreigner telling Americans what to do. Many believe the benefits of being armed outweigh the price – mass shootings, guns used in fits of rage, and children killed playing with guns.
The debate between the pro and anti-gun lobby is not straightforward. Many gun owners want more stringent background checks and tighter restrictions on assault weapons. A growing number denounce the NRA’s extremism.
If I were a native-born American, what would I think? Brits forget how new this country is, and that it was forged by firearms. Frontier mentality is more than a memory. Here babies get names such as Gunner, Trigger, Shooter, Magnum, Pistol, Remington, Browning, and Beretta.
Change, if it comes, will be slow and spring from cultural shifts. Maybe one day owning a gun will be like smoking.
There have been more than 30 shootings in the last 18 months in the bad part of our town. Meanwhile Bill and I, in our posher part, may be gaining from guns. A policeman told us there’s less chance of night burglaries since burglars fear homeowners may be armed. Instead, thieves knock on doors in daytime to see if you’re home. We always answer.
By Lynne Bateson, US Correspondent
As a child growing up in a Yorkshire village, journalist Lynne Bateson rarely went to the city of Leeds just a few miles away, but she dreamed of living in the US. She made it. Here she recounts her adventures, taking a down-to-earth look at life Stateside.