The Problem with this Symbol of American Freedom

The first time I saw a gun, I was 21 years old and had just moved to California from Ireland.
I was at a party in an apartment complex with a pool outside. My friends and I had met an ex-sheriff (or so he claimed) with a tattoo saying ‘Ireland’ on his rib cage. He had never even been.

Later that night, he drunkenly opened a cabinet in his sitting room and pulled out two guns, one large and one small. All the Europeans freaked out. When we realised he didn’t intend to actually use the gun, we stood back up, but didn’t relax. He passed the weapons around, and we each held them with a strange curiosity – each of us in that group of fifteen twenty-something year olds.

I got anxious at one point, but he cupped my face in his hands and said “don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, I used to be a sheriff”. Somehow, I doubted him. If this man used to be a sheriff, then why did he still have guns? And if he was just a lying drunk idiot, then why did ever have a gun?

The Las Vegas shooting has brought up a conversation in the US that the nation has had to many times in the past, and that only seems to exist in the US. Those who support the NRA have, socially and mentally, linked their right to bear arms to a twisted freedom. But the truth is, America is not the only country with freedom. It seems to use freedom as a unique selling point, ignoring the fact that other countries feel free without their populations owning firearms. With my Irish passport, I am free. 

I have never felt persecuted, in danger, or suppressed. I am free, and yet never has it occurred to me that I might want a firearm. That’s because, up until the story above, I had never even seen one – not even with a police officer.

Gun control is not something that a modern, first-world, democratic country should have to fight for. But, in the US, the fight for anti-gun law comes as a result of the fact that there is a gun culture that is unparalleled across the world. The only other nation with issues like this are war-torn. Yes, in Europe, people die from trucks being mowed into pathways and small bombs in public places and – occasionally, every once in a blue moon, someone sick gets their hands on a gun and shoots people. And people die. And it’s awful – as awful as it is in the US when it happens here. The reality remains that there are sick people everywhere, but in the US, they are given guns as a constitutional right and a symbol of their country.

From an international standpoint, the alarming and undeniable truth is that gun control is only one of the steps needed in the US to prevent these attacks. In order to undo the thriving gun culture, time is needed to change perceptions of freedom and the habit of toxic behaviour.

Cultural change is possible when habit is broken. Every significant development for social justice has only started with the law, and has had to progress gradually into people's consciousness. For those of us already there, it seems obvious that people shouldn't have ease of access to automatic weaponry - but for those who have a different perspective, the road to freedom, independent of arms, is long and unclear. They have tied their patriotism to their right to guns in a way that has made American patriotism synonymous with violent international intervention on the global stage, to the point that the US has a reputation for war with sovereign nations and war within itself just as much as it has a reputation for greatness and opportunity.

What is vital for pro-gun advocates to understand is that culture is malleable. If guns were taken away from them, they may feel robbed - but their children would grow up in a nation that would become slowly void of gun violence, and they wouldn't know any different life. They would read stories in history books about the gun violence issue that used to exist in the US, and thank their parents and grandparents for changing the law that would have made it possible for them to have been shot at a concert or in school.

The reasons that NRA supporters give for being 'pro-gun' falls to patriotism and their idea of what it means to be American. I remember watching TV shows as a child that were based in Washington, and learning about the concept of patriotism in a way that I had never learned it in the EU. I watched endless white, male actors play presidents that would declare, in rooms full of reporters, that American lives were their main priority in whatever difficult situation the story-line had placed them in. Despite their global standing and reputation as the only first-world country that continues to start wars in foreign nations, Americans have always felt like their lives were under threat from external sources. In the US, we send brave young people to war with the distorted view that they are defending America, when the only nations who wish any harm on America are the ones that America invaded in the first place. It's seems that the US has made its own enemies abroad by infiltrating countries and forcing them to be more 'American', while also creating violence internally with this constructed sense of nationalism and toxic patriotism. The depressing irony is that America, through its administration and economy of political power, puts this sense of 'Americanism' above actual American lives, even though politicians seem to talk a very big game about protecting their citizens.

While other nations have evolved to realise that nationalism is less important than happiness and human lives - both of their own citizens and of the people of other countries - America seems to have their priorities aligned in reverse, so that nationalism and a socially constructed constitution comes before American lives, which in turn come before the lives of foreign people or anyone who doesn't fit the ideal image of the American patriot.

So, we're all left with the same burning questions for those in power and their supporters - if you protect your right to arms in order to defend freedom, but everyone dies because of those arms, then whose freedom is really being protected? And in what world is a concept, or a symbol, more important than a life?