In any mixed group of people of different nationalities it is only a matter of time and drinks until the token American will be asked to shed light upon the aspects of his homeland that foreigners find the most baffling. This is eminently fair; payback, if you will, for all of the times a group of Americans have asked the one Japanese person if everyone eats sushi every day and does karate, or the German is asked to defend his fatherland's somewhat checkered history since…Charlemagne, I guess.
The last time I visited Canada, a group of people explained to me why the U.S. healthcare system is idiotic as though this had not yet occurred to me, and that if only I brought back to America an explanation of our faulty logic we could finally fix the broken system. In my more recent experience abroad the topics were not quite as esoteric. Three times in a single week, though, I was asked to explain why everyone in America carries a gun.
It is hard to explain U.S. gun culture to a non-American. Especially as an outsider. Six capirinhas in, I cleared my throat and prepared to break new ground in advancing understanding among peoples.
First – and in any conversation about guns you really, really owe it to your audience to hammer this point home at the outset – the percentage of Americans who own guns is actually declining. Our country has more guns – nearly 300 million – than ever before yet the share of households that own a gun has fallen steadily during this Gun Boom (see what I did there). Simply put, everyone in America does not have a gun. America has a relatively small, possibly even shrinking, number of people who each own a large and growing number of guns. It's a bimodal distribution (note: do not explain it this way to normal people) with peaks at Zero Guns and Shitload of Guns.
So the first thing to understand about American gun culture is that you're either in or you're out. And if you're in, you are all in. Go big or go home, son. Back to this point in a minute.
The second thing to try to communicate is that unlike most nations, we do have firearm ownership written into our Constitution. What this means is that individuals have a right to own a gun. It does not mean, despite what the NRA has successfully argued, that one has a right to own any and all types of guns or to do with those guns whatever one's heart desires. The 2nd Amendment may tell us we can be armed, but it does not establish your right to own a .50 cal heavy machine gun and to carry it (supposing you could) into a Federal courthouse. This, I tried to explain, is where the left and right diverge.
Increasingly, though, the "no restrictions or regulations of any kind ever because freedom" argument has become the status quo. This is due almost singly to the relentless work of the NRA. Foreigners know "NRA" when they hear it but often do not know what it is. It is an interest group, and easily the most consistently successful one, I said. At this juncture my own ignorance was a roadblock, because I do not know much about how interest groups function in other democracies despite knowing a good deal about interest groups in the U.S. In most other political systems corruption and influence-peddling tend to be a little more brash, unvarnished, and Mafiaesque (think Russia, for example). In the U.S., however, with its pretensions of a free, transparent, and equitable democratic system requires the going through of many motions. Interest groups and elected officials must engage in these ritualized war dances and secret handshakes and coded oaths to arrange political exchanges with the facade of plausible deniability. Why no, my supplemental rule on that bill had nothing to do with the $100,000 campaign donation I received. It was a mere coincidence.
Any moderately politically interested foreigner grasps this readily. What might not be obvious, though, is the NRA's grand illusion – the Big Lie that it is a group that represents firearm owners. On paper and in mission statement this may be true. In practice, the NRA represents gun manufacturers. In furtherance of the gun industry's desire to sell a fuckton of guns to the declining percentage of Americans who own guns and who happen to already own a fuckton of them, the NRA must constantly fan the flames of fear that They are coming to Take Your Guns. Never mind that Congress hasn't passed a consequential restriction on gun ownership since the Great Depression. The impending threat looms large that Obama and Clinton and Liberal Judges and Saul Alinsky and the tree huggers and Ed Begley and the Comintern are always coming to take them away imminently so the only logical thing for a freedom loving Patriot to do is rush out and buy, buy, buy. Get them now while you still can, fellow Minutemen!
Are people really so stupid that they fall for this ruse? And fall for it repeatedly?
Well, yes. I ask by way of answering, "Have you ever been to Florida? Go to Florida sometime. Walk into a chain buffet restaurant at 3 PM on a weekday and start talking to people about guns. Or about anything, really. And that this kind of cheap hucksterism works will no longer be a mystery. Watch Fox News for 15 minutes, remind yourself that an appreciable minority of Americans take it seriously, and suddenly the NRA Theory doesn't seem so far fetched.
"So to answer your question, we don't all have guns. In fact Canada has more guns per capita than we do. I guess our gun owners are just…dumber? More malleable, if we're being polite? Anyway," I said, scanning for a valid target to redirect this line of questioning and finding two erudite German backpackers, "don't you all wear leiderhosen? And where do you hide all the Nazi gold?"