We are back in Washington following the traditional Fourth of July holiday weekend, which commemorates the humiliation of my mother country – then the dominant world power, by a bunch of – then upstart – colonies. Putting wounded national pride to one side (after 238 years, we can do that) it’s a wonderful occasion filled with fireworks, food, shameless flag-waving, and cold beer over hot barbeques. Aside from the enjoyable frivolities, for Americans the 4th July is a celebration of hard-won freedom – which to outsiders may sound corny, but to people here is deeply and sincerely felt.
We spent the holiday with friends in their lodge nestled in a beautiful wooded corner of rural Pennsylvania, enjoying (quite literally) the flavor of one of the original colonies that was a cornerstone of the USA. Saturday night was spent watching festive fireworks colour the sky red, white and blue, while leaning against our cars in the parking lot of ‘Sundae’s’ the local ice-cream parlour.
Days were mainly spent hanging or floating around in the local lake, eating or planning what to eat next. Taking a break from the serious business of idleness, we drove one day to Bedford, the local picture-postcard town which has figured in some of the key events in America’s history. According to a local signpost George Washington stayed in the town while putting down the 1791 Whisky Rebellion – a local uprising against a new tax. The insurrection began following an attempt by the Federal Government to raise taxes in the form of whisky and resisted by local people who saw it as breaching the principles of the recently fought American Revolution against the British.
Nowadays the peace of Bedford is only broken by the sound of old bikers riding up and down Main Street on their Harley Davidsons. The main thoroughfare with its art deco petrol station, domed courthouse and numerous bars is like a Norman Rockwell painting brought to life. At first glance it contains all the virtues of small town America in all its down to earth and welcoming glory.
While there are some tourists, the town mostly serves the needs of the local rural community. A few doors down from the S and S appliance store and opposite the local Italian restaurant is the innocuously named Cove Creek Outfitters (‘premier sporting and apparel company’). Downstairs past the fishing waders and walking boots is a room containing sufficient weaponry to wage a small war.
Alongside the back wall are over one hundred types of rifles lined up with military-like precision. Inside the glass counter along the front are an equal number of hand guns, and next to them a few choice items including semi-automatic weapons that seem better suited to war zones than such a pastoral setting.
In surveying the hardware, I casually asked manager if as a foreign citizen I could get a weapon. ‘No problem, just more paperwork’ came the response. Given that there is no waiting period to get a gun in Pennsylvania, if I hadn’t left my passport at home I could have purchased – there and then – my very own Glock.
The same holiday weekend as I was enjoying the peace of rural Pennsylvania, fourteen people were killed and a further sixty eight were injured in gun attacks in Chicago. The amount of bloodshed managed to get the casualties (briefly) into the national news. Given that approximately 30,000 people a year in the US die in gun related incidents (including suicides), it takes a sufficiently large dose of death and destruction to win attention. Nowadays it’s only the horrific massacres of innocents in elementary schools, cinemas, and college campuses that are able to generate significant interest and outrage.
Growing up in virtually gun-free Britain I was conditioned to the absence rather than prevalence of guns. In those days (as is mostly the case today) the police fought crime with batons rather than pistols. I therefore fail to see the attraction or necessity of guns. At a stretch, I can understand why people might want to hunt, foregoing the sterile supermarket aisles for the gritty backwoods in search of meat for supper. But what eludes me is any possible explanation for the ready availability of weapons whose specific purpose is to maim or kill others with maximum power and minimum effort.
Living in Israel attuned me to the ubiquity of weapons, and I even became used to having a soldier’s M-16 resting against me in a crowded bus. But that country has been in a constant state of war for all of its existence, and despite the proliferation of weapons there is more a sense of sad acceptance rather than pride in gun ownership. In Israel my daughters participated in drills in case of missile attack (such as the country is now experiencing), which while unnerving were also understandable. In the US, the girls are forced to undergo ‘lock-downs’ during which they have to hide in complete silence in their classrooms in case of attack from an armed psychopath, who would have bought his weapon with ease on the basis of a right, rather than a need.
In trying to make sense of this situation, I have attempted to see guns as an outgrowth of American history and political culture. I remind myself that America was founded in a revolution against oppression, on the promise of ‘government of the people by the people’. I tell myself that in the US, gun ownership is seen as an embodiment of that power and of protection against tyranny. I try to see in Pennsylvania’s ‘Whisky Rebellion’ two hundred years ago, an example of the distrust viscerally felt towards the Federal Government that still burns strong today. But all those explanations crumble to dust when confronted by the raw numbers of those killed by weapons.
Americans – as I have discovered – are extraordinarily open, warm, generous and friendly. I don’t believe that the people of Bedford, Chicago or any other part of the US are inherently more violent than others around the world. So how can the horrifically high homicide rate be explained? If not by the nature of the people then it must be by the force of their arms.
The problem of course is that discussion of guns has fallen hostage to powerful political and commercial forces (the US is the largest domestic market globally for weapons). People here have become prey to cynical fear-mongering by the vested interests of the National Rifle Association who have managed to cow weak politicians into following their recipe for gun madness.
And so in the wake of American Independence Day it is a sadly ironic that as people here celebrated their hard won freedoms, many failed to see how they have also become prisoners of their right to bear arms.