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Explaining American guns to an outsider

A British friend asked me what the deal with the American attitude towards guns was. To an outside eye, and to many inside eyes, it’s ludicrous. A lot of people, quite reasonably, can’t understand why Americans won’t come together and pass gun control legislation - particularly now that guns are the largest cause of death for children.

This was my answer. I’d love to read yours:

It's a great question, and one I struggle with too, even after living here for 11 years. Here's my take. Sorry for Bensplaining, but this is also helping me sort out my own thoughts.

The first thing to understand about America is that it's best thought of as 50 countries federated together into a union of rough consensus, rather than one coherent nation. If they were independent, gun control would be relatively easy in 60-70% of them. New York and California: fine. Texas: not so much.

But that's not how it was set up. And in particular, the constitution of the union had a badly-worded amendment (15 years after the original document) that can be construed to codify gun ownership. Not only that, but because America had a kind of colonizer attitude from the beginning, taking land both from indigenous people and from other colonies, as well as hunting for food in newly-established settlements, guns became a core part of American culture. Movies and advertising helped cement the idea that you need a gun for self-defense.

(Defense against whom in the 20th century, one might ask? There's a racist component here for sure. Even now, when violence is brought up, people talk about places like the south side of Chicago. Hey, who lives there?)

More recently, since Reagan or so, gun control has become a part of the Republican platform, alongside issues like abortion, because they've found it's a way to rile up the base. Even though, like abortion, a majority of Americans go the other way on it, there's enough legislative friction to make it an issue - and enough Americans who feel strongly about it, mostly in rural-dominated states, to drive more electoral support. Unlike abortion, that second amendment means it's almost impossible to enact real legislation.

I don't think we can repeal the second amendment in my lifetime. I do think we can re-enact an assault weapons ban and create stronger controls akin to having a driving license. I think that will help. But changing the culture completely is a generational effort.

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