Guns and Study Abroad

I traveled to India several years ago and one of my fondest memories was chatting with a young boy in Varanasi.  He approached me while I was watching a beautiful performance along the Ganges River.  He spoke perfect English at 9 years old and asked me some questions about why I was in India. He guessed, eventually, where I was from.  And when he did, the first question he asked was, “Lady, where is your gun?”

My gun?

Stereotype #126:  All Americans own guns.

I took a moment to let what he asked me sink in, and then I informed him that I don’t own a gun.  I told him that none of my friends or family members own guns.  (I have since realized that 2 actually do.)  I asked him why he thought I would have a gun and he said, while mimicking a shootout, that all American movies have guns and all Americans do too.

When I travel, I always learn about my host country and culture, but I always learn MORE about my home country and culture.  This 9 year old boy was teaching me about the perception of Americans and their relationships with guns and violence.

This past weekend in Tucson, Arizona, US Representative and Fulbright Alumna (Mexico) Gabrielle Giffords was shot at point blank range in the head by a man toting a 9 mm Glock handgun.  The shooter purchased the gun legally in the U.S.  Incredibly, thus far, Representative Giffords has survived a bullet ripping through the left side of her brain and exiting through the other side of her head.

According to the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence (named after James Brady, who was seriously wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan,) nearly 100,000 people in America in an average year are shot or killed by a gun.  More than a million people in the US have been killed by guns since 1968.

It makes perfect sense that people outside the US think we all have guns.  Our statistics would imply that a heck of a lot of us do anyway, and our film industry is very proficient at creating violent films loaded with guns of all shapes and sizes.

Study abroad advisers often feel overwhelmed by the barrage of questions about safety in the programs that we plan and support, despite data illustrating relatively high death rates from gun violence in our own country. Our standard answer regarding safety in study abroad is that cannot be guaranteed anywhere in the world, period.  No student or parent should believe any program materials or adviser that imply that a program is 100% safe.  Safety isn’t an item you can purchase at your corner store – it doesn’t exist here or any other country.

What is more tangible and worthwhile when advising students is to share the safety measures that are being taken in study abroad programs, as well as the reality of safety in the US.  I often have cited the example of the Japanese exchange student, Yoshihiro Hattori, who was gunned down in Loiusiana after accidentally arriving at the wrong house for a Halloween party.  One wonders whether his parents were concerned about gun violence in the US when they allowed him to participate in an exchange program.

We must keep safety in perspective, as described here by Rick Steves, who wrote about this issue this past October:

“…Each year 12 million Americans travel to Europe and 12 million return home safely…every year another 30,000 die in the USA — victims of gun violence (this is eight times the per-capita gun-caused deaths in Europe).  Assuming you believe in statistics — regardless of what the news headlines say — we have one strong piece of advice that could very well save lives: If you care about your loved ones, you’ll take them to Europe as soon as possible. … I refuse to let fear and fear-mongering media mess up my perspective. And, as a patriotic American citizen, I know the best thing I can do to keep my country strong and safe is to travel a lot, engage in the world, and return home with the good news: Life is good, and fear is for people who don’t get out much.”

Study abroad advisers are encouraged to use the example of statistics on gun violence in the US as a tool in preparing students about safety at home and abroad, but also to remind students that they will arrive in their host country carrying the baggage of stereotypes, including “all Americans have guns” and that they may be on the receiving end of this question:  “Why do so many Americans die because of guns in this country and why doesn’t our government do something about it?”  Students should be “armed’ (pun intended) with some understanding of the 2nd Amendment and the politics of guns in the US.  This snapshot of the issue of gun violence in the US (by Wikipedia) is a useful tool to give students a basic understanding of “why we are the way we are.”

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  • Mjtillman47

    My first reaction to the headline -and the visual image of the flag and gun – is that linking the shooting in Tucson to the issue of safety and study abroad is inappropriate. Even given your recall of the question posed to you by the young boy. I’ve led study abroad programs and more experientially-based educational programs in India many times in the past 30 years. I was never asked about gun ownership – in fact, there was more curiosity from village women about divorce and marital issues directed at a divorced older woman in a group one time. There are always going to be social or political issues and events at home which students may be asked about, or challenged to defend or explain, when abroad.

    • Thank you for sharing your feedback. I stand by my decision to write about this and link it to international education. Guns are part of our culture and many people who read my blog are not from the United States. Even those of us in the United States have had numerous conversations over the weekend about the shooting, gun use, public service, etc. The woman shot had participated in a Fulbright program in the 1990s in Mexico, a country that has a travel warning issued by the State Department due to gun violence.
      By writing this post, I was trying to raise the discussion about perceptions of safety in exchanges and study abroad – people visiting the US have been killed by random acts of violence with guns and we are accustomed to violent gun deaths (accidental or otherwise) daily in our country but then ask the question whether it is “safe” to live in another country for a few months. I had a woman from the UK write to me to say that it was an issue that she thought about before moving here – yet when she arrived people constantly asked her if London was safe. She said she rarely had an opportunity to have meaningful conversation about the issue of gun control because people were so defensive about it.
      Representive Giffords’ story was front page news around the world, so I anticipate that it will raise the issue of safety for those coming to the US as well as require our students, faculty and staff to answer difficult questions about how a man can legally get a gun and shoot a government Representative at point blank range in the United States. The beauty of blogging is that it creates opportunity for dialogue, and I do appreciate that the post has done so, even if we disagree. After a few attempts at a title for the blog posting, it seemed like the most direct way to address the post was using those 2 sets of words. And to your point, I was asked about marital status, divorce and family constantly while I was in India. But I also was asked about guns, and that experience will stay with me forever.

  • John

    I think your post reflects the unfortunate reality, which is that it is often safer abroad than to remain in the United States. I remember visiting Japan on a business trip just several months after 911, and a Japanese student asked me whether it was safe in the United States. I think the take-away lesson for me is that there needs to be more training to our students (and families and staff) not to take an imperious attitude when we go abroad. The world is slowly moving away from the US as the center. Unfortunately, I think the the attitude of the American study-abroad establishment has not evolved as quickly as the changes around the world.

    • Hi John – I don’t know that it is necessarily safer abroad, but it is important to recognize what safety means in your own country to understand how to field questions about it when abroad. I’m not sure that I am understanding your final sentence – can you clarify a bit for me? Thanks so much for sharing your opinion!

  • I enjoyed this post, and definitely think it is timely to recent events in Arizona. When I lived in Australia I also had many people ask me if everyone in the US owned a gun, so this seems to be a common misconception about Americans. I was just in Israel, which was interesting, because that is a place that everyone really does own a gun. It was a little shocking at first, but actually you soon feel comforted that if something were to happen, someone would be there to help. Just food for thought.

    Cheers,
    Andrew

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Andrew. It is all in our perspective, isn’t it. Personally, everyone owning a gun would make me feel really nervous! But then again, if it were the norm, I am sure I’d adapt somewhat. It will be interesting to see if the dialogue about guns around the world increases as a result of this horrific shooting. Thanks again for your comment. Missy