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.”