Thoughts on Living in the ‘Land of the Free’

photo-1434077471918-4ea96e6e45d5 (1)There was another mass shooting in the U.S. yesterday—14 dead and 17 wounded in San Bernardino, California—by a man and a woman, now also dead.

But that’s not news.

News is something new. Mass shootings happen every day in America.

I don’t mean ‘every day’ in the figurative sense. I mean literally every day. In fact, according to yesterday’s article in the New York Times, titled ‘How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur?”:

“More than one a day. That is how often, on average, shootings that left four or more people wounded or dead occurred in the United States this year, according to compilations of episodes derived from news reports.  . . . a total of 462 people have died and 1,314 have been wounded in such attacks this year, many of which occurred on streets or in public settings.”

When I moved to Portland three years ago, at the forefront of my mind was creating a life here with my then-fiance (now husband) Joe, who happens to be American. I knew that a gun culture existed in this country, that many Americans owned guns, but I didn’t imagine them being used to kill multiple people on a daily basis.

Joe and I moved to a neighbourhood with beautiful old character houses, cafes, restaurants, and people walking their dogs. I walk often through its streets, taking one of my routes to Wallace Park, which borders an elementary school, or past the Legacy Good Samaritan hospital on 22nd Ave., looping around at New Seasons before turning back to come home, to my desk in my bedroom, to my work.

In early November this year, the day before Joe’s birthday, a man wielding a gun was shot and killed by police at that hospital. That particular man on that particular day didn’t kill anyone. (He was suicidal, apparently, rather than on a rampage.) But the fact remains, he was on hospital grounds, armed with a gun. I didn’t walk by the hospital on that day. But the story shook me regardless. That night we met for a drink with friends. They are expecting their first baby later this month. Our conversation included excited talk of the baby’s arrival and how soon we could visit after he or she was born. Our server brought an extra chair over, so my friend didn’t have to squeeze her pregnant belly into the booth. We also talked about the gunman at the Legacy Good Samaritan, just blocks from the bar we were sitting at, just blocks from my home.

In San Bernardino, the shooting happened at a center for people with developmental disabilities. Based on that fact, it would seem that the people who lost their lives, staff at this center, had dedicated their lives to helping others. Immediately following news of the shooting, the three Democratic presidential primary candidates wrote tweets calling (again) for action on gun laws.

Of the 10 Republican candidates whose tweets I read, not one mentioned gun reform. Not one! What did each of them mention? Prayers. Prayers for San Bernardino.

It’s legal to carry a concealed gun around in America. Sometime in the days after the college shooting in Roseburg, Oregon in October—where a lone gunman killed nine people—I went downtown to shop for a new pair of boots. For the first time, as I neared the department store, I found myself scanning the people walking past. How many, I wondered, were carrying guns? In my mind flashed a scene: me in the shoe section of the department store; the sound of gunshots; people laying on the floor; a gunman holding an assault weapon.

This was a fear I hadn’t felt before, not in any of the countries I’ve lived or travelled. I put the vision out of my mind and went shoe shopping anyway. But the fact that it was there, that my consciousness was starting to include the very real possibility of witnessing (or being a target of) gunfire, in the city that’s become my home, began to gnaw at me. And every time another shooting in the U.S. occurs—which is pretty much daily—that gnawing grows.

When I was a kid at Saanichton Elementary school on Vancouver Island, B.C., we had earthquake drills. The ‘big one’ was due, and we were taught to crouch under our desks or in a doorway, hands covering heads. If you were outside, your best bet was to run to the far end of the field, as far from the building as you could get.

Kids in American schools have active shooter drills. An actor dressed as a gunman roams the halls and kids learn to lock classroom doors and hide.

This is the new normal here. And it’s not a normal I want to raise a kid in.

When the Sandy Hook School shooting happened in 2012—leaving 20 children and six faculty members dead—I was living in Korea, teaching English to six-year-old Korean kids. Surely, I thought, the U.S. government will change gun laws now. These victims were children.

No gun laws were changed.

So when massacres happen now, when large numbers of innocent people are killed by shooters who own not just handguns but multiple assault weapons, I find myself first thinking, surely this will make the government change gun laws. But then I remember Sandy Hook.

If 20 dead kids under the age of eight didn’t incite reform, what possibly will?

It’s at this point in my cycle of thought that I begin to feel very, very depressed. And my mind turns to the future. If gun violence continues at this rate , do I want to live in America? If and when Joe and I have a child, do we want to raise it in a country where mass shootings are a daily occurrence? My mind turns to Canada—where would we live? I would want to be near friends and family, but Victoria, where I grew up, feels like a leap into the past. Vancouver is so expensive we could likely never afford to buy a home there.

Then I think, what’s worse, living in a place where you can’t afford your own home, or living in a place where anyone you pass on the street could be packing a gun?

Joe works in diabetes research at a hospital in Portland. Every day he commutes there by bike, and every day before he leaves I say, “Ride safe.” My biggest fear is that he will have an accident while riding. But news of the gunman at our neighbourhood hospital, combined with the shooting in California, which, again, took place at a center for people with developmental disabilities, has brought on a new fear: the potential for gunfire at Joe’s workplace.

I don’t think these fears make me a paranoid or overly anxious person. I think they make me tuned into the reality of the society I live in. A popular notion surrounding violence these days is to ‘not let it make you fearful’. I understand the perspective that living in fear is ‘giving in’ to perpetrators of violence, but I don’t really agree with it.

Mass shootings happen daily in America. I think we should be afraid.

I think we should be afraid and we should be outraged. And we should use that fear and that outrage to make ourselves heard by the people who change laws.

Sometimes on my daily strolls I walk past an abortion clinic in the neighbourhood. There’s usually at least one person standing outside it, protesting. The other day a man stood in from with a sign that said ‘Save the Children’. I wanted to stop and ask, if you’re concerned about children, why don’t you change locations and picket the stores selling guns and ammunition?

Prayers don’t stop gun violence. Thoughts for the family members of victims isn’t going to bring their loved ones back. And praying and thinking hasn’t done anything to stop mass shootings from occurring.

The only thing that will reduce gun violence is less guns. Less people owning guns.

What do we need to do? Walk out of our jobs and homes and collectively march in the streets? Can we come together and say to the leaders in this country who make and reform laws that enough is enough is enough is enough?




21 responses

  1. Courtney, Thank you for so eloquently writing my thoughts. I completely agree and my heart breaks with each and every news report of senseless violence

  2. I fear for you. What I fear more is the daunting task of changing the ‘culture’ of guns which is so pervasive. There are many who fundamentally believe, to the death, that guns are a constitutional right. Laws may be changed but those people will continue to fight for ‘their right.’ I am not in opposition of changing laws but cultural shift must occur concurrently. Tough task that must begin. Thanks for the words.

    • Yes, I agree with you completely Christian. This became even more clear when Obama visited Roseburg, a very gun-oriented town, after the college shooting there, and people protested him. Even though a mass shooting happened in their own town they remain staunch about gun rights. That kinds of things makes me feel hopeless. But I think law changes have to be the starting point. People will continue to fight it but without changes to the law there’s no foundation to work from to start to change the culture…which will be an ongoing battle. Thanks so much for your comment and perspective. I wish we could follow Australia’s lead on this topic.

  3. I think it’s also compelling that most of the entertainment offered to our “Canadian” general public seems to celebrate said violence. I remember noticing a few year ago all kinds of my friends, I grew up with, posting pics on facebook of them shooting guns at targets…with some drivel about a zombie apocalypse.. People I thought would rather not pick up a firearm were now gleefully boasting about their new hobby. I know a lot of people who still totally disagree with the right to carry, but there was this strange new cosmopolitan air to these photos…. hipster, if you will… I could only shake my head… knowing that one day it may not be ONLY the US that wants that right. With Fear growing exponentially every day, I continue to hear average people say the most alarming things about cultures, religions, and anything that may go against their ideal vision of life…it’s the mass public. The Fearful that hide behind their out-dated values and their inheritances. I’m thankful we have Trudeau in charge, impeding further lunatic maneuvers from our ex right wing liar… I just hope we can keep up that strong ideal of using law intelligently so that people don’t feel that they need take matters in to their own hands.
    Sending warm un-armed love down to you…

    • Thank you for your thoughts, Stu. It is alarming to hear some of the ignorant things people do/say and it’s hard to know how to even begin to address them. In some ways I feel like I live in a bit of a bubble as my friends and family share pretty much the same perspective as me…in some ways I’d like to have the opportunity for real discourse with people who aren’t likeminded, but I suppose the truth is I would just want to change their minds, and vice versa.

      • It’s a great thought though. I remember hearing a story on the CBC last winter about a prominent skin-head neo nazi who was introduced to a south asian guy who dedicated his time to anti-racism movements…they met for coffee… talked for hours.. became best friends… then started an anti0hate group together! I don’t remember the name of the alliance but it’s pretty sweet

  4. It’s such a hard thing as many have commented already, our culture has a deep rooted gun dependance. Coming from a family where we have 5 guns actually, in our house (my bf is a hunter) it can be hard to swing to a POV where guns should be outlawed. That said I 100% agree SOMETHING needs to change. This is starting to become normal and that is a terrifying thought. My heart breaks a little more each time these things happen.

    • Hi Rachel, thanks for your comment. Yes, the gun culture here is very deeply rooted. I think sometimes people who own guns for purposes such as hunting feel threatened that any gun law reform would mean a complete ban/outlaw of guns. That is not the kind of reform Obama has suggested, but rather strategic laws that would help prevent guns from getting into the wrong hands, and restrictions on assault weapons which are NEVER needed, not for hunting, not for protecting one’s family. Those kind of weapons have the capacity to kill large numbers of people very quickly. Effective gun law reform is possible without banning hunting rifles. I think being able to talk openly about these different options is a good first step. Thanks again for sharing your perspective.

  5. It’s so hard to see over and over. Maybe it’s good to feel fear instead of feeling numbed to the “news” of another shooting.

  6. This last attack left me feeling really uneasy. It’s so scary to think of what will happen if these violent attacks keep happening. Yet, it’s so difficult to really know what to do to stop them. It’s a feeling of helplessness.

    • Thanks for your comment. I can relate to that feeling of helplessness and I think that’s what in part drove me to writing this post. My hope is that the more we voice our opinions the closer we will get to gun law reform.

  7. It’s definitely a problem that has many, many variables that add to it. Gun culture, how we raise our kids, the US mental health system, politics, education… they’re all intertwined and part of the problem in some way. We keep talking about change, working to try to create change in our systems, and yet these horrific events keep happening. I wonder what it will really, truly take? As a mother, it just breaks my heart each day that this is the reality my children will know.

    • Thanks Marlynn, yes, all of those aspects are certainly part of the complicated larger picture. I see gun law reform as the first step, not the only solution. Thanks for your comment. I too find the violence utterly heartbreaking.

  8. The problem I see that may never go away, even with stricter guns laws, is that evil people who want to kill others will still find a way to get those guns. I think it’s a multifaceted problem requiring more than one solution. But I do agree that it’s scary. Our first child is also being born later this month and it’s fearful thing to think about this world we are bringing our baby into.

    • Thanks for your comments and perspective, Tracy. Yes, I agree it is a multifaceted problem. Restrictions on guns and banning assault weapons would be just a start to addressing the overarching gun culture. But it is proven that in other countries such as Australia and Scotland, gun reform drastically reduced gun deaths.

      Best wishes for your family and little one on the way!

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I still haven’t been able to outwardly express my thoughts about this crisis in our country. I was living just 20 minutes away from Sandy Hook when that horrible event happened. The sheer memory of that paralyzes me.

    • Mary, thank you for reading and commenting. I am so sorry you have to live with such a painful memory. I hope that more people will start voicing their concerns and desire for change and that it will lead to real, lasting reform.

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