Tang: Reflections from France on American gun culture

Tina Tang, Columnist

I was talking to my friends when I tried to open the library doors, so I didn’t notice that they weren’t budging. It wasn’t until my second try that I realized the exit to the library wouldn’t open. On the third try, I heard a French voice behind me say, “you can’t leave, there has been an attack.”

In the seconds that followed, my mind raced to the worst possibilities. Is there a shooter in the building? Is anybody hurt?

“There was a bomb,” said another Parisian student. My friends and I looked to each other in horror and panic. How have we not heard anything? Were the authorities informed? And most importantly, why aren’t these French students more worried? As I tried to look through the glass window on the door into the main hall, I saw security guards standing around. “It was a paint bomb,” the French students said, “they’re cleaning up the hall so you can’t leave through that door; you have to exit to the street.”

It turned out there was a man who walked in and started throwing paint bombs in the lobby of the main building, and we couldn’t leave through the main door because security and the custodian crew were cleaning up.

I wasn’t sure if the words “attack” and “bomb” have different connotations in French, or if their intentions were lost in translation, but the French students didn’t seem to have thought twice about using those terms. To them, the word “attack”, especially used in a school setting, doesn’t seem to imply an active shooter on campus. To them, school shootings are rare and unthinkable; in the past 20 years, there has only been one school shooting in France, whereas this year alone in the United States, there have been at least 20 cases of school-related gun violence.

Both the United States and France are industrialized democracies, so what is causing this large disparity in gun violence? While firearm possession is heavily regulated in France, the actual process of attaining a gun does not seem all that different from that of the United States. Both the U.S. and France require guns to be registered, and anybody who wishes to buy a gun must go through a background check. What seems to be different is the power America gives its guns through the Second Amendment.

Unlike the United States, France does not grant its citizens the right to bear arms through its constitution. Even if it did, the post-WWII French constitution would probably hold less cultural and political significance than the American constitution.

The difference in political culture between the two countries also marks the difference in gun violence. “Why do Americans need all their guns?” a French student asked me the other day, “don’t you have the police to protect you?” In France, there is generally more trust in the government and its ability to protect its citizens, whereas in America, despite having the third largest police force in the world and the biggest military, people cite self-protection as one of the biggest reasons for needing a gun.

During a lecture by a French professor of public health, he noted the different things Europeans and Americans view as their fundamental rights. “Europeans believe that affordable healthcare is a fundamental right, and Americans believe carrying guns is a fundamental right,” he said. After mentioning that the right to bear arms is cheaper to the government than providing universal health care, my professor added, “Well I suppose there is a cost to bear arms, you do need people to clean up all that blood after all.” To many people outside of the United States, the need to carry guns is incomprehensible and unnecessary.

As an international student, I will never understand this uniquely American obsession with guns, but I recognize that the right to bear arms is central to the founding of America. However, America also experiences mass shootings at a rate that is unparalleled by any other industrialized democracy in the world. Is it worth the thousands of lives stripped of the world each year just to protect an outdated amendment?

Furthermore, much of gun-related violence is perpetrated by those who went through all the legal channels to obtain their firearms, including the shooter at the Umpqua Community College in Oregon, suggesting that this is maybe not an issue with the laws regarding the obtainment of firearms, but rather an issue with the culture of firearms itself. America must re-evaluate its priorities: One sentence written in a 226 year old document, or the thousands of lives lost to gun violence each year.

Tina Tang is a Weinberg junior. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.