To An Expat, America’s Gun Culture Seems Even More Terrifying

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From across the ocean, America’s lack of gun control seems like utter absurdity — a constitutional right gone frighteningly awry.

William S. Klug, the mechanical and aerospace engineering professor murdered at UCLA, was exactly my husband’s age: 39. He was killed at the very university where my husband is about to begin a job. Like my husband, he had a wife and kids. Like my husband, he loved what he did for a living.

We moved from New York City to Vienna, Austria, in 2012, for a pair of academic jobs. Then my husband got a tenure-track job offer in Los Angeles. When we found out we’d be leaving Europe — where our daughter was born — we knew it would be difficult to give up the myriad benefits we’ve been granted here: top-notch maternity care, generous family leave, subsidized daycare, nationalized healthcare, Kindergeld (literally, kid-money). For all of America’s talk (and fear) of socialism, it’s impossible to quantify how much these provisions make life better for everyone.

We also knew, on some level, that we’d be leaving a sense of safety that has become impossible to find back home. We’ve been increasingly aware of that safety, and how unusual it is, over the time we’ve been away, as reports of shootings (mass and otherwise) have become an almost weekly — if not daily — occurrence, including one of the deadliest in history occurring in Orlando.

When my husband accepted his position, I asked my American friends, only half-jokingly, “Do you walk around worrying someone is going to shoot you?”

But now I need not ask. This time, it could have been my husband, or my brother-in-law, or any number of other professors I know and love. So in addition to fretting about all the standard things one worries about when committing to a life in academia — will there be any jobs? Will he make tenure? Publish enough? Will we be able to afford to buy a house? Have another kid? Find a work/life balance that works for the whole family? — we now have to add to the list: Will he be shot by an angry student?

Every time we hear about another one of these horrors, I whisper to my husband, “We can’t move back. We cannot subject our daughter to this.” This time — as with the Sandy Hook shooting — it cut way too close to the bone.

And yet, when I bring up these fears with friends back home, they shrug them off — not because they aren’t horrified by these events, but because what are they going to do? Move to Europe or Canada? We were very lucky to be able to do that; most people can’t. Instead, they go about their lives, signing petitions, calling their congresspersons, hoping their pocket of the country isn’t next. But where is anyone really safe? This is life in America now. (It has been life in America for whole swaths of the population for centuries, of course, but now we’re all prey.)

From across the ocean, it seems like utter absurdity — a constitutional right gone frighteningly awry. I’m not just referring the horror of the act itself, but the parade that follows: the useless, glib “sending prayers” tweets; the empty words by inept congressmen; the backdoor deals struck by the NRA; the complete failure of the government to do a single thing to protect its own citizens, even if they happen to be first graders.

From across the ocean, it seems like utter absurdity — a constitutional right gone frighteningly awry.

Europeans, at least in my circles, say they’d never move to the U.S. — not now at least. It’s bad enough to have no social safety net — health care, paid parental leave, a free university education — but this? They think it’s barbaric. Guns? In a university? Over a bad grade? At a nightclub where people are just out to have fun? They don’t believe it. How could we ever subject ourselves to that? How can I?

I lived in Brooklyn for 12 years before moving to Vienna. Although I was burglarized and held up at gunpoint, I didn’t ride the subway in a constant state of fear. I reacted to these assaults the way most New Yorkers do: I freaked out, then quickly got over it. Wasn’t this what it meant to be a New Yorker, some sort of sick stamp of approval? But would I feel the same way now, after having been gone for so long? Would I sit on the subway with my young daughter, scanning my fellow travellers, wondering who had a gun in his pocket? This has become more than isolated threats of violence in the city I still love. This is, as we all know, an epidemic — a country gone off the rails.

On the day that Professor Klug was killed, there were 30 other reported murders in the U.S. Between January and June of 2016, there were over 21,000 incidents, resulting in 5,531 deaths. In a 2013 study, Austria had fewer than 1 in 100,000 deaths by homicide, 0.18 by firearm. According to the Guardian, Germany has one of the lowest gun homicide rates in all of Europe — 0.05 per 1,000 people (it’s 3.34 in the U.S.). Unlike in the U.S., shooting rampages in Germany and Australia and Canada, to name a few, have actually led to massive gun reform — in Germany, anyone under 25 who wants to obtain a firearm must undergo a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation.

This, instead, is what happens in America after a horrific event that has torn a family or many families to pieces: multiple stories trying to explain the shooter’s motives, behavior, background (racial, familial), and psychiatric state. In the case of the UCLA shooting, we got reports that yet another professor was targeted. He is now “safe,” the reports say. But for how long? Only 19 states have banned carrying a concealed weapon on college campuses — and California is already one of them. Meanwhile, assault weapons like the one used in Orlando are banned in only seven U.S. states.

No country is free of violence. But I doubt that I’ll be able to fully appreciate how truly safe I’ve felt in Vienna until we move to L.A. and don’t feel that way anymore. It’s a deep-in-your-bones kind of safety. The I-have-good-health-care kind of safety. The my-C-section-didn’t-bankrupt-me kind of safety. The no-one-will-shoot-my-kid-while-she’s-in-school-or-on-the-bus kind of safety. The kind that you come to take for granted. The kind that makes you truly believe that simply living your life — teaching, researching, mentoring students, loving your kids and your partner, contributing to your community, as William Klug so clearly did — is, above all else, your most inalienable right.

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