While it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most non-U.S. Americans to fathom much less to imagine, the right to own guns, including those designed with the express purpose of killing human beings, is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The oft-quoted 2nd Amendment states that “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Keep in mind that was in the late 1700s when there about 4 million non-native people living in the U.S. with no police or army and no grocery stores. In other words, the weapons of the day, primitive as they were by modern comparison, were necessary for self-defense and hunting. There was sporadic conflict between Native American tribes and European settlers. Slavery was legal (until 1863) so the right to bear arms also meant that slave owners, which included a number of Founding Fathers, could defend themselves against those slaves who wanted their freedom and were willing to spill the blood of their masters to obtain it.
The U.S. Constitution was ratified 231 years ago at a time when common guns included muskets and flintlock pistols. A typical musket had a one-round magazine capacity, could fire about three rounds per minute, at best, and had a range of 50 meters. Fast forward to the present. A-15 semi-automatic rifles have a magazine capacity of 30 rounds, can fire 45 rounds per minute, and have a range of 550 meters.
Guns, death, and profit
The United States’ love affair with guns is so passionate that the country has 20 percent more guns than people at 393 million. Owning guns is not only a constitutional right that was granted in a very different time and place, but also an extremely lucrative industry. In 2016, the gun industry contributed about $51.3 billion, both directly and indirectly, to the U.S. economy. (That’s a staggering 21 percent of Vietnam’s 2018 nominal GDP.)
With so many guns floating around, it’s not surprising that the USA is #1 in this unenviable category: gun-related death rates among high-income countries. In 2017, nearly 40,000 U.S. Americans were killed in shootings, 60 percent of which were suicides.
To put this in historical perspective, there were slightly fewer U.S. casualties on D-Day (2,811 deaths and 13,564 wounded) as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy 75 years ago, than the total number of casualties from shooting incidents through June 6, 2019. This includes the mass shooting in Virginia in which 13 souls perished, including the gunman, and one on June 16 in Pennsylvania in which seven people were injured and one killed. Since then, there have been nearly 50 mass shootings in 20 states and Washington, D.C., resulting in 28 fatalities and 194 injured.
Citizens armed to the teeth
Stores that sell guns and related items are common in many U.S. states. Photo by Mark Ashwill.
The day after I drove by the store pictured above, I encountered the scene below in a big-box store. My initial reaction, one of someone who lives in a country in which only the police and military have handguns, was “Maybe he’s a policeman,” but then I thought, code-switching to my U.S. cultural mindset, “Maybe this is an open carry state.”
I later asked a cashier that question. Her answer was a blank stare and shrug of the shoulders. The short answer is “It is.” In fact, you can carry a handgun anywhere – without a permit – except state and national parks, courthouses, police stations, and prisons. Why would this man need it while shopping? No doubt he wants to seem more important than he is (he certainly caught my attention but not in a good way) or is waiting for the chance to be a “hero,” if this occasion arose, in a country in which this term has been cheapened beyond recognition.
A man standing in the car oil section of a big-box store with a handgun on his right hip and what appears to be an ammunition clip on the left. Photo by Mark Ashwill.
My follow-up reaction was that I had to have a picture of this wannabe tough guy because it was so surreal yet somehow so U.S. American. My interior monologue continued at rapid-fire pace: “What if he sees me and becomes angry?” The heat he was packing, which appears to be a CZ 75, according to one cop I spoke with, one of the few “that combines function with form to make an effective and eye pleasing firearm,” in the words of a Gunbacker online review, is designed with one purpose in mind: to injure or kill human beings. “He could pull the trigger and claim that he felt threatened by me and my smartphone.” Maybe he’d beat the rap or serve a light sentence. Meanwhile, I’d be moldering in my grave, having become yet another statistic in the annual slaughter that is U.S. gun violence.
Color me old-fashioned but I prefer not to see people in my midst, who are not law enforcement officers, carrying guns. This is one of a number of examples and/or symptoms of a kind of collective insanity that has gripped the U.S.. No sane country allows its citizens to run around with handgun in a holster, as if it’s still the Wild West. Statistics don’t lie, in this case, and there’s no way to spin the truth.
Of thoughts, prayers, and the status quo
Whenever there’s a mass shooting in the U.S., and they come and go with tragic predictability, it’s always the same old song and dance, as if most people are following the same tired, old script. More thoughts and prayers. No solutions, no change. More funerals, more sadness, more psychological trauma. The beat goes on, waiting for the next one, a matter of when, not if. It’s as if U.S. society is afflicted with an incurable case of societal psychosis. (Here is a list of known mass shootings in the U.S., defined as incidents involving multiple victims of firearm-related violence, in 2019 alone.) A country that has 65 million more guns than people does not meet the definition of civilized.
Since information is power, let’s see what the open carry picture looks like. California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina prohibit open carrying of handguns. The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., also falls into this category. These states require a permit or license to openly carry handguns: Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah. Finally, these states restrict the open carrying of handguns in public places: Alabama (some private property restrictions), Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington.
A gun is fun
How to obtain a handgun in my home state of Delaware? A piece of cake. Just head on over to your nearest gun store, like the one pictured above, 1) be 21 or older; 2) provide state-issued ID (e.g., driver’s license); and 3) submit to a background check, which could be completed within 90 seconds.
You are not allowed to purchase a firearm if you are younger than 16, unless you are under direct supervision of an adult; have been convicted of a crime of violence including bodily injury to another, including misdemeanors, unless the misdemeanor was over five years ago; have been convicted of an offense involving narcotics, dangerous drugs, or controlled substances; have been committed to a mental institution or hospital for a mental disorder and do not have a certificate of rehabilitation; or were adjudicated as delinquent for conduct which would constitute a felony as an adult unless you are 25 or older.
All of this information and much more is available on a website called Pew Pew Tactical, which contains detailed information about buying, owning, and using guns. It is run by Eric Hung, a Vietnamese-American entrepreneur who states in the “About Us” section, “I really love my guns because…they are just fun.”
Not a Vietnamese problem
This scene of the faux cop in the big-box store, which came as a shock to me, someone who was born and raised in the U.S., would be even more shocking to an international student who may have only seen people with openly displayed firearms in Hollywood movies. It is yet another reason why parents may not be entirely comfortable with the idea of sending their children to study in the U.S.
There is a documented correlation between the prevalence of handguns and the high rate of gun violence. Maybe states that have more restrictive gun control laws and are not “open carry” will have a competitive recruitment advantage. Maybe the fact that some states do not permit their citizens to run around toting guns in public places could actually end up making them more attractive study destinations in an increasingly competitive market.
Vietnam is faced with an array of pressing challenges, some of which are related to its status as a rapidly developing country. Fortunately, Vietnamese shooting other Vietnamese or themselves with a handgun and all of the medical and psychic trauma that result from gun violence is not among them.
*Mark A. Ashwill is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. From 2005-09, he served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam. Dr. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Vietnam.
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