When I came to work at the Miami Herald for the first time, I saw a little sticker on the front door. I bet my American colleagues do not notice it because there are stickers like this everywhere. The sticker shows a gun with a slash across it: “No firearms allowed on this property”.
On one of my first days in the United States, a campaign video of Texas senator and GOP presidential hopeful Ted Cruz was popular on social networks. Cruz was cooking bacon. The bacon was wrapped around a machine gun, Cruz fired and fired and fired. Then he took a bite from a fork and said “Mmm, machine-gun bacon.”
These are only two of the images that make the United States seem strange to a visiting German.
And this is the harmless part of the story. Almost every day there are shootings in Miami, and the rest of the country, and it doesn’t shock many people anymore — except when the cruelty reaches a new level, as in the terrible shooting of two journalists in Virginia, live on TV.
Gun violence is everywhere in this country. Gun violence is an epidemic, one that kills thousands of Americans every year.
Why don’t you stop it?
The Economist’s data team has gathered numbers that are scaring me. America has the second-highest murder rate among countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Americans are five times as likely to be murdered as Brits but more than 40 times as likely to be murdered with a gun. There are 270 million guns in the hands of American civilians.
When I was a student, I spent a semester in Washington, D.C. One day, my class met a representative of the National Rifle Association. This man didn’t talk about guns. He talked about the U.S. Constitution and the Second Amendment. The man said that he saw his role as a preserver of amendments. He just wanted to save the Constitution.
But the Constitution is from 1789. America has become a modern state with a militant democracy. Why is it so hard to change what is such an obvious deficit? Americans abolished slavery, why is it so hard when it comes to guns? Does bearing a gun really represent the modern American way of life?
In the darkest chapter of German history, Hitler’s Nazis armed citizens against the declared state enemies of the Third Reich: Among them were Jews, Gypsies and homosexuals. The cruelty of the second world war influences the Germans until today. As one example, weapon laws were more and more sharpened.
Today, Germany has one of the strictest weapon laws in the world. It is almost impossible for a citizen to get a firearm. Citizens know that the state authority will protect them. Therefore they don’t see any need to take action by themselves.
According to the Small Arms Survey, there are 89 firearms per 100 Americans and only 30 firearms per 100 Germans. The United Nations Global Study on Homicide found out that the homicide rate in the United States is six times higher than the German rate. The more guns you have in a country, the more people who are shot to death.
The Pew Research Center has asked Americans what they think is more important — to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to control gun ownership. About 15 years ago, 67 percent supported gun control while 29 percent supported gun rights. This year, 50 percent support gun control, and 47 percent support gun rights.
An increasing number of Americans think that they are safer when they have a gun. From my point of view, this is a serious problem for the relationship between the state and the citizens. Gun control should become an important topic in the presidential race.
It seems to be so easy to buy a gun — at a gun show, on the black market. Background checks seem to be weak. And remember the little boy from Miami who shot himself in the head in August when he found a loaded Glock 9mm handgun? There are people in this country who seriously suggest that children should be taught in the use of guns. In Germany this would be regarded as a very dark joke.
Volker ter Haseborg is the chief reporter of the German business magazine Bilanz. He is currently an Arthur F. Burns fellow at the Miami Herald.