Review: Armed America


Book Reviews

If you are an expatriate, someone who is living outside of his native country and culture, at some stage you get to realize that the cultural background of your host country divides into two parts, one which you can adapt to (given a surprisingly large amount of actual work) and another one, which will forever remain foreign to you. The latter I like to call the inexplicable, the stuff that will never make any real sense. Needless to say, you never get to understand what the inexplicable is as far as your home country is concerned, while it is quite easy to experience it in your host country. But to make matters even more confusing if a foreigner points out your own country’s idiosyncrasies you usually react with indignation - indignation simply because what other people often find outright absurd makes perfect sense to you! But things are easier to understand if we use an example. So - given I am an expat living in the US - let’s pick the issue of gun ownership in the US.

Americans love their guns, and while generalizations are usually not only not useful but also wrong, this one is not very far from the truth. It is unclear how many guns really are privately owned in the US, but all estimates are so large that if you were to bring, say, the entire population of Germany to the US and gave each person - incl. women and children - two guns, you would still have tens of millions of guns left.

According to a report in the New York Times, this fact comes at a steep cost: “In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, an average of about 81 people died every day from gunfire in the United States. […] All told, 29,569 people were killed that year by firearms […] Another 64,389 were injured”. Just to bring things into perspective, these numbers are quite comparable with the daily death toll in Iraq, a country ravaged by what looks like a civil war.

After the 2004 presidential elections, Kyle Cassidy set out to explore the gun issue: “The idea was to photograph a hundred gun owners, in their homes, and do a gallery show.” Armed America is the result of his endeavours, and as Kyle notes in the introduction, “it wasn’t a number of people that was important, it was their stories […] What I really needed, I realized, was to get moving, to drive across the country and find America somewhere between here and there.” And indeed, the people (and their guns) depicted their homes in Armed America are a diverse bunch, and for each of the photos, you get an accurate description of the guns (for example, “Keltec Sub 2000, Glock 34, Glock 19, and Ruger Mark II”) and short quotes from the gun owners (for example, “My parents taught me to shoot, growing up in Utah. I got a gun here because we live in kind of a rough neighborhood and I take the subway home from work. I figured that since the bad-guys had guns, I should have one too.”)

The only problem with Armed America is that I find it hard to see where it stands as far as the gun issue is concerned. The book manages to provide support for both sides of the “debate”. Proponents of strict gun laws will find their view confirmed that many gun owners are completely out of touch with reality. Proponents of free gun ownership will find their view confirmed that gun ownership is about a constitutional right and self defense. Needless to say, there’s no way you can have a discussion when the two sides argue on completely different levels, while not taking their opponents seriously at all - and that against the backdrop of an average number of 80 people killed every day with guns.

But then, as I said at the beginning, it’s the inexplicable that leaves the life of an expat open to continuous bafflement.