When I told people in Germany my plans to study in Texas for a year, they all had the same reaction: “Be careful with those cowboys, don’t get shot!” While I haven’t met many cowboys, the warning about getting shot turned out to be a legitimate concern.
One day after my arrival, three people were shot at Texas A&M in College Station, a mere 100 miles away from me. Four more mass shootings have occurred since then across the United States, the most terrifying one in Newtown, CT. The number of mass shootings in the U.S. in 2012 totaled 16.
Every year, about 15,000 people are victims of homicides in the United States, and 12,000 of those victims are killed by firearms. Compared to the approximately 4,000 annual homicide victims in Western Europe (which has a total of 360 million inhabitants), the U.S. figures are shocking.
Every American has read or watched news reports about mass shootings. Comparatively few have witnessed one on their own, though I’ve met many UT students who were on campus during the 2010 shooting. Some were outside in the campus area but only found out about the shooting later, some had to stay in their classrooms, some didn’t know what was really going on but heard shots, some were actually in the library. Although no one besides the attacker himself was hurt in the end, no one has forgotten being in such close proximity to the possibility of death.
For many Europeans, including myself, it is unbelievable that, in spite of such traumatic episodes, many Americans continue to defend today’s laws that make it relatively easy in most states for an unlicensed anybody to acquire an unregistered weapon with 20- or even 30-round magazines.
I understand that America is in many ways different from Europe, both culturally and geographically, which complicates the case of comparative gun politics. And there are indeed countries on this planet that have stricter gun policies than the U.S. but more people killed with firearms. But these are countries entirely different from the U.S. in terms of wealth, education and development. In countries as developed as the U.S., more guns generally go along with more people being killed by them.
Europeans are actually not totally unfamiliar with not-so-strict gun policies. I study in Freiburg, less than an hour away from the Swiss border. We go there on weekend trips every now and then, but no one was ever afraid that I could get shot, even though Switzerland has a very liberal gun policy. In contrast to the U.S., however, many guns are kept in depots rather than in private households. Additionally, in Switzerland everybody must have health insurance, another European institution most Americans dislike. Without going into that discussion too much, it is important to mention because it contributes to a significant problem in the U.S.: Mental illnesses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can lead to mass shootings. Medical treatment can prevent that, but it is expensive, and if you don’t have health insurance you are unlikely to get it.
If you do not check people’s backgrounds when they buy firearms — in Germany, for instance, you won’t get a gun if you have a criminal record or a mental illness, you must re-register your gun every three years and of course you must carry a license — and if treatment is unavailable for a lot of mentally ill people, you invite a massive amount of gun homicides. That’s what the U.S. has been doing for decades.
You cannot absolutely prevent all shootings, just like you cannot prevent car accidents. They happen in Germany and Switzerland as well as in the U.S. One of the most terrible mass shootings ever occurred two years ago in Norway, a country that is considered one of the safest and most tolerant in the world. However, you can reduce their frequency.
I know that when it comes to gun politics, the U.S. is highly unlikely to change, no matter how many men, women and children die, but I would not at all be upset if this prediction was proven wrong.
Hardt is an English junior from Freiburg, Germany.