Culture shock

Normally, when I debate representatives from the National Rifle Association (NRA), hostile questions from the audience come from those with a decidedly Libertarian bent to their politics.  Typically, these individuals advocate for broader latitude on the part of Americans to respond to criminals with loaded firearms and lethal force.

I was therefore taken aback—and pleasantly surprised—to have my credentials as a practitioner of non-violence called into question during a debate with the NRA’s Outreach Director in late February of this year.

The audience was not our typical group of American college students.  This time, our debate was occurring in front of a group of British high school students visiting Washington.  Specifically, these were 16-19 year-olds from Shrewsbury Sixth Form College and Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in Darlington.

When the Q&A eventually began, their professor/chaperone stated outright that my opponent would likely be getting most of the questions, and encouraged the students to save some for me.  Still, I was caught quite off-guard when a young man stood up and asked me if I thought it was appropriate to shoot an intruder in my home.  It was clear from his tone that he did not think it was appropriate.

I told him that I’d likely never find out, because I do not keep a firearm in my home and would never consider doing so—particularly given the fact that my wife and I now have children.  That said, I added, I have no problem with another American citizen keeping a firearm in his/her home for self-defense and using it if absolutely necessary.  The NRA’s outreach director then chimed in and said he was happy to hear me say that.  He, of course, had zero problems with blowing a home intruder away.

Another young Brit who was sitting in the audience that day later summed up the students’ reaction in a blog:

We were surprised to hear that Ladd Everitt of [the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence] saw shooting intruders in his home as an acceptable option … I’m not unrealistic, and I know that people’s instincts are to protect themselves and their loved ones.  But when a weapon is introduced, the situation is more likely to become fatal—something [he] told us in [his] talk.  I think the worry for me personally was that people would become judge, jury and executioner in these situations.  While I agree that it is fair to protect yourself, I don’t agree that you can unnecessarily injure or kill someone.  This becomes a whole lot easier when guns are involved, and that is why we see groups like [his] as so important.

As I headed home after the debate that day, I felt a strange combination of emotions:  Disappointment in myself that I had somehow let these students down, and excitement (and even inspiration) regarding their attitudes toward nonviolence.  Being an American, I was stunned.  You see, here we embrace “justified violence” from sea to shining sea, whether it’s the guy in Georgia who wants to carry a loaded handgun into an airport or the Hollywood producer behind “Shoot ‘Em Up.”

I wondered why these British students embraced the principles of nonviolence so readily and confidently.  In all my years speaking to American students, I’d never seen anything like it.  Is it simply because—whatever their concerns about self-defense—they understand that the gun death rate is 30 times lower in their country than in the United States?  [I mean, let’s face it, if an armed society was a polite society, the U.S. wouldn’t have higher homicide and gun death rates than virtually every other industrialized democracy on the planet.]

Or is it something more?  Don’t these kids play the same video games, watch the same movies (think “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”) and listen to the same music that our kids do?

I can’t claim that I’ve quite sorted it all out yet, but I will say that the experience filled me with a profound sense of hope that is still resonating with me now, months later.

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