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The Explainer

Why do Americans want guns?

How do you even begin to explain cultural differences between Americans and Canadians to kids?
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Patrick Pentland, May 13, 2013 11:34:36 AM

“Why do Americans want guns?” Asked by my puzzled 6 year-old daughter. We had been watching the news, and the NRA was being discussed. I know my kids are aware that the police carry guns. Their step-cousins’ dad is an RCMP officer, and they know he has a gun. But the idea that regular people would own guns, and therefore be able to shoot people, seems odd to them.

I have fired several guns in my life, including the big ones you see on TV shows and in movies. I don’t think you can have a full understanding of the power that these weapons have until you’ve actually felt the recoil, and heard the sound. It’s so easy to launch a projectile with such violent intent.

I have always been on the fence about the gun issue. On the one hand, I don’t know how I feel about being told what I am allowed to do, or own, by the government, especially if it is something that could offer protection for my family. On the other hand, I don’t like the idea of anyone else having weapons that can have such a destructive force. Now that I have children, the fact that there is a possibility, no matter how slim, that they could be hurt if there was a gun in the house, makes it very unlikely I’d ever own one.

The fact that statistics in the U.S. show that some 30,000 people die each year from guns should indicate that there is a problem; that allowing the average person to own a gun, or guns, is a bad thing. While guns are available in many countries, the death rate, and the number of violent altercations involving guns, is high in America. Americans have a love affair with their guns, and given the fact that they are designed primarily to kill, this would seem puzzling to a child.

The discussion often comes down to why Americans want guns, and Canadians don’t. I’m not sure if that’s all true. There are lots of Americans against gun ownership, or at least who want tighter rules as to who can, and cannot, have access to guns. Certainly there are Canadians who own guns, but it isn’t as easy to purchase them. The difference is cultural.

I hate the cliché that Canadians are polite. It gives the impression that we are pushovers, or don’t stand up for ourselves. I know many Canadians who are not polite, just as I know Americans who are very polite. But with the gun issue, the differences between the attitudes of the average Canadian and average American sort of back the cliché up.

Canadians come across as more socially minded, while the American attitude is easily construed as “me against the world.” Of course, I am generalizing on both fronts, but I do believe that there is a sense of the communal in Canada (socialized medicine, for example) that many Americans seem to think is somehow dangerous. They think that allowing the government access to your private life, and therefore being able to impose limits to benefit the general population’s safety, is somehow stepping on the individual’s rights.

That is the crux of the gun argument in the States: the individual’s right to bear arms. Never mind the fact that it is an outdated notion that continues to polarize the country, it is a symbol of the overall American way of life. If I were a flag saluting, apple pie eating U.S. citizen, I might see the restriction of my ability to own a gun as going against what I feel my country stands for.

But going into this would mean explaining politics and the idea of social freedoms to a 6 year-old, which is going to be more arduous than I have patience, or even knowledge, for. I don’t want to be one of those Canadians who blanket bad-mouths Americans, because that would send the message that I think I’m better than someone else because I don’t share their views, which could lead to all sorts of issues in the playground the next day.

It’s important that I make sure that I express my beliefs, though, because that is part of raising kids; guiding them through your own opinions and experience. There is an over all attitude in my home when it comes to matters such as tolerance (good), violence (bad), bullying (really bad), or equality (really good). I want to teach my children what I believe in, and not just let them make their own decisions about these issues at the age they are now.

So the answer has to do with Canadian and American culture. No one wants their lives to be threatened. The belief that self-protection is a right, and that as an individual I should be able to determine the method in which I protect myself and my loved ones, is not necessarily a bad thing. There is, however, an inherent danger with an armed population. Not everyone is qualified to own a weapon of such force, and in the States there is a fight to make sure that people don’t have to meet stricter qualifications to own guns.

I decided to say that, in America, some people want to be able to protect themselves in their own way. They believe that, if there are bad guys out there with guns, they should be able to protect themselves with the same guns. I said that people in Canada can own guns too, but that you have to have a license to own one, and so you have to show that you are responsible, and know what you are doing. In the States, it is much easier to buy a gun, so more people own them.

That wasn’t going over too well. She wanted to know, if Canadians can own guns, why don’t I own one? Wouldn’t I want to have one to protect my family from bad guys? I said “That’s why we have the dog.” I also said that, like many people in Canada, I felt that guns were dangerous, and having one in the house could lead to an accident. Somebody (indicating her or her brother) might find it, think it would be cool to play with it, and it could go off and hurt or even kill someone.

She seemed to understand that, although her brother indicated from the background that he would like to play with said imaginary gun, but only if there were no bullets in it. I replied over my shoulder that he could make a mistake, and that many children have been killed thinking that a gun wasn’t loaded. He reluctantly agreed, and then went back to killing zombies with a shotgun (on his iPad).

I thought this question about Americans was a good introduction to cultural differences. My kids are growing up in a multicultural city, Toronto. They have friends of diverse cultural backgrounds, often in the same family unit. They don’t ever ask why such and such a person has different skin colour, or why their parents have accents, etc.. But there are other cultural issues that are not so apparent. Guns, and personal rights verses public safety are some of the few cultural differences that separate Canada and America.

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Patrick Pentland

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