There are two strange things that are standing out to me today being an American living in Britain. (There are several, to be sure, but I’m talking today about two.)
The first has to do with the extent to which the British population tends to be left of the U.S. Not on all issues, but when it comes to a lot of things—healthcare, welfare, and education, for instance—even though the debate is plenty intense, the fulcrum at the center of the see-saw is almost always deep in liberal territory. But nothing, nothing looms larger in the British conception of America than our attitude towards guns.
Which is why I was so surprised to find myself talking with a young Englishman just two nights ago who was arguing against increased gun control in the US. The guy, let’s call him Gerald, was an acquaintance of a friend of mine and an arch-Conservative, a rarity on the famously leftist campus of the University of Sussex, where I’m studying for the year. Gerald was an Antonin Scalia-like Constitutional originalist, and his arguments were ones that weren’t unfamiliar to me, even though I hadn’t heard them—nor had I specifically been challenged to rebuke them—in a long while. But they went like this: how can you allow the Supreme Court to interpret laws willy-nilly with no heed given to what the people who wrote the laws (in this case, we’re talking about the all the white guys who wrote the Bill of Rights) originally intended?
I’d like to say I acquitted myself admirably, that I had a Hollywood-like rousing argument that put Gerald’s position to shame. Something like Will McAvoy’s speech from the pilot of The Newsroom, soaring and beautiful and succinct, possibly with violins and some timpani in the background.
Instead, I rustily fumbled through arguments that existed unphrased in my heart but which hadn’t needed to be brought to bear in some time. I also was caught off-guard by Gerald’s politician-like interruption technique (a kind of a rarity in the otherwise rather polite Britain), allowing statements like “If you don’t follow the original intent of the people who wrote the law, then how does the law have any meaning?” to go unaddressed. It was a disconcerting experience, not one that challenged any of my deeply held beliefs—that the Constitution is a living, breathing document; that the judiciary’s job is to interpret the law, not follow the words blindly; and that we needed gun control in our country—but one that made me doubt my own ability to translate those deep convictions into words.
One memory I return to time and time again—and one, had I been more on my A-game the other night, I would have shared with Gerald—was of a December morning at my parents’ house in New Rochelle, NY, home for the holidays from Grad School. It was a lazy winter morning of us sitting around, watching TV, when a map came up on CNN showing the tri-state area, a pin sticking out of Western connecticut, less than 50 miles from where we were. This was the first news report coming in about the Sandy Hook Elementary School Shooting, and as my family and I watched the coverage over the next few hours and learned of the young lives lost, I felt an ache in my heart, a sickness that anything so awful could happen not just in my country, but within a stone’s throw of where we were.
As the fallout of the shooting progressed over the hours, weeks and months that followed, the sickness remained, first as the photos of the children killed (and the teachers who tried to save their lives) were published in newspapers, then as the details emerged of the mentally unstable man who had ready access to the tools of his massacre, and finally to the utter inefficacy of the US Senate to represent their constituents, defeating an assault weapons ban 40-60, despite majority support amongst Americans polled.
I would have told Gerald that we need our judges to interpret our laws because a law written about guns in 1776 when they required adding gunpowder and a bullet between each shot (and not the ability to unload dozens of bullets per minute) might need some reinterpretation (leaving aside whether you believe the Second Amendment is about private gun ownership in the first place). I would have told him that while an outright gun ban would be great, that the government is being barred from simply regulating guns, and that if we were able to regulate them the way we regulate cars or dangerous chemicals (or blood donations, for that matter), we’d be in far better shape to combat gun violence than we are now. I would have told him that there’s something simply crushing about my country’s inability to do anything to curb these attacks, the now five-times-reposted article from The Onion, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens” having long ago lost it’s dark humor and instead embraced the grim reality of America’s impotence in the face of the gun lobby.
But I didn’t say these things. Because at that moment, on June 10, 2016, the problem felt chronic, static and non-acute.
THE OTHER STRANGE THING about living in the UK is that, when you wake up, almost everyone back home is still asleep. So I was more or less all by myself this morning to read through the reports of a mass shooting in Orlando at a gay nightclub. But I found myself wishing I’d had Gerald there with me, for me to point and say, “this.” This isn’t what our founders intended, this isn’t what America is about, this can’t be how we allow ourselves to be defined.
Instead, I’ve been sitting here on my own as the horrific details continue to emerge, watching my Twitter and Facebook feeds as my friends wake up to the awful news. And as the sickness once again sets in, it’s accompanied by a second feeling of dread, one that echoes The Onion’s recycled headline: that this is becoming far too familiar, far too expected, and that the more we rack up these shootings, the less they’ll shock us.
This isn’t the first mass shooting that’s made news across the Atlantic since I’ve arrived in the UK, though it has affected me more than the others. I don’t know whether to ascribe this to the fact that it took place in a state that I lived in for three years, or the fact that the numbers jumped so dramatically from 20 to 50 dead, making this the worst shooting in U.S. history, or that it happened at a gay nightclub and that the shooter’s intention appears to have been to specifically target LGBT people, (and to what extent it is the product or by-product of trickle-down homophobia, as my friend Steve Foxe rightly pointed out).
Or maybe it has to do with the fact that, as I’m here in the UK on a Fulbright Grant, and I’m meant to be acting as an ambassador between our two countries, I find my diplomacy skills (such as they are) stretched to breaking. I’ve spent time trying to explain to my British friends how the Presidential Primaries work (and how they could lead to the nomination of Donald Trump), how religion plays a larger role in most Americans’ everyday lives (even atheists), and how our healthcare system works (or doesn’t). I’ve even had a few conversations where I attempt to contextualize gun ownership for utterly perplexed Britons, reflecting on my time in North Florida, my [admittedly anthropological] visits to gun shows, and my conversations with friends who come from gun-owning families—that it’s not just a matter of physical ownership of guns but an identity as a gun owner, and that when people propose gun control legislation, gun owners react (rightly or wrongly) with the same emotional passion as Trans people targeted by bathroom bills.
But after a day like today, I feel defeated—as a writer, as an ambassador, as an American.
I don’t have the soaring, Will McAvoy, violins-and-timpani argument at my fingertips. I don’t know the magic words that will help anti-gun control citizens and politicians to reexamine their stances on these issues, or the foolproof logical arguments that will show jurists and amateur originalists alike how far they’ve strayed from the path of reason. All I can do is hope: hope that the next Supreme Court Justice rebalances the court to privilege common sense over reactionary literalism, hope that the populist anger that fueled so much of the 2016 primary can be channeled into substantial change, and hope that we don’t lose our sense of shock, outrage and profound sadness in the face of repeated horrors.