Seven or eight years ago, I began travelling for short periods (a week or two per year) from Canada to the US. Specifically, to Chicago, which scared the CRAP out of me.
In Hyde park, every block or so they had these big booth-ey-sign-like things that said “If you are being mugged, press this button”. I could never understand how that worked. I mean, how do you press the button DURING a mugging? Wouldn’t the mugger have an issue with that?
And what if the mugging occurred BETWEEN the boxes? Do you say “excuse me, could we move this mugging thirty feet to the north?”
When you make that request, do you typically say please and thank you?
Cross cultural etiquette is so tricky. I was forever doing things like stopping dead in my tracks mid entrance to the public library, frozen in horror and pointing.
Me: That sign says that I am not allowed to carry a gun into the library.
Mike <my American friend, room mate, and informal cultural ambassador>: Yeah. Keep moving. You’re blocking the door.
Me: Why does it say that?
Mike: What do you care? You are not carrying a gun. Remember last night when we took away the knife you were using to cut cake, because you kept waving it around?
Me: I wasn’t waving it. I was telling a story and I forgot I was holding it.
Mike: Keep moving. You’re blocking the door.
Me: But why does it say no guns in the library? What do people do in libraries here?
Mike: Nothing. Just if someone happens to be carrying one, they—
Me: —WHY WOULD SOMEONE "JUST HAPPEN" TO BE CARRYING A GUN???
Mike <smiles, pats me on the head, and moves me gently out of the doorway>.
Americans were always very nice to me. I was like their pet. They were very tolerant of my questions, including my pointing to everyone on the subway and whispering “So that guy could have a gun? How about him? What about her, could she have a gun right now?”
Now, I don’t want to imply that there is no crime in Canada. My home city, in fact, has a violent crime rate that’s higher than New York’s (although way fewer deaths. There’s a lot of punching and stabbing, which is less likely to kill anyone. And which is far more polite).
But we aren’t afraid the same way.
You know the feeling when you go to a tropical country and as you're getting off the plane the humidity hits you like a wave and your face gets damp and you think "even my skin knows that I'm in a different place?".
That's what it feels like, for me, when I cross the border. My pores feel the fear the way they feel changes in humidity. Fear of violence, fear of losing your job and your health care, fear of homelessness... and fear of guns.
And, for me, fear of nosebleeds.
Nosebleeds are what happen when you live with Americans who lock the doors ALL THE TIME EVEN WHEN WE ARE IN THE HOUSE. I never got mugged in the US, but I sustained many thought-this-door-was-unlocked-and-tried-to-leave injuries.
Me: AAAGGGHHH!!! WHO LOCKED THIS DOOR???
Mike: Me. Last night.
Me: Why would you lock the door when you are IN THE HOUSE?
Mike: Because people might come in and take stuff.
Me: That’s not considered rude, here? To just walk into a house when someone is in it?
Mike: Everyone locks there doors here.
Me: Even when they are in the house?
Mike: Even when they’re in the house.
Me: Oh. Well, that explains why the police are always kicking down the doors in American Movies. That always seemed unnecessarily rude to me.
Mike: Look if you had break ins up there in Maple Syrup Heaven, you’d realize that—
Me: Oh, we have break ins. When I was a kid, once, my dad caught a guy in the living room trying to steal stuff in the middle of the night.
Mike <snickering>: What did your dad do—apologize at him?
Me: He asked him for his ID.
Mike <snickering more>: AND THEN???
Me: And then he offered him a ride home.
Mike <breaks into gales of laughter and exchanges look with room mates>
Me: Well, he couldn’t just kick him out. It was the middle of the night, in January. Hypothermia is no laughing matter. Things could easily have gotten out of hand.
To be fair, when my dad saw the kid’s ID, he realized the kid was a minor. And that our family knew the family. Also, to be fair, my dad pointed out that “you want the kid not to think of it as a criminal situation… he was a kid, and he might panic. I knew that if we were gonna get police involved, it would be better to do it the next day when everyone was well rested”.
That's the kind of thinking you do when your brain isn't shut down by fear.
Mike: How did your dad know that the kid didn’t have a gun?
Me: How would a kid get a gun?
Then the Americans exchanged “aww, so cute” looks with each other, like they did every time we talked about guns.
Me: Why don't you just--
Mike: It's not that simple. We have an amendment in our constitution about carrying guns being a basic freedom.
Me: Okay. So add another amendment about not getting shot at being a basic freedom.
Then, the Americans exchanged "aww, so cute" looks again.
To be clear, there are guns in Canada. And there are gun deaths in Canada. They tend to be much rarer, and one-death-at-a-time, because you can't do a mass shooting with a deer hunting rifle. (A guy tried in parliament a few years back. There was one casualty, probably because he used a gun that required him to stop for ninety seconds to reload after every seven bullets).
After seven bullets, either a) the deer has run away, or b) you are not actually hunting deer.
And not being hunted, and not living in fear of being hunted, should be a basic right of any civilized society. Period.
Before I went to Chicago, I knew about American gun deaths, but not about American gun fear.
I didn't know how strong it was, and I didn't know that the people who lived under it's rule thought it was normal. Like any barbaric cultural practice--from honour killings to binding of feet--it seemed not exactly okay, but... inevitable.
As an urban, white Canadian (I think it would be different if I were rural, or Indigenous), I just don't think about guns.
I have never wondered whether another driver has a gun.
I have never seen two people fighting and wondered whether one of them is armed.
I have never asked--or been asked--about guns as part of play date arrangements.
I have never thought about guns when sending my child to school (frostbite, all the time. Guns, never).
I have never seen anyone open-carrying a gun (other than police).
I have seen a couple of dozen interactions between police and civilians, and I’ve never seen a police officer act like they thought that the person they were dealing with was armed. They do pat downs, but with the same habitual look you get when you are putting on your seatbelt. Actually drawing a gun is so rare for a police officer that any I’ve ever talked to can actually list every time they’ve had to do it. In one sentence. One sentence that is not even run-on.
I do not know anyone personally who has been shot, who has shot anyone, or who has even seen a gun drawn.
And I have never, ever, watched my child leave the house and wondered if they might be shot before I see them again.
This is not because I am Canadian. It's because I'm not American.
Canada is not the exception, it's the norm.
So don't let anybody tell you that living in this kind of fear and powerlessness is anything other than an unnecessary and horrifying cultural practice.
Don't let anybody tell you you it is inevitable that your child should have to do lockdown drills. That your teachers should have to explain why they don't want to have to cary firearms.
Don't let anybody tell you that you have to chirp "Happy Hunger Games" and just accept these deaths as the price of peace.
No parent should ever kiss their child good bye in the morning, hoping the odds will be in their favour.
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