No, I’m Not Going to Start a Fight With Someone Carrying a Gun
It took 12 months of planning to get me on the plane for my semester abroad at North Carolina State University.
It was four months after I returned to Australia that our nearest school, The University of North Carolina, had a shooting on their campus, leaving two dead, four wounded, three of them critical.
Gun culture played an integral part of my trip abroad. Before leaving, my family was concerned about my being in a potentially dangerous place: a school. They often lectured me to not aggravate someone carrying a gun – rather common knowledge, I would’ve thought. But with an abundance of gun-related news coverage from the United States, their fears were grounded. In 2019, mass shootings on school campuses, from elementary schools to universities, occurred 45 times in the first 46 weeks of the year.
By engaging with locals, I began to understand that gun culture is ingrained in their society in a way myself as an Australian born post-1996 could never understand. Especially in the state I travelled to.
The location of my exchange was North Carolina. Nobody can place it on a map, but to most Australian ears, it sounds Southern. And what are Southerners known for? Being Republicans. In the age of the Trump Presidency, my pre-departure was also spent getting warned not to approach locals and start political debates about his unique ideology and subsequent racial, sexist and xenophobic points of view.
I was genuinely excited for the college atmosphere: the football games, school pride and general frivolity that colleges in the U.S. offer young people. This was not my first venture to the Land of the Free; however, it was my first trip to the east and more particularly, the south. My first two weeks abroad were spent on a tour bus starting in New Orleans, Louisiana, ending in New York. Noticeably the shop fronts displayed their ‘No Guns Allowed Inside’ policies and every indoor attraction required you enter through a metal detector.
The next distinct difference was our orientation lectures, whereby the international students were ushered into a room and told about the gun regulations on campus. No student was allowed any gun, and if found to be carrying, you face either a Class 1 Misdemeanour (less serious charge) or a Class 1 Felony (between 3 – 12 months behind bars) varying on whether you have carried or stored a gun on campus, leading to time in a state or county jail as well as a significant fine. I was not the only one in the room suddenly realising that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
My time on campus was mostly spent with other international students and local North Carolinians. It was here that it began to dawn on me where the more generic points of differences lay between our two countries.
I was paired with an American roommate who grew up an hour away from our school. She was gifted a Taser for college. Yes, a Taser and she kept it conveniently in her desk drawer, right across from my bed. She showed it to me about half-way through the semester along with the pocket-knife she kept in her backpack at all times. The Taser was a weapon you were most certainly not allowed to have on campus, but her long-time Republican-voting family believed she needed to arm herself against the dangers of the outside world. As a small young woman, I can’t fault her for wanting protection, yet it was still unsettling sleeping in the same room as a weapon that is only allowed for law enforcement groups in Australia.
I was often encouraged by a rather beer-intoxicated young American male that if Aussies can’t have guns, then I should definitely join him on an outing to a gun range so I can experience one in all its glory. It soon became the only thing he would talk of. Of course, this was only after he’d had a few of Milwaukee’s Best Ice – a favoured beer among college kids at NC State.
He became overcome with the need to take me to a gun range as a supposed first date. Turning down this offer was fruitless due to his being rather confused as to why I did not want to go to said gun range. I might be an outlier here, but the thought of holding a gun, a weapon used to harm does not appeal to me, even just at a range. He never seemed to understand this. Of course his name was Holden and he drove a pick-up truck, why would he?
It may be because Holden, like many in his American cohort, were not aware that Australians have very strict gun laws. This was a conversation I entered into many times; the specifics of each one are hazy, yet they happened frequently.
“I thought Australians had guns.”
“Well, we used to, until 1996, when we had a huge gun massacre. After that, the government bought guns back from owners, because most people understood that we didn’t really need them.”
As Australians, we live with the knowledge that the most harmful thing in the United States is the average person, capable of buying guns that in 2017 amassed 39,773 deaths due to a gun-related injury. But they would say to me: “You’ve got such a dangerous country: every animal that could kill you is down there. I could never go.”
I can completely recognise the importance of the Second Amendment in the American Constitution, and my time at a U.S. college gave me even more insight into how their right to bear arms is perceived as a critical part to the freedom of its people.
So while it’s a great spot for an exchange or a holiday, I wouldn’t choose to settle down in the USA right now. Maybe one day if I get sick of the spiders. But for now, I’ll take my chances with the crocodiles.
Cover by Philippe Bout