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Tuesday 14 May 2002

Gun Control, TV, and the British

Foreigners — and by that I mean people who live outside the United States — often complain that Americans don’t know anything about other cultures, i.e. the cultures of the foreigners.

This is probably true. The chief sources for the knowledge of the average American about the world outside the USA are: grandpa’s stories from his adventures in the War; great-grandpa’s dimly-remembered stories about the Old Country circa 1900; Masterpiece Theatre; Soccer Made in Germany; and Cold-War spy films set in the sooty and slushy streets of Moscow or Berlin.

The more cosmopolitan among us may have spent time living on the Air Force base in Wiesbaden; and the very best of us have spent time completely unqualifiedly teaching English as a foreign language.

But at least we know that we don’t have much real knowledge of other cultures. We just believe that most people are about like us, but with smaller houses, cars, televisions, and waistlines. And for the most part, we’re correct.

Foreigners, on the other hand, believe that they know America. The flow of information and culture is mostly one-way: in America, foreign ‘culture’ shows itself only as a British accent used to indicate that the product being advertised is ‘elegant’, or ungrammatical French being used to imply a slightly different kind of ‘elegance’. Australian accents indicate that the product in question is rugged and carries with it no nonsense.

In the lands of the foreigners, though, America looms large: McDonald’s has restaurants in all the cities; Coca-Cola is available everywhere. Anheuser-Busch somehow manages to sell Budweiser in countries that produce much better beer locally. American movies are in most of the cinemas, and American television shows can be seen every night. And that’s just the beginning. American ‘culture’ is everywhere.

And the mistake foreigners make is thinking that this stuff is actually representative of this country.

McDonald’s is popular here, but nobody in America would actually describe their hamburgers as good. They’re their own thing, and admirable for that, but you get better burgers at a bowling alley.

Coca-Cola is extremely popular, too, but it’s only good in vast quantities and with lots of ice: a way I’ve never seen it served outside the USA, even in Canada (except at McDonald’s, where they get it right).

Budwesier I can’t really explain. It’s better when made without the rice.

And the movies and TV shows — they’re not representative of the culture, any more than Absolutely Fabulous or the romantic fop played by Hugh Grant are representative of Britain.

A lot of American TV shows and movies feature gunfire and explosions as central themes. This leads to silly columns like this one. Ths column, by Matthew Engel in The Guardian — this is the same guy who wrote the piece on American obesity I wrote about recently — about the U.S. Department of Justice’s recent about-face on the meaning of the Second Amendment contains passages like this one:

For decades, the official Justice Department line was that the first 13 words of the amendment were crucial to its sense, and that the amendment was designed to protect the existence of official militias, eg the individual states’ National Guard, and not to allow all-comers to roam the streets packing a rod.


And if the Republicans regain the Senate in November [Bush] may get his way. Then even the current inadequate patchwork of state gun control laws could be rendered illegal.

This guy is on assignment in the United States, and yet he apparently continues to think that the United States is the Wild West — or he wants his readers to continue to think that.

According to the International Crime Victimization Surveys, there is is fact less crime in the United States than in Great Britain, Switzerland, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, and Spain, to name just a few countries. (Northern Ireland has less crime than the USA; the rest of the UK is higher.)

We all know that statistics can be manipulated, and it’s very hard to compare something as loosely defined as ‘crime’ from country to country, and in any case, some of these crime rates differ only by a few tenths of a per cent.

But if American gun control is so ineffective, and if we’re all packing ‘rods’, as Mr Engel so quaintly puts it, why on Earth doesn’t this incredible latent violence show up in the crime rates? Why is it that there is generally less crime in parts of the United States with fewer restrictions on ownership of firearms? Why is it that when you control for factors like the U.S. War on Some Drugs, the United States actually has much less crime than most other Western industrialized countries?

I can understand the logic of the gun-control advocates, even if I find it a bit simplistic: guns can be used in harmful ways; the danger of this harmful use is greater than the benefit of wide possession of guns; therefore guns ownership should not be permitted.

The problem comes with the second premise of that argument. The gun-control advocates accept as a given that guns are a net danger, while the facts and statistics seem to indicate otherwise.

As long as smug Europeans base their understanding of the United States on Baywatch and Kojak reruns, rather than on reality, I don’t think we’re going to see an end to their moralizing on gun control. At least not until all of them have been shot dead by armed European criminals preying on an unarmed populace.

Posted by tino at 23:16 14.05.02
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I think that Mr. Engel understands America more thn he lets on because that wouldn’t sell as many papers or be as popular with his Brit Editor.

Posted by: Paul Johnson at May 17, 2002 12:10 AM

I don’t know about overall crime, but the statistics for handgun deaths do not support your arguement. The US averages over 10000 deaths due to guns each year while Britain averages a couple of hundred. It may not make a difference in the overall crime rate, but I’d much rather be the victim of a robbery than the victim of a murder.

Posted by: J Kent at May 18, 2002 10:14 PM