The insanity of America’s gun culture

A loner, isolated and strange, with odd ideas and few friends. He stays to himself, writes disturbing stories, but never breaks the law. The “question mark kid,” some of his classmates call him and others could barely remember his voice. Teachers worry about him and advise the school to keep an eye on Cho Seung-hui.

Then he kills in a horrific burst of violence and now his Korean heritage has suddenly turned a very American mass murder into an occasion for contemplation and shame in Seoul, horror everywhere and fears that Americans may turn against Asian immigrants.

But this is not about Cho being Korean. The tragedy of Virginia Tech is very much an American thing and it puts the full insanity of America’s love affair with firearms in front of the world.

In most places in Asia – Korea, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, China – it would be incredibly difficult for a university student, or any civilian, to get a hold of a firearm and several clips of ammunition. In the US, it is a right protected by the constitution and advocated by politicians.

Having lived in Asia for a large part of my adult life, one of the things I cherish most about the region is the relative safety of most urban streets. In Seoul, where I live now, there might be violent demonstrations against the government or the odd drunken fistfight between a couple of salarymen on a toot. But gunplay? Almost unheard of unless the perpetrator is a soldier or a policeman with access to a weapon.

The same is true in Hong Kong, where the odd murder is usually committed by off-duty police officers or gangsters. The sound of random gunfire, long a feature of American cities, is rare almost everywhere in Asia except the Philippines, which share the gun fetish of its colonial master, America. Indeed, when an American moves to Asia for the first time it takes awhile to realize that it is safe to walk down that long lonely road to your apartment, that chances are a stranger is not going to put a gun to your ribs, and that your children do not need to fear they will be gunned down in the playground.

But ask an American back home if he or she feels truly safe anywhere outside of the house and chances are the answer will be no. In California, road rage incidents are common and one approaches even a mild fender bender with a sense of trepidation lest your fellow motorist is packing heat and having a bad day. I recall an incident a few years ago when I was a reporter in Sacramento, California, a city with a quiet, almost sleepy reputation. A neighbor went to complain about someone playing his car stereo too loud in the apartment complex on a Sunday afternoon. Words were exchanged and tempers rose so the man went back to his house, got his gun and opened fire on the guy with the stereo, killing, if I recall correctly, three people. There was nothing unusual about that killing.

Some 30,000 people die of gunshot wounds in the United States every year, a level of carnage that one might think would provoke outrage and a call to ban firearms. But instead, we have the spectacle of Mitt Romney, a candidate for president who is not comfortable with firearms, recently bragging that he loves to shoot and hunt in order to pander to conservative voters. A substantial minority of Americans are sure to see in the Virginia Tech slayings good reason to arm more people, just as some have advocated teachers carrying guns to prevent violence and airline pilots being armed to battle terrorists.

Already the editorial counterattack by the gun lobby has begun. “Our politicians cannot expect a further restriction on the America people's constitutional right to bear arms to provide any relief from violent crime. In fact, it may perpetuate it,” wrote an editorial in Small Government Times, a right wing web site, in reaction to the Virginia Tech killings.

The 32 victims of Cho Seung-hui have provoked an outpouring of grief and some calls for the US to limit firearms purchases but it won’t happen. Instead, quite predictably, Americans will wonder about Cho’s motives, his isolation, the reason for his sudden murderous rage. President George W. Bush will sympathize but do nothing about the access to firepower that made that staggering death toll possible.

Frankly, the reason that Cho went nuts and started killing his classmates is of little immediate concern to me. People go crazy. It is a fact of life. They go crazy in Korea and in the US, in Thailand, Malaysia, France or anywhere else. A combination of mental illness, a bad home life, or just a lousy day at work can send someone around a murderous bend. But how many more people would be alive today at Virginia Tech if Cho only had access to a knife or a blunt object instead of a pair of high-powered pistols?

Cho pulled the trigger but America put the gun in his hands.