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Joanna Zelman Headshot

The One Question I Am Asked In Every Country I Visit

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I have been asked about Miley Cyrus a handful of times during my travels abroad. I am often asked if I know someone named "John" who also lives in New York City.

But the only question I have been asked on every coast of every country I've visited is: "Why do Americans love guns so much?"

One of my Tasmanian friends wants to travel to the U.S. but told me she is "scared I'll be shot." A New Zealander informed me last night that, were she to summarize the U.S. in one word, it would be: "violent." My Saudi Arabian friend gently suggested, "Every country has its problems. Yours is guns."

As the U.S. repeatedly fails to prevent gun violence, I find myself often slipping into a disillusioned resignation that perhaps this is just how the world is now. But what is happening in America is not normal.

I was studying in an American middle school classroom the day two high-schoolers entered Columbine High School and shot to death 12 students and one teacher.

I was traveling alone for the first time in Belgium when a student killed 32 people on Virginia Tech's campus, and a street vendor asked me if I was scared to return to a U.S. university.

I was in India when a boy shot a 14-year-old student in the neck outside an Atlanta middle school, and a driver asked me why America's children keep shooting other children.

I was in Japan when a 10-year-old boy was accidentally shot to death while playing with other children in Ohio and the Senate rejected efforts to expand gun control.

I was in Tasmania, Australia when a soldier shot and killed fellow soldiers at Fort Hood. The second time.

Tasmania knows gun violence. The country's southernmost state -- which boasts one of the tallest tree species on Earth, the world's best single malt whisky, and pre-Looney Tunes Tasmanian devils -- is also where, one Sunday in 1996, a young man shot 35 people to death.

Tasmania knows what it's like to have a community brought to its knees as media swarm for quotes, scoops and then disappear as the more fixed pain sets in. But when Australia witnessed dozens of its citizens murdered one weekend afternoon, it did something rather foreign to America: it enacted change. Australians turned in nearly 700,000 guns and laws were tightened. There were 11 mass shootings in Australia the decade before 1996. There have been no mass shootings ever since.

Our nation may see itself as a gun-toting "Dirty Harry" hero, but some regard us more as an immature brute unwilling to pry his fingers off deadly toys, drunk on a wildly wealthy gun lobby's stale elixir mislabeled as American pride.

I do not believe that everyone looks at our country's gun obsession with bewilderment and ridicule. But the small percentage of the world's population that I've met sure do.

When I try to explain to my baffled new friends that, well, some Americans feel safer with guns, I get blank stares. Maybe because a study last year found that guns do not make a country safer, and "There was a significant correlation between guns per head per country and the rate of firearm-related deaths." A separate report last year found that many of the states with weak gun laws also saw the greatest levels of gun violence.

When I suggest that some people believe unrestricted gun ownership is their Second Amendment right, I get cocked heads. Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia found that "the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."

When I ask my international friends why they don't own guns, I get blinks of confusion. "I'm not a hunter," an Australian co-worker suggested. "It's just not our culture," my friend in Japan shrugged.

Australia's former Prime Minister John Howard explained in a New York Times op-ed last year that in his country, "The fundamental problem was the ready availability of high-powered weapons, which enabled people to convert their murderous impulses into mass killing. Certainly, shortcomings in treating mental illness and the harmful influence of violent video games and movies may have played a role. But nothing trumps easy access to a gun."

Gun Owners of America's Larry Pratt responded to Australia's initiative: "We're not interested in being like Australia. We're Americans."

Perhaps that's the trouble: A hijacking of the word "American." My passport reads "United States of America," I've voted in every election since turning 18 (and before that I voted in the first three seasons of American Idol.) I grew up on North Carolina hushpuppies, New York bagels, California avocados and Florida orange juice. But I choose life over guns, and it's time that became "American."