LONDON--Whenever I come into view of the Thames, I can't help recalling "The Waste Land." It's a mental tic, left over from a long-ago career as a student of English.
Death has, indeed, undone so many.
I recently met an American teacher at a quintessentially British high school in the heart of London. Were the campus located any closer to the river, her students would have to swim to class. Fittingly, she has not only adopted a bit of a lilt but also developed a sense of tender detachment from her home country.
She sees a fair number of students off to American universities every year. She confessed to me that, of late, she has done so with glimmers--slight, but palpable--of both fear and shame.
She fears that one of her students could, in a moment of supreme bad luck, meet with an enraged or deranged possessor of one of the United States' 300 million or so firearms. She feels shame for coming from a country in which anyone has to worry about meeting such a fate. She asked me how I felt.
Whenever I visit high schools overseas, I love to talk about the excitement that awaits overseas students at U.S. universities. I do not typically find myself paralyzed by patriotic sorrow.
I, like most sane Americans, have no trouble rousing my incredulity over the abomination that is the gun lobby. But I don't often talk about it. What is there to say? And to whom?
What is there to say when millions of legally manufactured guns inevitably meet with the wrong hands? What is there to say when emasculated zealots grow giddy at the thought of encountering violence if only so that they can return fire? What is there to say when criminality, militarism, and mental illness join forces with politics, bloodlust, and capitalism, all for the sake of upholding a contradictory state in which freedom and safety are, supposedly, secured through the exact same means? What is there to say when children die in their classrooms?
Hieronymo isn't the only one who's mad.
Then you compare yourself to a British schoolboy, bounding to class in his blazer and tie. He must mind the gap when he alights from the train endure the cultural influence of Harry Styles. But, for all his problems, a bullet is not one.
Britain's rate of gun ownership is 6.7 per 100, for a total of around 4 million firearms. In 2011, 38 gun-related homicides took place in the United Kingdom. That scarcely exceeds the number of children who were slaughtered in a single day, in a single American school, in 2012. Those victims didn't make it to third grade, much less to college.
Many Britons may not know what has become of their former colonies. America is, again, becoming two countries, divided over guns and so much more. As political scientist Bill Bishop describes in The Big Sort, Americans are segregating themselves according to their beliefs and lifestyles more so than ever. We migrate (or stay put) so as to associate with others who share their beliefs. For better or worse, beliefs go unchallenged and grow stronger.
"Sorting" means that, in some places, it's customary for a grown man to accessorize with a Glock. Fortunately, it means that there are plenty of saner, friendly places where that notion is unthinkable. I assured the teacher that the places where her students are likely to end up are in the latter category.
On the vast majority of American college campuses (with some exceptions), most students will be are just as appalled about, and detached from, gun culture as are her kids in London. In states where legislatures have voted to allow concealed firearms on campuses, many colleges have opted to become "gun-free zones." If that means that higher education has a "liberal bias," so be it.
That's why, when international students think about going to college in the US, I don't want them to dwell on Sandy Hook, Columbine, Springfield, Virginia Tech, or any other such venue of violence. I do not want them to be give credence to the gun advocates who shrug off these tragedies and use them to deepen their fatal zealotry. I don't want them to let stereotypes and anomalies taint what is, genuinely, one of the US's proudest exports. (With that said, international students should, of course, be wary of sadly typical campus crimes like sexual assault.)
I want international students to think about the incredible academic experiences they're going to have. I want them to think about the friends they're going to make, the classes they're going to take, and the places they're going to see. I want them to think about what they'll accomplish--for themselves and for the world--once they've graduated.
What's most encouraging about the incredible exchange of friendship and scholarship on American campuses is that disparate people who live and study together naturally develop the good sense not to fight with and murder each other. The ideas we will generate, the empathy we will develop, the business we will do, and the wars we don't wage can, I hope, make up for some of the 30,000 American lives ended by guns every year. Maybe it will be an international student--a Briton, perhaps--who finally hits upon the argument that reins in the NRA.
And if not? The Thames will still run on.
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Afterword: This piece was drafted several weeks ago and submitted for publication May 24. On May 23, seven people were killed in a shooting near the University of California, Santa Barbara.