Shrouded in the bleak darkness of winter, on January 1st 2015, an armed gunmen snuck into premise of the UNC Wellness Gym Centre in the affluent suburban haven of Cary, North Carolina. Like many others that evening, I was simply squeezing in an intense workout, in an attempt to burn off my New Years Eve indulgences and was blissfully unaware of the dangers skulking beneath our noses. After all, we had no reason to be apprehensive. 1st January marked the close of aseason of exuberant festivities, mouth watering food and warm crackling fires. Meanwhile, Cary’s relatively low crime rate has resulted in the town being dubbed ‘The Safest Town in America’, a title which the region proudly and perhaps naively clings onto.
Yet, 30 minutes into my workout, we were suddenly being ushered into the ladies changing rooms by a wide eyed and slightly shaken team leader with no further explanation then her singular statement of ‘There is a gunman in the building’. Around 50 of us were sat cross-legged, sweaty and fidgety in the cramped room. Some nervously made jokes, a small boy, no older than 9 or 10 seemed almost excited, maybe for him it seemed like something out of an action or suspense film, others like my mother and younger sister were silent. My mother, father and younger siblings had only moved to America 5 months ago and yet here we were face to face with the sheer indiscriminate brutality of American gun crime. After three agonising hours, the police and the SWAT Team managed to infiltrate the building and find the perpetrator, who was armed with a AR-15 rifle, and subdue him with a taser gun. Eventually, myself and the 100 or so members of the public and staff were evacuated to safety at a nearby nursery and were comforted with drinks and cookies by the understanding and extremely efficient staff.
When retelling the series of events to my British friends, my story makes for a shocking, and dare I say, gripping antidote, yet for many Americans such an encounter is common. The events of 1st January 2015, featured on a short news segment on the local TV station but barely caught the attention of the broader state TV and news outlets and didn’t even stand a chance on the national stage. The fact of the matter is that my ‘encounter’ was actually a near miss and therefore un-newsworthy. A surplus of questions encircled my mind after the affair: ‘what would motivate someone to walk into a gym with a loaded weapon?’, ‘what if he wasn’t spotted by an observant and shrewd member of staff?’ But the overwhelming question that lingered in my mind was the following: ‘How many near misses, close calls and individual localised shooting incidents such as mine occur every day within America, that don’t make it to the international or even national media stage?’ Ultimately, when the British public, politicians and media pour scorn, criticism and condemnation upon the American Second Amendment, NRA (National Rifle Association) and mass shootings, the truth is we don’t really know the half it.
The Second Amendment, established in December 1791 as one of the 10 Amendments of The Bill of Rights, outlines the right of the American public to keep, bear and most significantly use arms. Individual state and local laws vary massively. In Texas, for example, open carry (in a non threatening manner) is legal, whereas the state of New York constructed it’s own restrictive and controversial NY Safe Act in response to the Connecticut Sandy Hook Shooting in 2012. Guns pulse through the heart of America and in 2013, gun ownership was estimated at 310 million. The cryptic and mystical power of NRA alongside the theatrical he-said she-said of American politics will never fail to simultaneously disgust and amuse me. But sliding this aside, for a moment, having now been an expat in the US for a year and a half, and encountered many a brash, proud and armed Southerner, I am beginning to gain a glimmer of understanding as to why America’s addiction to guns, is one that potentially has no cure.
From the broad, red faced man who slowly explained to me (as though I was a child unable to grasp a very simple concept) that possessing a gun ‘is simply what happens in the South’, to the seemingly sweet middle class woman whose gun I saw sneakily tucked away in her glossy Michael Kors handbag, talking to and engaging with ordinary people, it has become clear to me that, for many, possessing a weapon, with the ability to kill dozens en masse is simply a God given, legal and absolute right. In the predominately white, educated and prosperous town of Cary, where the medium income is $110,609, it seems its middle class church -going citizens feel as though they have something valuable worth protecting and the only effective form of protection is a gun. However, it becomes a vicious circle as those who don’t possess a gun, do so at the risk of feeling vulnerable and exposed in the knowledge that many acquaintances and criminals alike are heavily armed. Subsequently, taking advantage of flimsy gun regulations, they buy a gun, feel instantly reassured and safe and thus the cycle continues. From my short time in America, it appears that the risk of guns falling into the wrong hands is a small price to pay for individual protection. Whilst many in Cary, would argue that mass shootings and gun crimes simply ‘don’t happen here’, there is an unsaid notion that even if guns do get into the wrong hands, there will be at least one law abiding armed citizen ready to protect himself and those around him as in the words of the NRA ‘the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun’. Indeed, after the incident in January, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of my fellow gym goers went and hastily purchased a gun themselves.
In the words of Obama, America has simply become ‘numb’ to its own self destructive habit. But this is easily done. During my brief five and a half weeks in America during the christmas vac, although I listened to the news, the horrific shootings and attacks around the country on a daily basis, even I found myself being less affected. Suddenly individuals, became names, names were distorted into the generic title of ‘the victim’ and victims became numbers which were swallowed into the statistical and shameful black hole that is American gun crime. Interestingly, the perpetrator on 1st January, had no connection to the gym, its members or staff and even to this day the motivations for his actions are cloaked in mystery. He was eventually charged with discharging a weapon onto occupied property and going armed to the terror of people. My experience was in one insignificant town in a relatively unknown state, and therefore I am hesitant to simplify a complex issue or to throw around mass generalisations and sweeping stereotypes of a people, a state and of a nation. Yet in my opinion, his actions and the minimal coverage it received, is reflective of a political elite unable to regulate gun ownership and a public desensitised and disengaged from the true horror of gun crime.
Now in the year 2016, the world we live in has become a more unstable and formidable place and certainly there are many Americans who feel as though they and their family are under attack, from political correctness, from ISIS and from liberals who wish to usurp their religion and their ‘rights’. This pervasive protectionism has led to the increasingly popular belief that the best defence to such an intrusive and immediate threat is, unfortunately, a gun. As long as this mentality persists, America’s gun laws will always remain lax whilst the number of guns in circulation, the number of needless deaths and the number of bloodthirsty mass murders will continue to increase in a uncontrollable manner that will haunt the nation for decades and generations to come.
IMAGE/ St Louis Circuit Attorneys Office