‘I’m British—I Don’t Understand This’: A Journalist Grapples With U.S. Gun Culture

"If very few people have guns, then very few people feel the need for guns. If lots of people have guns, then lots of people feel the need for guns."

Andrew Winning / Reuters

In 2003, the British journalist Gary Younge moved from a country with roughly seven firearms per 100 people to a country with around 101 firearms per 100 people, from a country with an annual rate of .04 gun homicides per 100,000 people to a country with an annual rate of 3.43 gun homicides per 100,000 people, and from a country with strict gun laws and unarmed police to a country with neither. Younge, who writes for The Guardian, had relocated to the United States. There, he was as likely to be killed by agricultural machinery as he was to die from gun violence back home in the United Kingdom.

Younge returned to the U.K. in 2015, and he’s just published a book, Another Day in the Death of America, that seeks to translate the dehumanizing statistics of American gun violence into human stories. In the book, Younge travels across the United States to profile 10 black, white, and Latino Americans, all male and ranging in age from nine to 19, who were fatally shot on an ordinary day that he chose at random: November 23, 2013.

The book is also a subtle yet searing condemnation of U.S. gun culture and American indifference to endemic gun violence. “Those shot on any given day in different places and very different circumstances lack the critical mass and tragic drama to draw the attention of the nation’s media in the way a mass shooting in a cinema or church might,” Younge writes. These deaths “are white noise set sufficiently low to allow the country to go about its business undisturbed: a confluence of culture, politics, and economics that guarantees that each morning several children will wake up but not go to bed while the rest of the country sleeps soundly.”

“In this regard,” Younge continues, “America really is exceptional. American teens are seventeen times more likely to die from gun violence than their peers in other high-income countries. In the United Kingdom, it would take more than two months for a proportionate number of child gun deaths to occur [as occur every day in the United States]. And by the time I’d come to write this book, I’d been in the country long enough to know that things were exponentially worse for black children like my own.” The United States, he argues, is a wealthy, Western country that has “settled, legislatively at least, on a pain threshold that is morally unacceptable.” (Many of Britain’s gun-control measures were enacted amid outrage over mass shootings in the 1980s and 1990s.)

I recently spoke with Younge about how Miami Vice shaped his early understanding of U.S. gun violence, what he learned about American gun culture from attending an NRA convention, why he feels gun-rights advocates are hypocritical, and why gun-control activists need their own narrative. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Uri Friedman: You write in the book that you felt your mission as a journalist in America was less to judge the United States than to try to understand it. When you moved to the U.S. from Britain in 2003, what did you struggle to understand about U.S. gun culture and gun violence?

Gary Younge: What I struggled to understand was how a country that seemed Western and developed in so many other ways felt other than Western and developed in this way.

The easy availability of guns—I don’t know anywhere else where that would be true. The level of gun deaths—I don’t know anywhere else in the Western, developed world [where that would be true]. It’s not reasonable to compare the United States to Honduras. They’re not similar in a range of ways.

Friedman: How did U.S. gun culture compare to the approach to firearms in Britain?

Younge: While guns exist in Britain and there is such a thing as gun crime in Britain, it’s a very small element of the thing that we call crime. It’s a small element of things that we associate with death. I would no more think of gun culture in Britain than I would ski culture.

Friedman: What do you attribute that to? Because, as you mention in the book, Americans are no more inherently violent than any other people in any other country.

Younge: It’s difficult to talk about why something doesn’t exist. When I say to Americans that police don’t have guns [in Britain], they almost find [it] laughable. But if very few people have guns, then very few people feel the need for guns. If lots of people have guns, then lots of people feel the need for guns.

Friedman: Before you moved to the U.S., were you aware of the extent of gun violence in America and the extent of firearm ownership?

Younge: It was an awareness based on films [and] news of mass shootings, which actually account for a relatively small number of deaths. The first time I ever was in America, I was on my way to Barbados, which is where my family is from originally. We missed our connection and we had to stay in Miami for a day. I was with my friend, who is white, and we thought about going downtown. All we knew about Miami was Miami Vice and that America was very segregated. We thought, “It’s just not worth the gamble.” So we stayed in the airport for 24 hours.

I knew there was a lethal element to social violence [in the United States] in a way there isn’t in Britain. I think Britain’s more violent. I think in Britain you’re more likely to be beaten up. If you go to many towns on a Friday or Saturday night, when the pubs close, they can be quite violent. I’ve just always felt like in America I’m more likely to get killed.

So I was aware of it, but I wasn’t aware of the extent of it. For quite some time, I would’ve assumed that mass shootings were a lot less common than they actually are. They just don’t all get reported. I would have assumed that most people who die in shootings die in mass shootings. Even though they are much more common than I assumed, that’s still not true. I would not have known that most people who die [from] guns shoot themselves. [The] awareness—this leads back to Miami Vice—was more gun violence as a spectacle than an endemic social factor.

Friedman: You lived in New York and Chicago for 12 years. When you think back on that period, what milestones would you cite in the evolution of your understanding of U.S. gun violence and gun culture?

Younge: I was sent to Florida to write about [President] Obama. He was set to give a speech and the Aurora [movie-theater] shooting happened. I can’t remember exactly what he said but it felt like what American presidents say: “Now is not the time for politics. Everybody go home and hug their children. Let’s all be together now. This is a tragedy.” I remember thinking that was wrong: This is during an election and people have been killed, this is not a one-off, it seems exactly like the time for politics to me—where you might talk about this because something can be done about it. I remember thinking nothing can change if nobody’s going to talk about it.

Then, within [five] months, came [the school shooting at] Sandy Hook. And I was struck that [Obama] did say something about it. Of course, Sandy Hook was after the election. He says, “We can’t go on like this.” I’m thinking, well, one of the reasons America does go on like this is because nobody wanted to talk about it.

I went to my first [National Rifle Association] convention in 2012 in St. Louis. I would say, “I’m British. I don’t understand this (which was true). Explain it to me.” The first thing they would say is, “Are you married? Do you have children? Imagine someone broke into your house. What are you going to do? You’re going to just sit there and wait for the police?” It was this brazen appeal to masculinity. It wasn’t anti-government, but [the notion was] you wouldn’t want to rely on your government for that. [It was an] almost vigilantist appeal.

[I was also struck by] just seeing people in the big, cavernous hall—eyeing the goods, pointing these guns into mid-air. I [was] seeing what an industry it is. There’s a lot of money in there, and people liked the gear in a way that people might if [they were] going to a tractor show or something. You couldn’t not be aware of the racial demographics, which was basically white guys.

There was also this [argument] about citizenry holding people to account—this notion of it being this peculiar American thing. A couple of people were like, “You have a queen. You’re a subject. We’re citizens and we had a revolution.”

Gun Deaths and Gun Ownership in OECD Countries
Reuters / GunPolicy.org / University of Sydney

Friedman: When I spoke to the Australian foreign correspondent Zoe Daniel, she mentioned that, in covering politics in the U.S., she at first couldn’t understand why gun-control measures weren’t being implemented. Now she’s come to understand that people believe guns are for their personal protection. So every time there’s a violent incident, it encourages more people to have a gun. Whereas in Australia, after their worst gun-related massacre 20 years ago, everyone decided that people shouldn’t have guns. Australians had the exact opposite response. Did you come away from the NRA convention with a better understanding of why gun control is a hard policy to implement?

Younge: I came away understanding why it was less likely to happen, but not why it was a hard policy to implement. You could see that this was probably the most literally do-or-die issue for these people [at the NRA convention]—not one which they were going to compromise on. So you would need someone or some force for which this was a do-or-die issue to oppose them. And in the absence of that, they would prevail. I don’t know that that’s the same thing as realizing, “Yeah, that’s why it’s so hard.” Because it’s no harder for the other [opposing] folks to decide [gun control is] a priority for them.

Friedman: That it’s also a do-or-die issue for gun-control advocates.

Younge: Yeah. I did realize this would not be a small thing to take on and that [gun-control measures] would upset people [who would] articulate a kind of atavistic, quite primal notion of what America was about. It wouldn’t just be about guns; it would be about their version of America.

Friedman: When no legislation materialized after the Sandy Hook shooting, how did that make you feel? Because, as you said, you were hoping for the president to be more vocal on the issue. Then he was more vocal, and still nothing happened.

Younge: That didn’t surprise me at all, actually. I thought: [Given that] the political class decided they either wouldn’t talk about guns or would only talk about gun rights—[they weren’t] going to talk in any forceful way about gun control for a long time—then the first time out of the gate, [efforts to pass gun-control legislation are] probably not going to work. You haven’t built up the political capital to make it possible. I do think that with Sandy Hook, [the victims] were children. They were white. It was Connecticut. There were no mitigating factors through which the right could dismiss this tragedy as being about racial dysfunction or economic malaise or whatever. So there was a better opportunity there than there was in other cases. But it didn’t surprise me. It’s not that nobody was talking about [gun control] before, but it wasn’t coming from the top and it wasn’t catching on.

I assumed [Obama’s push for gun control] would either fail or, almost worse than that, that there would be some ineffectual concession that would have the effect of riling the gun-rights people but actually having no effect on gun violence, which would therefore give them the opportunity to say, “See, it’s made things worse. It’s made no difference.” When gun control happens, it needs to be effective in order for it to have any purchase.

Friedman: During the course of your time in the U.S., how did you come to understand allegations and instances of excessive force by the police?

Younge: [My understanding] didn’t change very much. I’m black and I’ve not been raised to think uncritically of the police as people who are there to give you directions and get cats out of the tree. I’ve always assumed that even though their role should be to protect and serve, that might not be their relationship to me. And that’s true in Britain. It would also be true in America. I’m not even convinced there’s been an increase in police shootings [in the United States]. If there [has been], I would accept that. But we now have devices that can record [police shootings] and a sensitivity toward them, and that [seems to be] what we’re seeing here. What’s changed is a general understanding of the world, but not the world.

Something else that has intrigued me—and this is less an observation than a political point—is that the NRA people who talk about tyranny, [are paradoxically not] insisting on the mass armament of the black community to protect themselves against the tyranny of the police. I know the police aren’t the federal government, but the notion of gun ownership as invoked to me was to protect your individual rights against the state and others. So here’s the state killing people in cold blood—sometimes undeniably. How does that rationalization of gun rights stand in that moment if you’re not calling for the mass armament of black communities? Which I’m not. But one would have thought [gun-rights activists] would have been rather by [black communities’] side. That to me is an illustration that the case that they’re making for gun rights isn’t quite as complete as they think it is. [Their] vision of America doesn’t really include everybody.

Friedman: After living in the United States and writing the book, are you more or less optimistic than you were when you moved to the States that reforms to U.S. gun policies will happen in the near future?

Younge: [The] gun-control [debate] is always there, but the lens does zoom in and out in terms of the national conversation. I arrived in 2003, so the national conversation was consumed by the aftermath of 9/11 and the anticipation of the Iraq War. Guns, shmuns at that time. As time’s gone on, I think, perversely, I’ve become more optimistic, because I see that there is a significant constituency for change, for more gun control. But that constituency has not been galvanized or rallied, and what it needs is a narrative. The guns-rights people have this narrative—homestead, settlers, masculinity, defend your family. They have a narrative. And I don’t know that the gun-control people have an overarching narrative. It’s got to be about more than background checks. Background checks may be all you’ll get, but the pitch has to be something more all-embracing than that. I think it’s possible to have [a narrative], but I don’t think it’s possible to have one if you don’t talk about it.

The longer I was [in the U.S.], the more I saw it’s not that [gun-rights activists have] won an argument. It’s just that they’re the only ones making an argument. And it’s not difficult to counter an awful lot of their arguments, but they do have to be countered. You can’t just cite their arguments as a grievance.

Friedman: Now that you’re back in Britain and promoting the book, what kinds of questions do you get from people about U.S. gun culture and gun violence?

Younge: Here, the book is entirely uncontroversial. It’s a book about tragedy. I don’t know that that will be the same in America. But the overwhelming question is: “Do you think [Americans] will ever, ever sort this out?” The question is asked with a knowing, “They won’t, will they? They’re never going to do it.” And when I say I think they could, they just think I’m a Pollyanna. [Many people in Britain see America’s struggle to reduce gun violence] as representative of elemental dysfunction. They don’t see what is understood in America on the right as racial nuance or the Second Amendment stuff—the logic of it doesn’t cross the Atlantic.

Of course, there is an element in this of British people having the rare opportunity to feel morally superior to somebody else, which is a pretty unpleasant thing to be around. But nonetheless, these aren’t people who hate America. These are conservative, voting, suburban people saying, essentially, what is wrong with that country? Why can’t this country that can do so many other things—why can’t it do this?