An Argentine university student in his mid-20s leans forward earnestly as he asks the question.
My co-presenter Nick and I immediately exchange a look—how to tackle this one?
Sensing the pregnancy of our pause, the student clarifies, “I mean, I hear very much about guns in the U.S. And many people seem to die, and I hear there are protests where people are very angry about this, like in Baltimore. But nothing seems to happen.”
As Fulbrighters called on to function as both teaching assistants and cultural ambassadors, we’ve just finished our presentation on U.S. geography and culture to students training to be English teachers. As in most classes, where I often feel more like a young RA (Resident American), rather than an actual TA (teaching assistant), this presentation is followed by an extended Q&A session, with students asking anything and everything they’ve ever wondered about the American people. And yet again, as in almost every university class I’ve presented in, I am asked why Americans seem so passionate about killing each other.
At the time of this presentation, Baltimore was pulsing with rage and despair sparked by the brutal murder of Freddie Gray and what had started as a discussion on the Black Lives Matter movement had broadened into questions about American gun culture.
Before Nick can respond, I jump in with, “Technically, no, we can’t legally kill other people. But there are many loopholes.”
A couple of students aren’t sure what a loophole is, so I briefly explain before launching into the differential treatment of violent offenders based on race; the fact that Trayvon Martin’s murderer, against all reason, still walks free; the fact that protesters are attempting to claim basic human rights for black people within a society rife with military-grade weaponry in the police force and ridiculous number of guns circulating through private sales.
As I speak, I’m aware that students are surprised that my voice slips from neutrality to a more clipped, urgent tone. I know that I have breached the barrier of cool professionalism expected between student and teacher.
Nick hesitates. Fighting back the rising frustration of having to acknowledge that many people in my country connect tyranny with registration of deadly weapons and liberty with murder over property rights, I respond, “Yeah, in some states. And that’s more likely to happen if you’re black.”
Another student raises her hand. “Does that mean everyone there has guns?”
And suddenly it’s clear to me that what is more incredible for the students than the rampant racism I’ve just described is the matter of guns. And I realize, as Nick and I begin explaining that no, not everyone has guns, and we try to delicately outline the increasing political polarization around gun control, that I had been misreading the situation.
The students were intrigued not only by our explanations but by our own blasé attitudes—that, though both Nick and I were critical of American gun culture, we also talked about guns as though they were an inevitable part of life.