To a newcomer, the sobering reality of American life is not the price of haircuts on Air Force One or the absence of Blue Jays games on U.S. television. Rather, it is the casual tolerance of violence in an otherwise civil society.
The American people’s overwhelming support for the fateful decision to employ massive force against David Koresh and his religious nuts in Waco, Texas, was one reflection of this tolerance. In Florida more recently, there has been a singular lack of public concern over the fact that sheriff s deputies in Pinellas County, which takes in the vacation cities of St. Petersburg and Clearwater, found it necessary—or expedient—to shoot suspects dead on three separate occasions in the space of eight days.
I am not suggesting that Americans are by nature a more violent people than Canadians or that they embrace violence as a preferred means of settling disputes. They aren’t and they don’t. But there is a passive acceptance in all strata of American life that violence is inescapable. It is a fact of daily existence—on TV, in the streets, workplaces, schoolyards and homes. A prudent citizen does not waste his breath deploring violence; he accepts that it exists and conducts himself accordingly.
A new friend, an American who moved to Florida with his Canadian wife after living for many years in Toronto, had some blunt advice the other day as we chatted by his swimming pool in a handsome suburb of Tampa. I told him that the first thing I wanted to do was find a place to live. “The first thing you’ll want to do,” he corrected me, “is get yourself a gun. You don’t want your family down here if you can’t protect them.” He described the hassle-free process in Florida—$75 cash, a four-day waiting period, no questions asked—by which he acquired the Luger he keeps by his bed.
My friend is white, middle-aged, mild-man-
In Florida, sheriffs deputies in one county found it necessary—or expedient—to shoot suspects dead on three occasions in eight days nered and comfortably employed in a managerial job. Up in Tallahassee, the state capital, Representative AÍ Lawson, a Democrat, is chairman of the Florida legislature’s black caucus. He proposes—he’s deadly serious— that every household in Florida be required by law to have a gun and that every resident be taught to use firearms.
Lawson says that people in his district, weary of crime and criminals, demand drastic action: ‘The police will say, ‘No, we can provide greater protection.’ But, hey, just look at America. They can’t even patrol in some areas.”
Hey, look at Baton Rouge, La. It was there, on May 23, that Rodney Peairs, 31, the meat department manager at a local Winn-Dixie supermarket, was acquitted of manslaughter in the shooting death of a Japanese exchange student. Yoshihiro Hattori and another 16-year-old were on their way to a Halloween party last October when they rang the Peairs’s doorbell by mistake. When Bonnie Peairs opened the door and saw Hattori, who was decked out like John Travolta in the movie Saturday Night Fever, she panicked and called to her husband to get his gun.
He grabbed his loaded .44 Magnum, the
weapon of choice for Americans who like their handguns large and lethal, and dashed to the door, where he saw Hattori in the carport. He ordered him to freeze. And when the Japanese student, who understood little English, moved, Peairs blew him away.
The shooting created a sensation in Japan, where Hatton’s anguished father collected a staggering 1.6 million signatures on a petition calling on President Bill Clinton to ban handguns in American homes. But in the U.S. South, the tragedy in Baton Rouge was treated as being nothing very far out of the ordinary. It took the jury only three hours to agree with the closing argument of Peairs’s lawyer. “You have the absolute legal right in this country to answer your door with a gun,” said Lewis Unglesby. “In your house, if you want to do it, you have the legal right to answer everybody that comes to your door with a gun.”
The people of Baton Rouge had trouble understanding what the fuss was all about. ‘We’re just prisoners in our neighborhoods,” said parking lot owner Charles Sutton. “It would be to me what a normal person would do under those circumstances.”
Canadians were exposed to a similar incomprehension last winter when a series of unrelated violent attacks, some of them fatal, on visitors to Florida made newspaper headlines and national newscasts in Canada. But most Floridians shrugged. Crime happens. People get hurt. Sometimes, regrettably, they are killed.
Gov. Lawton Chiles seemed genuinely puzzled by the media brouhaha in Canada. Tourism officials solemnly informed the press that the vast majority of tourists don’t get murdered, mugged or raped. Why, only 6,994 out of 40 million tourists in 1991—0.02 per cent—were victims of violent crime.
Statistics don’t lie, but they can mask acquiescence in a situation that is palpably unacceptable. The fact remains that handguns kill 155 times as many people in the United States as in Canada. More Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 are shot to death than die from all natural causes combined.
Senator Edward Kennedy was absolutely right (but unrealistic) when he talked to students at Simon’s Rock College in Great Barrington, Mass., recently about the horror they experienced when an 18-year-old sophomore went on a shooting spree, killing two people and wounding four. “What kind of country, what kind of society, is this, where an emotionally disturbed teenager can walk into a nearby sporting goods store, display an outof-state driver’s licence, plunk down $150 in cash, walk out with his very own assault rifle and open fire on his faculty and fellow students?” asked the surviving Kennedy brother.
In America, that’s where. In a country where people become so inured to violence that they think it’s “normal” to answer the door with a .44 Magnum in hand.
Geoffrey Stevens is the new publisher and editor of The Sun Times of Canada, a newspaper for Canadians in the U.S. South
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