Firearms: liberty or security?

Editors: Brendan, Emma, Nicole and Sara

Living, studying, and conducting service projects allows us, as Americans in France, to learn more about the differences between these two cultures and ways of life. While many of these differences have become somewhat normal and generally accepted for us as current residents of Toulouse, we are still taken aback when we encounter French students who are extremely curious about gun culture in the U.S. As part of a service project for our program Emma helps teach English classes at a French school. While aiding high school seniors in their preparation for the BAC exam at the end of the year, they focused on gun culture in America and how it affects our country’s politics. In several discussions with the French students, they asked her several questions regarding the topic, but the one question that stuck with Emma was: do you own a gun? Their question surprised her because they were so serious about it and they assumed that she would own one, as a 21 year old college student. This question arose from more than just a few students which led us to consider more closely the role of guns in American society vs. French society.

To understand the vast cultural differences on the societal place of guns in each country, one must understand the laws regulating firearms, starting with the United States. As most Americans would know, the right to keep and bear arms is protected by the Second Amendment of the Constitution and as a further level of protection, most state constitutions guarantee this right. Given the fact that gun ownership is so ingrained into the foundation of the United States, it is no surprise that this issue is divisive. In terms of possession and ownership of a firearm, the laws vary state by state. Generally accepted laws include the prohibition of firearm sales to convicted felons, domestic abusers, fugitives, addicts of an illegal substance, those who are deemed mentally unstable, veterans who have been dishonorably discharged, and those who have renounced U.S. citizenship. Regarding the regulation of both open and concealed carry of a firearm, laws have changed dramatically since the early 2000’s. In most states, a license is required to carry a handgun and is permitted to qualified applicants, however eleven states still allow concealed carry of a firearm without a permit. This is called “Constitutional carry”. Twenty-six states allow open-carry of handguns without a permit and four states plus Washington D.C. have banned open-carry of handguns.

As one would expect, the laws are much different in the European Union. In France specifically, a hunting license or sport-shooting license is required to purchase any firearm. These licenses are broken down into 4 categories which determine specific regulations and must be renewed repeatedly. These regulations can get complicated, but the main thing to understand is that there is no right to bear arms. The punishment for illegally having a gun is a maximum of 7 years in prison and a fine. In 2012, the French government estimated that there were at least 7.5 million guns legally in circulation. Logically, this number is a far cry from the enormous estimated 393 million legally owned arms in the United States.

The differences in gun culture between France and the United States is reflected not just in legislation and gun owner statistics, but by extension in the way their respective citizens think. Having grown up in America where guns are so easily accessible and owned by many, when an argument between two people starts to get too heated, when someone looks alone and disturbed in a public place, or when she’s alone with someone following her, Sara’s first thought is to be cautious and aware of her surroundings because those people might have guns. One day she was explaining this feeling to the mother of her French host family and she was shocked that Sara instinctively thought in this manner. They discussed how Sara’s response is totally different than the reaction of a French person. For them, the idea of an average citizen having a gun doesn’t even cross their mind as a possibility, while for an American it’s a likely and dangerous possibility that influences both our sense of security and our thought process.

However, in an interesting turn of events, Nicole was also mildly shocked to be greeted by French military police carrying what appeared to be large, semi-automatic arms stationed casually in the Toulouse Blagnac airport. For her, whenever she sees military personnel or police carrying serious firearms, she automatically assumes something is horribly wrong. Her first instinct is to get herself as far as possible from them for fear of whatever they are dealing with. In the US, normal police carry only a handgun, and in her experience, there are no military police stationed in airports unless there has been a bomb threat. However, as she spends more time in France, the phenomenon of heavily armed military police is becoming more normal and less alarming. The interesting and somewhat ironic twist to this is that while she is American and Americans in general carry more firearms, she seems to be less used to seeing men carrying large guns than her French counterparts. So while the French are equal parts fascinated and alarmed by American civilian gun laws, one could also say that she too was very surprised by guns in France.

The differences in gun rights between France and the United States provoke both cultural differences and varying points of view. Civilian carry of firearms is legal in the US and widespread, causing the French to believe in the stereotype that every American carries a gun and that every American is used to seeing guns. However, for Nicole personally, the reality is quite the opposite. Not only does she not own a gun, she is not used to seeing them, though the fear of someone carrying a firearm is always present in tense situations. In fact, she was uncomfortable to be around military police carrying semi-automatic firearms whereas the other French citizens appeared to be completely at ease. However for a French citizen, the idea of owning their own gun is outlandish and strange. We find this large cultural difference interesting, as we believe it is an accurate reflection of each country’s founding principles. In France, the people believe strongly in the government and its ability to care for them, an attitude typical of a socialist country. However in the United States, a country founded on principles of individual liberty and a mistrust of the English government, people are more likely to distrust the government and place more faith in themselves. Being able to carry your own firearm to protect yourself in the absence of government protection is one of the most direct manifestations of the powerful belief in individual liberty: taking matters into your own hands in light of a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to take care of its citizens. While the US right to carry firearms is meant to ensure individual liberty and security, for some of us it provokes a sense of insecurity around strangers. However in France, even though people do not have the liberty to carry firearms, they are free from the same sort of fear and suspicion of people in public. Who is the most free: Americans who have the legal right to carry a gun, or the French who do not fear for their life in heated situations?

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