Two weeks, full of deep solidarity feelings for the victims of the shooting in Tuscon, have passed. Analysts around the world are increasingly examining whether this tragedy will mean any turning point in American history. After noting that on the same day many innocent people also died of hunger, AIDS, malaria, dysentery, torture and war, this possible turn is what most interests people who live outside the U.S. The question is: if there is any turn at all, in what direction is the U.S. turning?
While most politicians sensibly and sensitively avoided entering into a debate around the tragedy, many cannot avoid questioning why a mad man was able to buy such a deadly gun without any control or restriction. Inevitably, many of us wonder whether there will be any turn in regards to gun control and security in American cities.
In debates both before and after the shooting, arms defenders have mainly resorted to the Second Amendment and argued that the police cannot protect all citizens from criminals, as criminals do not respect gun laws, while abiding citizens do. Some prominent defenders asked, “Why should the government be in the business of telling us how we can defend ourselves?” and then argued that “politicians need to remember that these rights aren’t given to us by them. They come from God. They are God-given rights. They can’t be infringed or limited in any way.”
It is healthy and interesting to look outside of the U.S. and reflect on how other societies see and address urban security issues. The experience of living in cities in Vietnam, India, Europe and Latin America has helped me to understand the extreme complexity and context-specificity of urban insecurity. For instance, in most of Vietnam, India and Europe anyone can walk the streets freely at night without any sort of fear. Latin America feels closer to the U.S., as gun-related crime rates are too high to feel free while walking city streets. What differs from the U.S. in most Latin American countries is that you do not see gun shops anywhere and it is rare to know someone with a gun at home.
It is also interesting to look at the relationship between social inequality and insecurity. Many Western Europeans often argue that social justice is the best prevention from urban insecurity, an argument that contrasts with the extremely unequal, but safe-to-walk Indian cities. This fact does not detach social justice from crime prevention, as noted in 2007 United Nations Global Report on Human Settlement, but rather tells us that the problem does not stop there. I am not saying that India and Europe are crime-free, but rather that rates are significantly lower there and that the feeling of insecurity is nearly inexistent, unless we carry such feeling with us when travelling.
There is one factor that we rarely point at as a determining contributor to insecurity: fear. A commentator on an article in polis, as a regular visitor to cities in U.S. and Europe, described this factor in the following manner: “social interactions between complete strangers is frowned upon, and in many cases is seen as an introduction to a potentially threatening situation”. He then argued that the U.S. “constitutional right to protect oneself, much like the notion of ‘Justice’ in every other society, is only valued when the vast majority of citizens fail to adhere to laws and social values that are considered to be of ‘good value’.
Since every society functions on the understanding that humans are of good value (this is how loans are given, stores operate, laws are written, et cetera), there is no reason to introduce weapons as a standard form of societal functioning. This argument poses a question: should not all societies look at effective ways to ensure that every one of its members adheres to laws and good social values instead of focusing on self defence from potentially threatening neighbours?
From my experience I can say that, with all due imperfections, Vietnam, India and Western Europe very much function according to this principle without the need for weapons. In Latin America, on the other hand, people do not resort to personal weapons but to gated and guarded communities and buildings, which in turn, similarly to guns, exacerbates the sense of fear and distrust between different social groups and individuals.
Post by Jordi Sánchez-Cuenca.