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In America, These Two Kids Would Be Dead in Five Seconds
When you’ve lived in America for over fifty years, any evidence of reasonable sanity encountered in a foreign culture can seem … foreign. Everything may look reasonably similar – the place has cars and shops and functioning gravity – but then you run smackdab into some affordable healthcare or an educational TV show, and reality becomes distorted. It’s like the uncanny valley of visiting one’s grandmother only to find Sophia Loren dressed in Grandma’s yoga pants instead. It feels familiar – the hard candies and copies of Guideposts are still there on the coffee table – but the mind struggles to accept this shapely anomaly in the space ordinarily filled with Meemaw.
And so it is with these two young German teens in the crowded City Center of Wuppertal, joyously pulling toy guns from their coat pockets, a jarring irregularity in the humdrum landscape.
Mind you, from my American-bred vantage point, it is certainly not the appearance of guns that I find confusing – one can hardly stroll through a Chipotle in the US without spotting eight or nine guns along the trough. Nor do I even momentarily mistake these toys for actual, bullet-spewing revolvers. It is, of course, the fact that the kids are playing happily with their toys rather than being cut down in a hail of gunfire by local peace officers that feels abnormal. And naturally, expecting the kids should effectively become bleeding corpses rather than being allowed to skylark unkilled is due to my conditioning in “cold dead hands” America. But my reaction feels worse when I remember that this is a relatively new development.
In the years my German Frau and I have been together, our regular cultural exchange usually takes this form:
Heike: “This is how it is in Germany.”
Me: “That’s how it used to be in America.”
This goes for everything from shops being closed on Sundays to non-lethal tap water. And yes, I fondly recall the days when America’s toy shops were filled with realistically-styled cap guns, perfect replicas of the weapons which killed countless kidnappers, horse thieves, foreign spies, and presidential hopefuls on our beloved televisions. My favorite as a kid was, ironically enough, a diecast-metal German Lugar, stored in a fancy case with a pretend silencer, perfect for assassinating enemy agents before escaping in my Aston Martin for a jacuzzi date with Jill St. John.
That’s how it used to be. As the real guns multiplied in the US, too many gun-toting tykes were being mistaken for Sirhan Sirhan and executed by well-trained and justifiably-homicidal SWAT teams. Something had to be done. So legislators made the wise decision to ensure ease of access to artery-splitting Glocks and home-protecting AR-15s, while banning all pistols falling under the category of “water.” Up is down. Black is white. Bullets good, Nerf bad.
Those Americans who have yet to Google may assume the situation is reversed in Germany, with sweet, plastic magnums on the toy store shelves and real guns verboten. But Germany is up to its Achseln in firearms. It has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the developed world, and one of the lowest rates of gun-related deaths. There are a myriad of typically-German, rule-worshipping reasons for this, but it boils down to weapons licensing being expensive, heavily-restricted, and requiring valid justifications for needing a weapon. And, given that German gun ownership also requires strict psychological evaluation, one can assume that hoping to halt convenience store holdups or mall shootings or other “good guy with a gun” fantasies would not qualify as valid justifications.
Because, whether for legal or cultural reasons, the Germans understand that playing Army Man is something that children do. Pretending to be a soldier, a high-noon gunslinger, a vigilante cop, or a Lugar-wielding secret agent is not behavior expected of a rational adult. You’d assume any gun you see in the German town square is a toy because walking around in public with a real gun isn’t legal. Germany rightfully considered the question of open-carry laws by asking, “Why do you need that?” And when the gun owners starting talking about “taking down the bad guys – pew pew pew,” they were naturally told they had to keep their guns at home.
Americans support open-carry laws because they fantasize about holster-strapped heroism well into their supposed adulthood. Any daydream of glory is better if it includes gunplay. Teaching may be a noble profession, but a teacher packing a sidearm who takes out a school shooter is way sexier. “Why, if me and my .45 had been there at (insert this week’s mass shooting incident here), I’da blown a hole in that bozo bigger’n all Texas,” etc., etc. America is one big High Chaparral, and it’s up to Big John to ward off the Apache.
But in truth, the cosplay fantasy du jour in pistol-packing America is not protecting the innocent from mass shooters, rapists, or bath-salt cannibals; it is protecting one’s stockpile of weapons from those who would attempt to confiscate that stockpile. America needs its arms to defend its right to bear arms. “My guns protect my guns from those who would use guns to take my guns.” There is no real heroism in this delusion – no Dirty Harry splattering of toothpick-chewing punks knocking over the corner store – only a nationwide circle jerk of paranoia, a cold civil war in which the right people must obtain more guns than the wrong people. Americans can’t see reason, intent, or any vague notion like relatable circumstance anymore. They can only see the guns. Or what might be guns. In the hands of what look like kids, but you never can be sure in this neighborhood.
What I remember about being a kid with a cap gun, trading shots with the neighbor boys in the front yard (“Nuh-uh! You missed me! I hit you in the leg!”) was a fear of being “shot” of a sort. I mean I felt very self-conscious about being “dead.” When your friend pretended to shoot you, you had to lie down on the lawn for an agreed-upon period and feign death. (This was a classic-Western, “fall down and immediately die” death and not a Vietnam-movie, “crying for mama” death.) The thing was, I was too embarrassed to maintain my death posture if I heard a car coming down the street. I would immediately sit up. My fear was that, if someone saw me lying there, I would be mistaken for an actual unconscious child, and I cringed at the thought of a concerned citizen rushing in panic to aid a helpless waif. (“I ain’t no damn helpless waif!”)
I feared that I, an obvious child, might be mistaken for the victim of violence, not the instigator of it.
That’s the way it used to be in America.