As I sat in my regular spot in a local coffee shop, my daily writing session was interrupted by yelling. It appeared that a homeless woman was being asked to leave the cafe, escorted by a flustered barista whose job description likely didn’t include dealing with raspy threats of violence. It was a heartbreaking encounter, as few of us can even imagine being forced into the bitter cold in New York City, that brought the rest of the shop to an awkward silence.
That is, until the woman loudly declared, “If I had a gun, I would shoot you all.” I looked around in a pure panic, but if the other customers were as perturbed, they didn’t show it. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was as alien an experience for everyone else as it was for me.
Now, it’s important to note here that I’m not American. I grew up in the United Kingdom, which has suffered only one mass shooting in over two decades. I’ve never held a loaded gun, and I think I can count on both hands the number of times I’ve even seen one. While this is also likely true of many American students and many of my peers here, the thought or threat of guns never even really crossed my mind while growing up.
That’s why my gut reaction to the woman’s statement was one of disbelief. Then I remembered that I was sitting in a coffee shop in the United States. The same day as a shooting in California killed 12 people.
Of all the aspects of American culture, guns are the most baffling to me. I’ve otherwise been quite good at assimilating; I drink out of red solo cups, say “soccer” instead of “football” and pretend to like Drake. Much to the surprise of many Americans who seem dismayed by the somewhat vitriolic political environment, I do actually like it here. However, much as I have tried, I cannot understand the desire for guns. After all, I’ve lived a pretty good life until now without them.
Guns are absolutely terrifying. The fear of gun violence was one that I, like many other international students, simply never had before coming to the U.S. Now, I see shootings in the news every week. More disturbing are the days where mass shootings don’t make the front page and are presumed to be a somewhat ordinary occurrence. This is not normal. I’ve begun to fear school shootings when I hear loud noises in class because part of me has started to associate guns with daily life in the U.S.
Now, it’s clear that the woman in the coffee shop was clearly under some kind of mental duress. It deeply concerns me that New Yorkers facing such conditions aren’t given the help they need. It also concerns me that precedent suggests that getting a gun while suffering from a mental illness isn’t exactly difficult. While I know that this incident was a mild disturbance of my otherwise relatively easy existence here, there’s a part of me that can’t help but wonder that if the situation were slightly different, would I be dead? For that reason, I cannot understand American gun culture. I likely never will. Something as horrific as culturally embedded gun violence should never be something we respond to with desensitization or complacency — it should never be something we simply accept.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 12 print edition.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
Email Natasha Jokic at [email protected]