Guns in the U.S.: the Chronic Nightmare

Photograph Source: Andjam79 – CC BY 2.0

In 1968, during my first year teaching in the South Bronx, the frequently absent Raymond walked into my junior high school English class holding a pistol, looked at me and announced: “Motherfucker; I’m going to blow your fuckin’ head off.”

With all my 22 year-old wisdom, six weeks of teacher training and three months of actual experience, I responded: “My man, I have three options. One, I can go for the gun and one of us will probably get shot. Two, I can try to reach behind me for the telephone and call the police during which you may shoot me. Or, three, I could ask you to leave the room and go outside to get your fix. I’m going to continue teaching the class for five minutes and leave you the option. It’s up to you.” Always give them options, I had been instructed, during the very short lesson we novice teachers had been given about similar situations in our brief apprenticeship.

I then turned back to teaching the class. There was no panic in the students’ eyes. The scene was familiar to them, perhaps not in school, but definitely in their daily lives.

On one of my first days of teaching in the South Bronx, as I was walking to the school from the subway, a man was sitting on a curb firing shots from a rifle across the street. (Today I would know exactly what kind of rifle it was, a 22 or an A-15. Then, I had no idea what it was except that it was deadly.) People calmly walked around him and avoided his line of fire. On closer inspection, I saw that he was firing at rats as they scurried out from a sewer across the street. No one objected. No one panicked or tried to interfere; he was, after all, performing a civil service. The scene was part of people’s routines. The gunman was calm, aiming at rodents, not people, but he was firing a deadly weapon in the middle of a busy street.

After five minutes of teaching, I turned to the boy holding the pistol in his shaking hand: “It’s a nice day outside. Why don’t you just go out into the park and do whatever you have to do and I’ll continue teaching? Have a good one.”

He thought for a second, turned, and walked out the door yelling: “Yo Warner.”

I continued teaching the class with no comments about the incident from me or the students. I never reported what happened to the school officials or police. It all seemed to be part of the South Bronx’s ecosystem. Guns were everywhere. Why make a big deal out of nothing extraordinary?

When I first came to Switzerland some fifty years ago, I smoked small cigars. It was my Clint Eastwood phase. When I finished smoking and flicked the butt on the ground, I was routinely reprimanded. “Pick that up,” I was scolded. I didn’t understand that leaving butts on the ground was not done, at least not then in Switzerland.

All societies have ecosystems, cultural habits that are formed over time that become accepted as part of society’s norms. They are the society’s habits that people understand and accept. Guns in the South Bronx were accepted. That was how things worked. New York City public high schools now have metal detectors in their entrances, I am told.

I cannot explain to people in Switzerland how guns are accepted in American society. Guns are, have been, and probably will be part of the culture. How that norm plays out in school shootings are beyond me. The one incident I witnessed, years ago was not an attempt to shoot students. Raymond was upset with me, the teacher, probably because he was lacking some drug at the time. We got on fine after the incident, whenever he did show up to class.

The list of school shootings continues. Newtown, Parkdale, Uvalde, etc. etc. There have been twenty-seven school shootings in the United States already this year. After each there is national mourning, promises to change the laws, and the re-iteration by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its followers that “Guns don’t kill, people do,” or “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” School shootings have become part of the American ecosystem, a derivative of the gun culture. There are about 330 million people living in the United States; there are an estimated 400 million guns in the U.S.

Why can’t the American ecosystem of guns change for the better? It’s not only about the NRA or the Second Amendment. It’s also about the image of the cowboy and freedom. A political science teacher in college pointed out that the most successful advertisement campaign in history was the Marlboro Man, the virile cowboy in the Wild West with his horse and gun. The image of the cowboy as an American icon persists.

It took hundreds of years for the United States to outlaw slavery. The paradigm shift was long and ultimately accelerated by a terrible civil war. Countries such as New Zealand have taken drastic steps to reduce gun ownership. The horrors of Uvalde, Newtown, and Parkdale shock, but no more happens. Bill Clinton’s 1998 radio address phrase “thoughts and prayers” after a mass shooting has become part of all recent president’s vocabulary. The school shootings have not affected the American gun culture. That ecosystem seems immune to change.


Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.