Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
Last year I was heading to Las Vegas on assignment. Before I went through security my mother and I hugged. She held me tight in her arms and said, “Oh son, be careful. Be very careful. You know how it is down there. Be careful, watch out for the other guy.”
I had to chuckle. “Mom? It’s Vegas. It’s just Las Vegas. I’m not going to Chechnya.”
She just smiled and waved goodbye and soon I was past security and heading for my gate. But the look she gave stuck with me. I never got that look from her when I went to Amsterdam, Jasper, Basseterre, Barcelona or London. In her mind I was heading into dangerous territory. The wild, wild west. A war zone. No man’s land. Can’t say I necessarily blame her. I had a cousin in New York City back in the ’80s who had been shot — and hit — on two occasions. So my family has always been sensitive to gun violence.
But my mother was genuinely worried that my visit to America was a risk to my health. Maybe she worries too much, but one thing is certain — she isn’t alone.
Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States has seen a steady drop in tourism. While the security clampdown by the Department of Homeland Security has made flying safer, it has also made going through security more challenging.
Many tourists have complained about feeling victimized and frustrated by the increased security measures, which has even included the removal of shoes since Richard Colvin Reid, aka the Shoe Bomber, tried to destroy American Airlines Flight 63. As if that isn’t enough, because of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, aka the Underwear Bomber, many airports have adopted full-body scanners (although they have been pulled from JFK and LaGuardia in New York because of privacy concerns). Officials said “currently there are nearly 250 full body scanners at 37 US airports.”
In 2007, AFP reported: “The number of foreign visitors to the United States has plummeted since the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington because foreigners don’t feel welcome, tourism professionals said. Since September 11, 2001, the United States has experienced a 17 percent decline in overseas travel, costing America 94 billion dollars in lost visitor spending, nearly 200,000 jobs and 16 billion dollars in lost tax revenue,” the Discover America advocacy campaign said in a statement.
The US Travel Association had equally sobering statistics, reporting that the “U.S. lost $606 billion in tourism after 9/11 … U.S. market share of the global travel market dropped from 17 percent in 2000 to 12.4 percent in 2010 during a time in which global long-haul travel grew 40 percent.”
There’s no question that the recent parade of massacres has not been good for America’s image. The US has been pulling out all the stops to convince wary tourists that they will feel welcome, have fun and be safe. This includes a multi-million-dollar Brand USA marketing campaign. The first wave of advertising launched in in the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada, with a budget of $12.3 million for the first three months. It’s a beautiful ad with a catchy song by Rosanne Cash, but it’s not catchy enough for tourists to ignore the fact that people are getting shot to death in schools and in movie theatres.
America Struggles with Gun Culture
The bottom line is this: In America there are too many guns available to people who shouldn’t have them. Period. The idea of high-powered assault weapons in the hands of children, criminals, or mentally and emotionally unbalanced people is sickening. Last week one of those mentally and/or emotionally unbalanced people — Adam Lanza — was seemingly able to get his hands on one of those guns and murder 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut before committing suicide, authorities say.
The country is still reeling from this latest act of violence and the world is in shock. The catastrophe brought President Barack Obama to tears. Once again, everyone is talking, or arguing, over the gun issue.
Forbes.com reported that according to numbers from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “In the 10 years from 2000 through 2009, more than 298,000 people died from gunshots in the U.S., about 30,000 people a year. If you exclude natural causes of death and consider only deaths caused by injury, it is the second-leading cause of death over that time span; only car accidents (417,000) killed more people.”
Those are alarming numbers. But as the weeks go on and Americans begin to confront the fiscal cliff and other important issues, it’s easy to see Sandy Hook becoming just another footnote in history without any real changes being made. And that’s sad.
A Great Country with a Great Problem
America is a great country filled with thoughtful, educated, insightful, warm and friendly people — there’s no question about that. While many Americans may carry guns, the vast majority of these gun owners are responsible people. I know this. But between border security and crime concerns, I have to admit that travelling to America sometimes causes me to take a deep breath.
Let’s be clear — massacres involving guns have happened all over the world. Canada is no stranger to it. Despite our country’s tough gun laws, Montreal has had to face the horror of both the Montreal massacre and the Dawson College rampage. The world recoiled in horror at the Norway attack that left scores of people dead and a nation reeling. And of course there is the Dunblane massacre in the United Kingdom and Beslan school killings in Russia.
Canadians understand this and hey, it isn’t like we don’t like visiting America. Statistics Canada reported that “Canadians made a record 1.9 million overnight trips to the U.S. in June as new rules that increased duty-free exemptions for cross-border shopping came into effect. Overnight trips to the U.S. rose 7.5 per cent in June compared to May to the highest level since 1972, when the agency began keeping records on such trips.”
But the recent explosion in gun violence that has gripped America has many people thinking. A couple of my friends have told me they would never go to America because they’re afraid of something bad happening to them. Another told me he goes when he has to, but doesn’t really like doing so. People will sometimes ask what I think about travel to America. I always answer that it’s great. A wonderful country. Awesome people. Just … be careful. And for goodness sake make sure you have health insurance in case something horrible happens.
Why the Love of Guns?
What Americans may not realize is that all around the world there is confusion and bewilderment about this love affair with guns. And even before the Columbine High School massacre, the perception many foreign nationals had of America is that the country is a dangerous place where one wrong move, or a bit of bad luck, can literally put you face to face with a crazed AK-47-carrying carjacker or mugger. Or in the case of Yoshihiro Hattori, a nervous homeowner.
I was in college on October 17, 1992, when a story broke in Baton Rouge, Louisiana that Hattori, a Japanese exchange student, had been shot on his way to a Halloween party. He had accidentally gone to the wrong house and the homeowner, Rodney Peairs, shot him believing he had criminal intent. The fact that this student wasn’t fluent in English and didn’t understand Peairs’ warnings contributed to the problem. Japan was enraged when Peairs was eventually acquitted at trial.
Perception is King
That was the first time in my life that I truly became aware of just how difficult the gun issue in America was to solve. And I believe this issue has helped shape the way the world views the United States, and Americans.
Is that fair? No, it’s not. Just like it isn’t fair to suggest that all of Mexico is a dangerous place because of the drug war. Just like it isn’t fair to suggest that you’re going to be boiled alive in a pot by a bunch of cannibals just because you visit Africa. Just like it isn’t fair to suggest that the Government of Canada carries out its business in a giant igloo.
But right or wrong, stereotypes exist and like them or not, people base their decisions — and fears — on them. And one of the biggest perceptions foreign nationals have of America is that guns are everywhere and the citizens can be unpredictable. For some, it is enough reason to avoid travelling there.
In August of this year, Walt Wawra, a police officer from Kalamazoo, Michigan, was turned into a Twitter laughingstock when he suggested that he felt unsafe about the fact he was unable to carry a gun during a visit to Calgary, Alberta.
Wawra wrote: “What concerned me is two young men just approached us and stopped us, stopping us by being in our path, and [began] talking to us without even being welcome to talk to us. They just took it upon themselves to yell at us.”
He said he should have had the right to protect himself if things had escalated. It was widely reported around the world how ridiculous Canadians thought this position was. Well, you can agree with Wawra or disagree with him, but this story illustrates how many Americans see guns not only as a right, but as a personal safety issue. Maybe we shouldn’t have laughed so hard at this American tourist who felt naked and insecure without his gun while visiting our country. Those feelings he had are real.
Battle Lines Drawn in Wake of Sandy Hook
As I write this the White House has already begun initiatives to control guns. And without a doubt gun advocates, the National Rifle Association in particular, are preparing to meet that challenge. It’s going to be an aggressive battle, a noisy, vicious political dogfight drawn along political alliances and ideologies, despite Obama’s wishes. There will be lots of name calling, finger pointing, and angry words. It will make for riveting television and radio.
It’s the last thing America needs.
What America needs is for average citizens — the thoughtful, educated, insightful, warm and friendly people I spoke of earlier and who I have had the pleasure of rubbing shoulder’s with on my travels — to take over this very important conversation. America needs thoughtful discussion by intelligent, flexible people without all the political posturing, yelling, extreme views and worst of all, lobbyists. America needs people who understand the importance of balancing the United States Constitution and the right to bear arms with the importance of protecting citizens from crime, because those two issues are equally important.
The reality is that lightly controlled gun distribution and the sheer number of available weapons has created a dangerous situation. The reality is innocent people — including children — are getting hurt or killed because guns can be acquired way, way too easily by just about anybody. The reality is that many Americans — and tourists — are afraid of what they’re reading and watching on the news.
And the perception is that Americans don’t seem to want to talk about these issues unless something outrageous like Sandy Hook or Virginia Tech happens. And even then, the conversation only lasts until the next major news story.
I hope America can put aside the politics and use this tragic event as a rallying cry to confront these urgent issues and find balanced solutions that can reduce these horrible crimes. Only then is there any hope that America can make gun violence a rare occurrence. And only then will there be any hope that a tourist will be able to visit America without feeling the need to take a deep breath first.