A View From Korea on America’s Gun Culture.

They rowed out across the Hudson in two separate boats to Weehawken New Jersey where the law was more lenient in prosecuting participants of a duel. The Wogdon pistols were kept concealed in a wooden box and the boatmen stood with their eyes to New York as to not perjure themselves in court when asked if they had seen pistols. The seconds cleared away brush from the dueling ground. Less then twenty four hours later former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton lay dead from a shot fired by the standing vice president of the United States. 

Burr was brought up on murder charges both in New York and New Jersey but neither resulted in a trial. Burr returned to Washington D.C. and finished his term as vice president. The incident furthered the increasingly negative attitude toward dueling in the public mind. 

The Burr Hamilton duel is probably the most famous in American history but several other presidents participated in gentlemanly duels as well. Andrew Jackson was reported to have taken part in at least thirteen duels and by some accounts as many as one hundred, one of which ended in the death of his opponent, Charles Dickinson. Abraham Lincoln stood for a duel with sabers in 1842 after he humiliated a fellow state legislator in a letter to the editor of a newspaper. Lincoln refused to retract his statement and was challenged to a duel. He came prepared to fight but an agreement was reached through the duelists’ seconds that made the duel unnecessary.

Dueling has since been outlawed but guns, and gun violence, are interwoven into the fabric of American history and culture. The colonies were freed from England by the Minute Men and their muskets. Westward expansion, and the extermination of both the plains buffalo and Native Americans, was made possible by the repeating rifle and much of the territory that is now the U.S. was taken at the point of bayonet, bullet or bomb.

The headlines are littered with news of the latest shootings and as the homicide rate in the U.S. soars above other industrialized countries, 5.5 people murdered per 100,000, three times higher than Canada and five times higher than Germany, the debate on gun control rages on.  In 2008 there were 16,272 murders committed in the U.S. , 67% of those were committed with a firearm. Fifty three million Americans own guns, 45 million of which are handguns. America is the gun capital of the world. Pro gun lobbyist groups, like the NRA, contribute $22,467,579 annually to the campaigns of federal candidates who support gun rights while gun control groups spend $1,888,886. 

I never realized how much guns affected my life until they weren’t there. It was my first night in Korea and well after midnight when my boss suggested we go to the corner store to get some supplies for the weekend. I asked if it was safe and he shot me a puzzled look “Why wouldn’t it be safe?” In Korea it is illegal for citizens to own firearms. Over the next few weeks and months a burden I wasn’t even aware I was carrying around was lifted. I didn’t have to worry about stick up kids, public shootings, or being caught in a crossfire on my way how from the grocery store, something I had seen happen to a U Penn student riding his bike along South Street. 

Seeing America through the eyes of my Korean students has allowed me a unique perspective on America and the gun situation. There are two common questions I’ve been asked hundreds of times. “How can you live everyday life?” (with guns and the potential for violence) and “Why doesn’t the government just make guns illegal?”. My explanations on gun culture and history are lost on them and more often than not they simply repeat the same question after my lengthy explanation. “Yeah but why doesn’t the government just make guns illegal?” 

It used to be an urban phenomenon but as the last decade has shown us gun violence can happen anywhere. I’m not writing this in hopes of entering the fray on gun control, to offer answers or win people to my side. I’m not even sure I have a clearly defined side. It’s a complex issue that doesn’t have a simple answer. My point is it feels damn good to walk down the street and not have to worry, even if it is subconsciously, about being shot. 

Guest Author Joshua Newett is an entrepreneur, rugged gentleman,  existentialist, poet, musician, sportsman, adventuring traveler and the author of the novel Along the Naktong who currently resides in Yangsan South Korea. Check out more from Josh on The Rugged Gent.

Handgun image via Shutterstock

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