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Marie Myung-Ok Lee: The End of Guns

December 17, 2012

We don’t have to imagine what a nation cleansed of guns would look like—plenty of other countries can show us. One writer recalls her year in gun-less South Korea.

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Image from Flickr via Gideon Tsang

By Marie Myung-Ok Lee

The details on the Connecticut school shooting are still forthcoming, but over the last few days we have learned that 27 people were killed, including 20 elementary-school-aged children ages 6 through 7. And by a lone gunman.

There are so many of these mass shootings, we already know the narrative: there will be tales of heroism and mayhem. Issues of mental illness may be raised. Politicians will express their sadness for the victims and be publicly horrified. So will the NRA. And they will all wait desperately—please, please, please—for the news cycle to roll on because no one wants to deal with this issue of guns. Specifically, that we could stop what is basically mass murder of innocent people simply by taking the guns away.

To paraphrase John Lennon…Imagine there are no guns. It’s easy if you try.

The man, so unfamiliar with how to use a gun, gave up trying to shoot it and instead hit her with it. The next day, he was in jail, and she was Korea’s newest folk hero.

Indeed. I spent a year as Fulbright Fellow in Korea. The Korean peninsula, one of the most militarized places in the world, is an example of a place that has successfully eradicated guns from society. It is illegal to own or distribute guns in Korea, it is even illegal to own fake guns (which makes for a big headache for moviemakers making the epic movies about the Korean War). The infinitesimal number of civilians who have access to firearms are limited to hunters and athletes in the shooting arts (and this means mostly “long guns,” i.e., rifles)—and even still, they don’t bring the guns into their homes but are required to keep them at the police station. Owning a handgun or an automatic—i.e., a killing machine—is out of the question.

In America, by contrast, it seems any place is now a potential site for a gun killing: movie theater, court house, college, highway, one’s own home or place of employment, and now elementary schools. In Korea, I remember feeling a certain amount of peace not seeing guns for an entire year—not even the police are armed. Bank robbers, lacking guns, usually use knives and are almost always quickly subdued (and knives with blades longer than 15 cm are also regulated). One of my favorite news stories from my time in Korea was of a bank robber who did have an actual gun (whether it had bullets—also illegal—was not clear). Instinctively, one of the middle-aged female bank tellers leaped over the counter and started wrestling with the man for his gun. The man, so unfamiliar with how to use a gun, gave up trying to shoot it and instead hit her with it. The next day, he was in jail, and she was Korea’s newest folk hero.

Of course, it’s not as if homicidal rage and mental illness is not an issue in Korean society. One man who had a grudge against a judge actually shot him with a crossbow (the judge survived ). But even that story can’t compare with turning on the TV and learning about Trayvon Martin, killed by a gun as he walked home eating Skittles.

Much is made of the need to defend one’s home, but in Korea, which has the specter of North Korea looming every day, an unarmed populace didn’t seem at all to be a vulnerable one. There were no crime waves, the police are not helpless against criminals. I encountered no incidents where people needed a gun to defend their homes or otherwise deter crime. Instead, there was a certain feeling of security being amidst a populace where you can assume no one has a gun, as opposed to America, where, on December 12, a federal court struck down an Illinois ban on concealed weapons, making concealed carry of a handgun legal in all 50 states.

Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean immigrant and college student, killed 32 people and wounded 17 with automatic weapons he easily and legally obtained. The lesson here is that in Korea, this wouldn’t have been possible. Here in the U.S., the event has acquired its own moniker (“Virginia Tech Massacre”) as well as its own classification by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics—a “spree” killing (done in more than one location with only a short break in between) as opposed to a serial killing.

Why do we, as opposed to every other industrialized country including Canada, regulate guns less than we do cars? We aren’t allowed to put traceable markings on bullets. Gun lobby groups fight for “cop-killer” bullets and for the right to bring loaded guns into our churches, schools, and courthouses. It’s time to get rid of the patently illogical idea equating guns with freedom—unfettered access to guns actually makes us less free. In Korea, the risks for bodily harm are the same as they are everywhere, but not by gun violence. For instance, even during the most violent student protests, as a bystander in the wrong place at the wrong time, the worst thing that happened to me was being teargassed. What kind of democracy can we have if a Senator wanting to hold an event where she can hear the concerns of her constituents ends up being shot point-blank in the head?

I for one want to be free of fear to go to a movie, take a train, teach on a college campus. I don’t want to go into someone’s home, especially with my autistic son, where there might be guns (some of the unlikeliest people I know own several). What more evidence do we need of the insanity of our gun culture where a man accidentally shoots and kills his seven-year-old in the parking lot of a gun store? Where a man thinking he’s killing an intruder kills his son playing a prank?

With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. contains 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns.

I am not unfamiliar with guns. I grew up in northern Minnesota where the high school once had a shooting range, the physics professor shot his gun in school to show how shock waves work; I once had a date cancel on me because he hadn’t bagged his deer yet. Many people can and do use guns responsibly and safely, but the intrinsic killing power of the gun—it’s very definition and purpose—is what makes it so in need of regulation. This is especially true of the handgun and the automatic weapon. The ease with which a trigger can be pulled means a mentally unstable person with lots of ammunition can kill as many people as his delusion requires. A flare of anger, thoughts of suicide—these things are all irretrievably magnified in a moment.

Kindergarten-age children should never have to go through what the students in Newtown experienced inside their school. Parents should never have to fear sending their children off to school. Let this incident be the last one, the straw that broke the back of the camel of inaction, instead of just one more ugly incident in the growing strand of insanities enabled by organizations like the NRA and by our politicians who fear them and love their money a little too much. Why should we as citizens be held hostage to a kind of deadly domestic terrorism that has a criminally easy solution?

According to Gunpolicy.org, the number of homicides by gun for the entire year of 2006 in Korea was 14. Gun homicides as a percentage of total homicides was 1.7 percent compared to the U.S.’ 60 percent (more American exceptionalism: with less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. contains 35-50 percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns). We have this example sitting in front of us. We can stop this. Will we?

Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a novelist who teaches at Columbia and Brown University and writes for Slate, Salon, The New York Times, The Guardian, and is a regular contributor to The Atlantic. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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