Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Annie, got your...?

I work with an organization that promotes international understanding through a summer exchange program for middle school students in Esslingen and Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Six seventh grade students from each city are chosen from a list of applicants and matched according to interests and personality and are accompanied by an adult chaperone from their city. The American students first come to Esslingen for three weeks, and then the whole group flies to Wisconsin together to spend three weeks there. The leaders plan fun and interesting activities for the group and they also have plenty of free time to spend with their host families seeing what life in the other country is all about. These young people have the chance to learn about and experience the similarities and differences of our two cultures.

On both sides of the big pond the leaders have preparation meetings to inform the students and their parents about the things they should know about traveling internationally, hosting a foreign student, making a good impression as a foreign student, and what to expect in various situations like ordering in a restaurant, riding public transportation, going shopping, and attending school for a day or two. I truly enjoy these informational sessions and have had the opportunity to address American students about what to expect in Germany, and more recently to talk to the German students about what to expect in the U.S..

One topic which has thankfully not come up is of gun laws/use/prevalence in Wisconsin. This is a significant difference between everyday life in Germany and in the States.

Here in Germany citizens are not allowed to own guns unless they are hunters (which is a very expensive hobby here) or sport shooters belonging to a shooting club or team. Gun owners are required to pass a safety test, prove that they have an approved reason for owning a gun (and "protecting my family" doesn't work; that's why God gave us baseball bats and big knives), acquire a license and register the gun as well as store the weapon in a locked gun cabinet when it is not in use. Random checks are conducted, and the gun owner will lose his license and weapon as well as pay a stiff fine if the weapon is found in, say, the corner of his living room or under his bed. There are also specific laws about how the gun must be transported while en route to a competition or hunting ground.

That's what Germans are used to and what they understand. I have yet to meet a German who feels oppressed because he does not have ready access to weapons, though I know several who would own one if they could.

Is there crime here and gun violence? Yes, some. Have there been any school shootings in Germany? Yes. In the last 100 years there have been nine that I know of*, resulting in a total of 49 deaths not counting the gunmen. Just as a matter of comparison (and yes, I know the U.S. is 27.5 times as large as Germany), the Washington Post reported in February, 2014 that there were 44 school shootings in the U.S. in the first 14 months after the massacre in a Newtown, CT elementary school which led to the deaths of twenty 5- and 6-year-old children. I tried to look up the number of school shootings in the U.S. in the last 100 years, but there were too many to count. You can google the list - it has its own Wikipedia page ("List of School Shootings in the U.S."), which scrolls and scrolls and scrolls.

I'm glad parents haven't asked me much about the possible exposure to guns during their three weeks in the U.S., because I'm a terrible liar and don't make empty promises. I have never been personally shot at, but my children were in a neighbor friend's home while the father was downstairs cleaning his hunting rifle, which went off and shot a bullet into the basement ceiling. The children were upstairs. No one was injured, though the father did reportedly need to change his pants after he ran upstairs to see if he had killed either of his children or mine.

The only honest answer I could give parents is that we will do everything we can to keep them safe. But guns are a part of life in the Wild West United States, including Wisconsin.

"Will there be guns in their host families' homes?"
Quite possibly.

"Will the guns always be locked up?"
Perhaps, but it's not required. The 5-year-old who shot and killed his 2-year-old sister  in Kentucky in 2013 was playing with the rifle he received for his birthday, which the parents, who were busy doing something else, "thought was in a safe spot." That spot was in a corner of their living room. But, as they said, "It was  God's will," and they were comforted to know that their daughter went to a better place.

"Are they safe in school?"
Possibly. The politicians (especially those slobbering at the heels of the NRA) and principals will tell you they are. In the last hundred years there have been too many school shootings to count, but most Americans will tell you it's not a common occurrence. Oh, in Wisconsin no one is allowed to have a gun within 300 meters of a school, and although some politicians are trying to change this, teachers in Wisconsin are not yet armed while at school. Therefore at this point teachers are not able to get into the gunfight if a crazed shooter enters a Wisconsin school. But they are working on it to make our kids safer.

"Are they safer in a small town or subdivision than in a big city?"
Not necessarily. A German exchange student was shot dead in a quiet community of Missoula, Montana in April, 2014 when he entered an open garage late at night and the homeowner was lying in wait for an intruder. Granted, the boy shouldn't have entered the garage, but in the U.S. you have to understand that if you go somewhere you shouldn't, you can be shot by just about anybody. This particular homeowner is claiming the Castle Doctrine as his defense (of course he's pleading not guilty), which seems to mean that a person can blindly shoot multiple rounds into the dark without warning if someone falls into the trap he set (open garage door, wife's purse as bait).**

"What are the gun laws in Wisconsin?"
Oh, they are quite strict. For instance, although a license is not required to own or use a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, one does need a $31 permit to hide the weapon in his pocket, backpack, or satchel when he goes shopping. If he carries it openly and visibly, then he does not need a permit. He also needs to sit around and wait for 48 hours after he passes the background check** (which takes somewhere between 30 seconds and 6 minutes to pass) before he can take possession of the weapon. An aspirant gun-wielder who was born on or after January 1, 1973 needs to show proof that he completed a gun safety course, but as long as he (or she) is older than that, no safety course is required.

**Update: in June, 2015 Governor Walker signed a bill removing the 48-hour waiting period for buying a gun. 

Guns are available - also in pretty pink or blue colors to appeal to children - in almost any sporting goods store, but the scary-looking ones are kept behind a glass case or counter.
A convicted felon is not allowed to purchase, own, or use a gun in Wisconsin, and so far machine guns are not allowed at all. Although a person whose sanity is questionable may own and use a firearm, that right will be revoked if he or she commits a felony such as murder or is committed to a mental institution and ordered by the court not to possess a firearm.
One more strict law to mention: unlike in the state of Iowa, visually impaired (blind) people may not own and handle guns in Wisconsin - except for hunting.  Sorry, scratch that. People who are legally or completely blind may purchase and carry guns in public in Wisconsin. No "proof of sight" is needed as it is in some other states (it would be unfair and discriminatory to require a person who cannot see to produce something that a sighted person doesn't have to produce). But don't worry. Chris Danielson, Director of Public Relations for the National Federation of the Blind, said "Presumably they're going to have enough sense not to use a weapon in a situation where they would endanger other people, just like we would expect other people to have that common sense." So as long as everyone can be trusted to use their common sense, we shouldn't have any trouble.

Click here or here for links to comprehensive sites about gun laws in Wisconsin.

"Come on. Is it really that easy to get a gun?"
In June 2013 I went to a sporting goods store in Sheboygan to find out. I told the enthusiastic salesman that I have never touched a gun and know nothing about handling, cleaning, loading, or shooting a gun, but I was wondering if I could buy one anyway.

 "Sure! What kind of gun are you looking for?"
 "I don't know because I don't know anything about guns."
 "Why are you looking for one? Home protection?"
 "Sure, let's go with that. Do I need a permit?"
 "Nope! You just need to choose one, fill out this form, and after the background check comes back, you wait 48 hours
  and the gun is yours."**
 "Should I take a safety course or something like that?"
 "It's not a bad idea, but if you were born before 1973, you don't have to."

**Update: The waiting period in Wisconsin was repealed in 2015. Now there is no waiting period.

He started to show me a few options, starting with one that looked to me like a big, black monster of a thing that I would expect to see strapped to the back of a soldier in combat gear.

 "This one is pretty popular for home protection."
 "Nice. NO, thank you, I don't want to touch it."

I assure you, German readers, I am not making any of that up.

And yes, before I left the store, I found the display of pink and blue handguns intended for children. After all, if they start early with pretty weapons, they'll be more responsible when they're older. I've always wondered why Wisconsin kids have to wait until they are 16 to drive a car. Wisconsin kids can hunt at age 10 if they have an adult with them, so why not let them start learning to drive then, too, or at least steer if they're not tall enough to reach the pedals.

"Do you feel safe in Wisconsin?"
I suppose so, because I don't think about it much. I have never been threatened by a gun-wielder, and in my 44 years of living there I don't recall ever seeing a gun except in the holster of a police officer and the one a friend used to shoot at ducks that came into her yard (which I think was frowned upon if not illegal).  I do not, however, like so many of my Landsleute, subscribe to the notion that the more guns we have on the streets, in pockets and purses, in the hands of non-hunters, under our beds, in living room corners, garages, and classrooms, the safer we all are. I am happy to be living here in Germany.

Photo by Derek Skey
Now this chocolate egg with potential choking hazard surprise toy inside? This is not allowed to be sold in the United States because it could present a danger to children. Apparently the NCEA (National Chocolate Egg Association) doesn't have strong enough support, and sadly there is no constitutional amendment guaranteeing our God-given right to bear chocolate eggs. Damn.

*The result of one of the shootings not far from Esslingen in 2009 was that the father, who was a member of the local shooting club and legally owned 15 guns but kept the Beretta his son used in the school massacre under his bed, was indicted with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide because he had chosen not to store his 15th gun properly and according to law. He voluntarily gave up his gun license and the other 14 guns were confiscated. The father received a suspended sentence of 1 year and six months.

**After the lawyer got involved, the killer's story changed a bit. His garage door was not left open as a trap, but rather because he and his wife smoke and wanted the garage door open in the middle of the night for ventilation. And the purse wasn't put in the garage as bait, as the wife told police at first. It was placed in a part of the garage that was not visible from the street. Who consciously leaves her purse in an open garage at night??

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