I spent roughly half of my adult life in Poland; for the other half, we lived in the United States. Because of this, my Polish friends sometimes ask about the cultural differences between the two countries. I always struggle to answer on the spot, so I decided to explore some of the most striking dissimilarities in a series of short blog posts. It's only fitting to start with guns.
Although you won't see this brought up by any gun control advocate, Poland has long had some of the strictest firearms regimes in the world - surpassed only by a handful of countries such as Rwanda, Niger, Japan, and North Korea. The roots of this policy are difficult to pinpoint, but it may have had to do with the years of foreign partitions, followed by the Soviet-imposed communist rule; in those trying times, private militias must have been seen as a grave threat to the social order and to the personal safety of the ruling class. Whatever the original reasoning, the effects are plain to see: in today's Poland, there is almost no tradition of gun ownership or hobby shooting sports; the country averages just around one firearm per 100 residents, compared to almost seven in the UK, fifteen in Australia, sixteen in the Czech Republic, or thirty in Austria, Iceland, Finland, and Germany. It's likely that most Poles do not even know anyone who legally owns a gun.
In many ways, the United States may seem like the polar opposite: we have enough privately-owned firearms to equip every single man, woman, and child. In much of the country, there is no permitting process for new purchases and no registration requirements for handguns, rifles, or shotguns. The weapons can be bought at trade shows, given to family members, or loaned to friends. Long guns and ammo can be bought in sporting stores or at Walmart. And sure, if you want to have AR-15 just because it looks like fun, you can; indeed, many people get it for that reason alone.
In America, the right to bear arms is an ancient tradition going all the way back to the early days of the republic. Its constitutional standing is not very different from that of freedom of speech; there is ample evidence that the Founding Fathers envisioned the Second Amendment as the ultimate way to forever protect all other personal liberties, to resist feudal subjugation, and as to ensure the sovereignty of the fledgling country. Although several other, collectivist interpretations of the Second Amendment have been put forward by progressive thinkers, their efforts have not been successful; today, roughly 75% of all Americans believe that the Constitution gives them a well-defined, individual right to own a gun, and the Supreme Court has sided with their views.
In the minds of some citizens, the Second Amendment is still the only thing that stands between freedom and tyranny, be it at the hands of foreign powers or their own government run amok; but for many others, gun ownership is simply an empowering family hobby pursued at any of the tens of thousands shooting ranges all across the United States. In a country populated far less densely than Europe, there is also a clear utilitarian aspect to it all: especially for rural populations, rifles are seen as a necessity for defending one's property against wild animals or scaring away criminals or drunken thugs. Across much of the US, the right to protect yourself with deadly force - without having to retreat or to submit to an assailant - is seen as a fundamental human right.
Of course, all this comes at a price: even though it is overall a very safe country, the US leads the highly developed world in homicides, the bulk of which are committed with guns. The causes of this phenomenon are complex, deeply intertwined with the American psyche and the unique structure of the society; the fashionable practice of placing the blame squarely on the easy availability of firearms does not hold up to closer scrutiny. Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to claim that broad gun ownership comes at no cost to the American public. Some of the most vivid pictures seared into people's minds are the infrequent but soul-crushing school shootings. A more everyday occurrence are police encounters that end tragically because of the presumption that any suspects - even children - may be armed to their teeth.
Over the last century, the worries about gun violence - the bulk of which traces back to drug trade and gang activity - has led to increasing federal and state regulation of firearms. It is probable that some of these rules ended up saving lives with little practical harm to civil liberties; examples of this may include restrictions on fully-automatic weapons or the requirement for seamless background checks. But many other legislative efforts attempted to dismantle or substantially reinterpret the Second Amendment in an emotional response to individual tragedies - and without having an honest, national debate about the amendment's lasting value to the American society. One can mention Chicago, Washington D.C., and San Francisco, all of which attempted to impose blanket bans on handgun ownership. Another good example is New Orleans, where the officials went as far as going door to door and forcibly confiscating firearms in the wake of hurricane Katrina; their intentions may have been pure, but in light of the case law and the prevailing libertarian sentiments that still resonate with many Americans, the wisdom of that gun grab seemed dubious at best.
In recent years, such zealous approaches inevitably meet their end in the courtroom - as noted earlier, judges, much to gun control advocates' chagrin, see the awkwardly-worded Second Amendment as a proclamation of a very clear, individual right. If anything, the zeal of anti-gun activists has made it harder to have a reasonable discussion about gun rights, and enshrined the confusing and half-baked status quo. The constant onslaught of hastily-written legislation, coupled with erratic enforcement of the existing statutes, creates a toxic atmosphere where many firearms enthusiasts and interest groups feel that their freedom is under assault - and that the only way to avoid gradual erosion of constitutional rights is to fight each and every new proposal tooth and nail. One of the sticking points for the National Rifle Association is that federal gun registries would make it easy for the "baddies" to confiscate all firearms in the country. To many, this seemingly preposterous idea rings a lot less hollow after the New Orleans incident.
In Europe, and in Poland in particular, gun laws in the US are often seen as a deranged product of a powerful gun lobby that works against the will and to the detriment of normal citizens; some progressive politicians, scholars, and pundits in the US adopt the same view, demanding new gun restrictions without first winning the hearts and minds of fellow Americans. But when buying into this narrative, it is easy to overlook that the lobby in question is funded chiefly not by large corporations or the super-rich, but by ordinary citizens - and that it enjoys steady popular support, with approval ratings far higher than most politicians can claim.
In my younger years, I remember being entranced by "Bowling for Columbine", viscerally hating the National Rifle Association, and shaking my head in disbelief at the stereotype of gun-totting, trigger-happy Americans. Today, I see the reality as far more nuanced - and if forced to take sides in this fascinating and emotional clash between collectivism and civil rights, I'm far less certain that collectivism would get my vote.