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June 14, 2015

Poland vs the United States: firearms

This is the fourth article in a short series about Poland, Europe, and the United States. To explore the entire series, click here.

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.

The article continues with a closer look at the costs and politics of gun ownership in the US; for the second part, click here.


  1. Having come from rural US, I think the practical aspects of "shootin' varmints" are not usually that high (though it's often mentioned with a nod and a wink, because the definition of varmint can be as loose as one wants.) I'm guessing you probably haven't lived in rural america though (since there's no reason for you to have, since you came over with mad skillz :))

    My dad, living as he still does in a rural area, once parroted "when seconds count, help is minutes away." Which is a nice catch phrase, but in practicality, when the nearest town/hospital/police/fire department is a half an hour away, the necessity of self-reliance for one's own security becomes actually important. Not because home invasions are common in sparsely populated areas (which always pride themselves on how they don't lock their doors). But young, dumb, often violent, drunken fools are certainly in large supply out in the lands where there's nothing to do for entertainment except drink.

    That's why I tend to fall somewhere in the middle, being supportive of gun ownership for rural people, but not so much for urban. I think once the population density reaches a certain point, you have to accept that there is more harm done by criminal ownership than good and self-defense done by legal ownership. Of course gun advocates would say that that's just because not enough people are carrying, to tip the scales towards increased self-defense good & deterrence.

    1. I haven't lived in the woods =) I've heard quite a few good first-hand stories - but of course, it probably depends on where you live and how many beers you had.

      I don't want to get too deep into the gun control argument, since it's not something we can settle and not something I have particularly well-defined views on. I definitely admire the principled insistence on preserving civil liberties in the US; the First Amendment is perhaps an even more striking contrast between Europe and the US, too, and something I wanted to cover later on.

      Having said that, I definitely think that just like freedom of speech, the right to bear arms should be subject to common-sense rules. I do worry that one-off, far-fetching solutions, such as city-wide bans on handguns or ammo sales, can a bit half-assed and have the effect of making it harder to reach some sensible consensus on a national level.

  2. This reminds me of myself...

    I remember, as a young teenager, having seen "Bowling for Columbine" and was also quite impressed by it.
    I would not go so far and say 'shocked', but it certainly had a lasting effect on me.

    But I was young and dumb, and, compared to today, hopelessly naïve.

    My unhealthy obsession for news consumption, reading whole background stories on things, you know, getting to the truth of it, has changed me in many ways. Thank the Internet, I guess.

    Please don't think of me as jaded and cynical, it's definitely not that bad, but I consider myself now a rather hardcore supporter of skepticism, borderlining on solipsism, sometimes at least ;-)

    Well, I digress, enough about me. I always like comparisons in terms of culture and living in different countries or parts of the world, respectively. So, interesting read :)

    I agree with you that gun control is a difficult subject, a lots of blurred lines and implications, and more shades of gray than most are even willing to consider. But when it comes to constitutional issues, one should always keep in mind how fundamental and thus how important these simple ideas or concepts are. I have been thinking this through more times than I would ever admit, but in the end I almost always reach the same conclusion: the only approach of interpreting (and applying) a constitution that really works, in a pragmatic sense, and even in the long run, is an absolute one.
    Now don't get me wrong, that does not mean that, for example, gun control rules are off the table per se. On the contrary, I think gun control is something that can be done, and should be done, as long as it is done right ;)

    I digress again, I guess. Back to the reason I decided to write my thoughts on the topic down in this comment, this time, instead of just keeping it for myself, like usually.
    You mentioned Michael Moore.

    One simply does not mention Michael Moore, and keep one's audience in the dark about the fact that this guy did not only make documentaries on various things, but that he also was the subject of one documentary himself.

    Manufacturing Dissent (2007). I highly recommend it. ;)

    If you ask me - no one did, but anyway -, Mr. Moore is a propagandist of the highest grade..