At a railway station in Washington, DC, last month, a fight broke out between a man and a woman a short distance from where I was waiting to board my train. As their voices escalated to screaming, I had a strange thought: What if one of them takes out a gun?
Last week, my mind wandered to guns again. I stumbled into a police blockade near the White House. Security forces had shut down the streets because of the annual national Christmas tree lighting. In the distance, someone started to fight with a cop. I thought about a shootout. My boyfriend asked me whether I wanted to take a short detour to see the tree. I asked if we could just leave.
I find myself thinking about leaving the US every time there's another mass shooting
I know this response isn’t rational. I write about medical statistics nearly every day, and I understand very well the concept of relative and absolute risk. I know the chances of any of us being killed in gun violence are remote, and that there’s a much greater risk of dying in a car accident or by heart disease.
Still, I didn't think about guns in Canada, my home country. I didn't think about them in other places I've lived, in Italy or the UK. I don't like that guns wander into my imagination now. It's not as much a fear of being shot that weighs on me as it is a discomfort with my newfound proximity to so many weapons. A needless threat. In the developed world, this gun problem is unique to the US — and it may eventually force me to leave. I like many things about America. I can't accept gun violence.
When I moved to America two years ago, several people asked me what my life's dream was. The question always caught me off guard. This may seem funny to an American, but nobody had ever asked me that so plainly in Canada. Thinking on this scale was something I reserved mostly for daydreams or conversations with family and close friends — private thoughts I wouldn't utter to acquaintances.
When I was living in London for graduate school, I became friends with a man from Copenhagen who talked about the "tall-poppy syndrome" back home. This sounded very much like the culture I knew in Toronto. Modesty and self-deprecation are valued above all. It really doesn't pay to talk big or loudly, to be a tall poppy standing out in the field. This inability to speak about one's dreams probably inhibits them.
One dream I quietly harbored was to work at an American newspaper or magazine. I grew up in Canada consuming American media: reading the New York Times, Time, and the New Yorker, watching 60 Minutes and Frontline. As the Canadian journalist Ian Brown put it, the US felt like this swirling vortex of opportunity, dangerously close, always threatening to suck me in.
I was finally sucked in, in 2013, for a year-long journalism fellowship in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After my fellowship ended, fascinating media startups — like the one I’m lucky enough to work at now — were popping up, innovating in ways that were unique anywhere on the planet. I didn't want to leave.
Now, more than two years on, I find myself thinking about leaving every time there's another mass shooting.
Last Wednesday, I woke up to a report on the BBC from San Bernardino, California. "Just another day in the United States of America," the broadcaster said in a deliberate tone, opening her story about the latest massacre with dark absurdity, as if talking about something as mundane as a local election or a heat wave.
Fourteen people had died in this particular slaughter, and we have since learned that it was acted out in the name of global terror. The radio presenter didn’t know that then. Even so, her words were well chosen. The motive in San Bernardino may have been different, but this killing didn't look all that dissimilar from Sandy Hook, or Virginia Tech, or the Washington Navy Yard. Like many of the other perpetrators, Tashfeen Malik and her husband, Syed Rizwan Farook, obtained their weapons legally, easily — because you can in the United States of America.
If this epidemic of gun violence continues, I imagine that working here will increasingly feel like a health and safety trade-off
President Obama described the San Bernardino attack as a "new phase" in the terror threat during his address to the nation this week. This "new phase" looks a lot like the quotidian violence the BBC presenter thought she was talking about.
The point is in every other high-income country outside of America, one doesn't have to consider this risk, no matter how minute. Even if it never touches me personally, it's all around. There are now more guns than people here. In this respect, the United States is an absolute outlier from a global perspective. In Canada, where weapons are more difficult to obtain, there were 30 guns per 100 people as of 2007. In the US, there were 88 guns per 100 people — the highest rate of gun ownership of any country in the world. You can buy guns from your local Walmart. It's no accident that the US also has the highest rate of gun-related deaths of any developed country.
This kind of American exceptionalism makes me feel unsafe, uncomfortable. Gun violence is preventable and unnecessary. It's also a public health hazard that comes with living here, just as air pollution comes with living in China — but as the Economist pointed out, at least the Chinese are starting to do something about air pollution.
I worry that if I spend enough time here, guns will start to feel normal. "You can’t raise kids here," I tell my boyfriend. We don’t yet have children. If we are lucky enough to one day, I suggest we think about Toronto (where I’m from) or Munich (where he’s from) or some other place less violent than America (where almost 90 percent of the children killed by guns in developed countries are slaughtered).
For now, we stay. We like our jobs, and for our work DC is a singular place. The innovative and entrepreneurial spirit makes the US a fertile country to be in. But what makes America a great place for a career, for opportunity — that value placed on business and money — is directly connected to many of the social problems here, like the epidemic of gun violence.
You can argue that Americans' wish to own guns is connected instead to individualism, self-sufficiency. But the US has legislated its way out of other individualist tendencies, as we saw with the Affordable Care Act. Thousands of other things are regulated here in the name of health and safety — from car insurance to building codes. If business interests and lobbying money didn't exert such a powerful influence over policy, this public health threat would have been addressed long ago.
And if this epidemic of gun violence continues, I imagine that working here will increasingly feel like a health and safety trade-off. When I express this view to American friends, they ask if I will take them with me.
Earlier this fall, while visiting my boyfriend's family, we got a call from his nephew, an Austrian teenager studying in the US. He talked to his mom about a conversation he had with a security guard at his high school. The boy had never seen an armed guard at his school back home, and asked the guard why he was always standing around, waiting. The guard explained that he was there to protect the students, since there are sometimes shootings at schools in the US. Disturbed by this prospect, he wanted to talk it over with his family. There wasn't a lot that could be said to comfort him except that this was a reality he'd have to accept as a guest in America.
Julia Belluz is a health reporter at Vox.