Page last updated at 12:39 GMT, Monday, 14 February 2011

Gun habit takes hold in neighbourhood of unlocked doors

Chesapeake Bay Bridge (File photo)
Chesapeake Bay Bridge - one of the great sights of the nation

Returning to the US, former BBC North America editor Justin Webb is perplexed by a gun ownership surge in his old crime-free neighbourhood, where people leave front doors unlocked.

I cannot remember which year it was exactly, but I know where I experienced the happiest moment of my life.

We had been for a family day out on the coast of Delaware, a couple of hours' drive from Washington, and we were coming home, tired and sand-flecked, in our huge American car.

The children were singing along to country music - Jolene by Dolly Parton, again and again and again.

Justin Webb in Washington

The traffic was heavy, but unstressed as American traffic often is. All the cars moving together at about 50mph (80km/h), nobody was trying to go any faster.

We had just come over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, which is one of the great sights of the nation.

More than 3.5 miles (6km) long, it yields views up and down the water at boats that bob far, far below you.

I do not know why it suddenly hit me, but it did - a sense of enormous gratitude is probably the best way to describe it, that my children were growing up in this benign, decent place.

A parallel universe

Years later on this brief visit to America I did not make it to the Bay Bridge, but I did go back to our old house.

Lots of us move house, but when the move is a move across continents as well - a move across cultures - the sense of loss can be profound.

Justin Webb's former house
Our little blue-painted wooden house is still there

Our little blue-painted wooden house is still there, the porch still has white chairs (did we leave them behind?), but it is in a parallel universe. A better universe?

I must say I thought so when I lived here.

Being a foreign correspondent is an odd business.

Sending reporters to live in far-off places is - deliberately - an experimental exercise in which people bond or do not bond with the country they are in, fight with the local bureaucracy, make friends or fail to make friends, have good days and bad, have children, suffer bereavement.

The mixture of all of that, and an effort to provide an impartial assessment of a place, is what makes it worthwhile, worth the cost and, it is to be hoped, worth listening to.

It is not, of course, that you impose your emotional state day-to-day on the story of the nation you are reporting. That would be a little wearing, would it not - but it seeps, as it should, into all that you say.

Generally we loved America and generally my coverage of it was sympathetic.

But to those who wrote and said "you've gone native", I have a partial confession to make: I understand better now that a little separateness can also provide insight.

Kind of madness

A case in point is our house, or rather our neighbourhood.

During my time here, I always felt that the British obsession with American gun crime was overblown.

Guns are part of America and most gun owners here are decent, peaceful people.

But here is an uncomfortable fact. My former house has the zip code 20016. I discover now that, since the Supreme Court relaxed gun ownership laws in Washington, one zipcode above all others has accounted for a surge in gun-buying: 20016.

This feels to me like a kind of madness.

When I called on the neighbours this week, I pushed open their front door. They would not have thought to lock it.

20016 is one of the safest places to live in the world. Sometimes someone parks a car facing the wrong way. (You are meant to park facing the direction of traffic.) But this is just about the limit of local criminality.

Nobody who has bought a gun in 20016 can possibly have done it out of a rational belief that he or she was reducing the risk of being attacked. So why did they?

The real argument should be whether civilised societies in the modern age are made safer by guns

The reason is deeper and it seems to me - with my newfound detachment - worrying.

Americans have long convinced themselves that there is a link between guns and overall freedom. The more guns there are in the hands of individuals, the more difficult it would be for a dictator to take power.

This is the freedom guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, passed in 1791.

They argue about the meaning of the wording but not over whether this thinking still makes sense in the modern age.

And yet this week they watched a dictator overthrown in Egypt - with no recourse to violence.

The link in American minds between guns and freedom is, you could argue, proved by the events of yesterday to be deeply irrational.

So the debate about whether President Obama moves now to the centre-ground is at least in part irrelevant - this remains a nation unable to address sensibly the deepest questions - including guns but including plenty else as well.

Funnily, I never worried much about that when I lived here. I was too busy gazing out from the Bay Bridge, bathed in sunlight.

Perhaps that is America's problem, too many opportunities to avoid the hard questions. Can this contentment last forever? When I lived here, I thought it could. Now, just visiting, I wonder.

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A selection of your comments:

The United States is not a nation that is "unable to address sensibly the deepest questions." We as a nation come up with different answers to these deep questions. When viewed through the filter of your native culture the answers may seem odd, strange, or flat out wrong. Yet when viewed from the perspective of an American our answers find a fit in the vast and varying cultural puzzle that defines the United States. I for one am unconcerned with the proliferation of firearms to law abiding citizens. Rather than focusing on guns, the focus should be on violent crime, a problem in both our countries.
John Knoepfle, Chicago, USA

I'm an ex-pat Brit living in the Mid-South of the US. I just recieved my "green card" and consider myself fairly integrated after 12 years here. Mr. Webb is right in describing the pervasive, cultural nbature of gun ownership. Many Americans consider it a right, and even a duty, to own a personal firearm (or two...or three). I am now a fairly decent shot myself and find myself giving serious consideration to buying my own weapon. I find myself caught between the old Englishman in me who knows this is an irrational and possibly dangerous move. And the new American in me who finds it patriotic duty to purchase a powerful hand gun.

I still haven't resolved this.
Ian Brooks, Memphis, TN

We as Americans reserve the right for ourselves to own firearms. The government works for us, or do you Brits still not get it? If the government goes astray we will need to take it down by the force of arms if needed. An american without firearms is a fool that relies on the promises of politicians. As George Washington said: "If you desire peace, prepare for war."

A Massachusetts patriot
John Fitzgerald, Lakeville, MA USA

I think your correspondent missed the fact that the revolution in Egypt was able to take place because the military (which has lots of guns)allowed it. Many of us in the US do not wish to rely on such.
Stuart Phillips, Boston, USA

American gun owners would rather shoot a tyrant than be shot while waving a shoe at a tyrant's picture. At any rate, Americans aren't arming themselves for some inevitable revolutionary bloodbath. They keep their arms for the same reason Britain keeps nuclear missiles: the deterrence value.
Eric Bailey, Austin, Texas

It's important to remember that even though the Egyptian revolution being accomplished by peaceful means. This could not have happened without the threat of violence. A gun's power is not in violence, but rather the threat of violence. The most powerful weapon is one that never has to be used.
Nathaniel Sheppard, Tacoma Washington USA

Contentment? You are out there in a fairytale mate. I have spent the years since 1976 in various parts of the US . I grew up in Sunderland / Newcastle on Tyne - I was 26 when I left for good. There has been no contentment here for a very long time. The guns are there because we know we cannot trust some of our neighbors, no matter how good the neighborhood might be. I have lived in small rural towns and major metro areas. There is no contentment , there is an unsettled feeling that "things just ain't right".
len smith, Milwaukee Wisconsin

A disarmed populace invites dictatorship and other forms of criminality, public and private. Better to deter it. Americans distrust government, and rightly so. Though opportunities for selfless service do attract the good and gracious, we all know power attracts the truly vile as well, and too easily overlook how insidiously bad politics can drive out good.
Charles Caylor, Pullman, USA

Justin, thank you for writing a thought provoking article without rancor or accusations. I'm writing as a "member" of the "Own-a-Gun Club", USA to give some insight to your readers. (I'm not a member of the NRA or other guns associations.) Although I have lived in cities for the last 25+ yrs, I grew up in the country and went target shooting and varmint hunting as a teen and later hunted a few times for deer in Maine. This "country culture" stayed with me and I still own a couple of rifles and a hand gun. I know many Americans who own guns, and nearly all seem to have a sentimental or "old West" attachment to the concept rather than a "defend the Country from dictators" mentality. I do know some senior citizens, etc. who own a gun for household protection, but everyone I know is a sane, stable person! Thanks again for your kind words about your stay with us here in America!
Charlie Falugo, formerly from Bristol, R.I. USA

I am an expat living in New England, I have been here 15-plus years and yes I own a gun. I shoot at a local range and talk guns with business clients and friends. It's a kinda done thing, like talking about the local football. Being here and being part of what America is is part of the reason for me choosing to live here. I think Justin's comments about the US are true, as many people I know don't care much what happens in the world as long as it is not negatively effecting them.
Sean Hatherley, Bedford New Hampshire, USA

I am a gun owner and ex-law enforcement officer. I have passed several tests re: firearms required by various state regulations. Still, I agree with your writer that America's fascination with firearms, including semi-auto weapons, is crazy. The idea that citizens must have guns to fight off the threat of the Federal government or to defend our homes from wandering bands of marauders is so 18th century.
Rick Levy, Plainfield, Vermont, USA

Crime has dropped in the U.S. because even the most stupid of criminals are wary that about one in three homes have a weapon that will inflict lethal harm to their body. Not to mention what the very upset person will do to them once on the ground for trying to harm their family. In some states like my Texas, you don't even want to go into someone's property without permission. If you do, you need to walk directly up to the door and either knock or ring the door bell. Anything else is considered trespassing, burglary, theft, and if it is night time, whoa! You take life into your own hands. So, consequently, people tend to be more civilized on the surface because nobody knows who is packing and who isn't. Let's keep civil shall we?

Master Rod
Rod Donovan, Ingleside, USA

You miss the gun ownership point entirely. Guns are not only owned in the US for personal protection. There are a host of other reasons; history, sport, collecting, family heritage, investment, etc. And one other important reason: because we can. We like our cars and motorcycles that go well over 150mph, too. Thousands have conceal weapons permits, but have never carried a firearm. They have the permit because they can. When 20016 was granted the same rights as most of America, it responded in the same way. It's our right.
A Wise, Middletown Ohio

Mr. Webb illustrates the importance of foreign correspondents, interpreting the country they visit for their own people while interpreting the country the visit for the people who live there. America's love affair with the gun is truly mystifying.
Walt Frazer, Kneeland, California, US

I just feel that this article goes to show that to truly understand America you have to live here. Leaving the country you begin to get that old world mentality again. I don't think that Europe's disdain for American gun ownership and regulation will ever go away. There are just too many differences in the way of thinking regarding them. To them they are symbols of aggression, to most Americans they are a sign of protection against the unforeseen and unknown no matter how unlikely.
Jake Stewart, Bozeman, USA

I have lived in the same type of area as you describe in this article. Don't forget that criminals do not stop at the borders of a zip code because the neighborhood is "nice". It isn't madness to own a gun. It's not madness to learn how to use one. Some of the NRA training classes I used to teach included chapters on how to burglar proof your home. Why would you consider that to be madness?
Mike Kelly, Lawrenceville GA, USA

A quick check of reveals an abundance of crimes in the neighborhood - burglaries, thefts and one knife assault all within a short recent period of time. Once again feelings trump facts on the gun issue.
Marley Beem, Stillwater, OK USA

I've never understood the American fascination with guns, myself. We're taught in schools from a very early age that if almost any crime is being visited upon us, producing a gun is likely to make the situation more dangerous, not less, as a robbery becomes a shootout. And we've all heard the ridiculous stories of criminals successfully suing their would-be victims of such crimes over injuries received from an unexpectedly armed victim.
Steven, Kentucky, USA

I'm originally from London and am always intrigued as to how the UK views gun ownership. I lived in Florida for eleven years and when the then Florida Governor, Jeb Bush introduced relaxed laws on the right to carry firearms the Liberals raised thier voices in horror saying that it was going to be like the Wild West. Guess what ? Crime dropped. Pro rata, the rate of home burglaries is far higher in the UK than in the USA because guns are outlawed in the UK. You are six times more likely to be a victim of street crime in London as you are in New York.
Steve Read, San Diego

I understand Mr. Webb's viewpoint. It is wonderful to grow up in a nation that is settled. I grew up in an area of the United States with less than 1 person per square mile. This means law enforcement was hours away . . . not minutes. There were plenty of incidents in my childhood where "bad people" refrained from criminal activity simply because they knew we could defend ourselves. I would give up my guns tomorrow if I felt safe. However, that won't happen in this world at the present. The best practice is education, registration, limitation of ownership, elimination of public assault weapons and severe legal action if these these practices are breached.
Dr. M. D. Bach, Kona, USA

Yes, guns are part of our culture and a right we feel strongly about. In general, I have faith in our government and police, but one cannot rely on them exclusively. Guns are another form of insurance and always have been. One only has to look at the aftermath of hurricane katrina to see that the thin veneer of civilization breaks down pretty fast when individuals face a lack of basic essentials like food and water. Hopefully, some event like this will never come to pass, but I will practive my right to keep and bear arms and have taught my children the same...just in case.
Anthony Fox, Laramie, WY

I think your view is very rational. I cannot argue with it. I think the U.S. Love with guns goes back to the days of westward expansion when a man was on his own to defend his family against native encounters or bandits in the territory and this thinking just stayed with us.I don't see it going anywhere. I too an a gun owner and I too see it as a right and responsibility to maintain the means to protect family and friends.
Mike, Sterling/ USA

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