Shortly before I was born, an unemployed handyman named Michael Ryan slaughtered 15 people and wounded 15 others in a series of random shootings. It remains one of the worst, and one of the only, firearm atrocities in one nation’s history.
This incident didn’t take place in the United States, where this kind of bloodshed is so frequent that President Obama recently wondered whether citizens had become “numb” to it. No, this shooting occurred in Hungerford, a small town in Berkshire, England, which is still known as the site of the “massacre that shook Britain.”
In the months following the mass shooting, the U.K. Parliament passed the Firearms Act, banning self-loading rifles and mostly limiting sales of shotguns. Less than a decade later, more significant gun-control measures were introduced. Over time, and with a few notable exceptions, gun violence dropped significantly. Between 2000 and 2014, England had only one incident of a mass shooting, compared to 133 in the United States.
In England, getting a license to own a gun is a notoriously long and complicated process. It’s the burden of the person seeking a firearm license to prove to local law enforcement that they don’t pose a danger to public safety. Our police officers carry truncheons or batons and handcuffs, but they are rarely armed with guns when on patrol.
As a result, guns weren’t a factor in my life as a child.
The vast majority of my friends’ parents did not own guns. The words “gun violence” were rarely uttered by BBC newscasters on the telly, with the exception of foreign correspondents. I later learned that my American parents would turn off the nightly news during holiday visits to my grandparents in New York, concerned that my brother and I would be affected by the comparison.
That said, my childhood was far from devoid of violence. I grew up in the aftermath of the IRA bombings in London, which involved a systematic removal of litter “garbage” bins that might house bombs. The 7/7 attacks in 2005 in London are also ingrained in my memory, and the horrible feeling of not knowing whether friends and family members were safe. As a young teen in central London, I learned to safely navigate the city streets after being mugged on several occasions by street gangs.
But into my teen years, guns felt foreign or even alien to me. I was 16 when I touched my first gun, which a Polish friend had gingerly pulled down from a mounted glass case in the sitting room at home. The gun had been passed down from his grandfather who served in the Second World War, he told us. We greeted the steely, gray weapon with a combination of fear and awe deserving of a museum piece. “This was used to kill people,” I thought, and visibly shuddered. After a few moments, we urged him to lock it up.
From where I sit now, at my desk in Bayview, San Francisco, that response to a gun sighting seems both sad and desperately naive. After all, in America, 31 states allow citizens to openly carry handguns. Many children have become used to the sight of guns at an early age.
In the historic black community where I now reside, shootings seem woven into the fabric of life. In May, police gunned down an unarmed 27-year-old African-American woman down the street. Each week, a now familiar set of feelings pass through me: I’m numb; overwhelmed; angry, and shaken with grief. And I think of a time when gun violence wasn’t at my doorstep or at yours. I remind myself that it doesn’t have to be like this.