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How Leaving America Changes What People Think About Guns

"When I hear about people who own 15 assault weapons I think, why do you need that?"
Photo via Flickr user Andrew Magill

Photo via Flickr user Andrew Magill

When you live abroad, you start to see your home country differently. I speak from experience: After moving to Switzerland in 2006, I began to see American policies for what they were—one country's way of doing things, but not necessarily the best way of doing things.

There are few examples that ring truer than America's obsession with guns. While the US leads the world in mass shootings, with 372 in 2015 alone, there has only been one mass shooting in Switzerland in the last 15 years. The Swiss rank fourth in the world in guns per capita—behind the US, Yemen, and Syria—but the ownership is rooted in a sense of safety and responsibility.


The recent shooting in Orlando, Florida, is a reminder that the United States has some of the loosest gun control laws in the developed world and the highest rate of gun-related homicide—about 15 times higher than 23 other high-income nations combined. And while news of mass shootings has sadly become normal in the United States, moving abroad can show how differently Americans view guns. We asked several American expats about how moving to another country changed their perspective on gun control.

Tracy Slater, expat living in Japan

Almost no country takes gun ownership more seriously than Japan, where almost all firearms are illegal. The ones that are legal—shotguns and air rifles—are almost impossible to buy and maintain with the country's restrictions, which mandate that gun owners take a gun-safety class and pass a written test, pass a drug test, submit their criminal records, and have their mental health evaluated. Gun owners have to retake the class and the exam every three years to renew their license.

Tracy Slater, an American living in Tokyo, said these strict laws make shooting something of a novelty to people in Japan. Places like Hawaii and Guam have set up shooting ranges to cater to the Japanese-driven "gun tourism."

"I went to Guam on vacation once, and I saw many gun-shooting shops or parlors—not even sure what they are called—and it seemed like Japanese people might actually find shooting sort of fun," she told VICE. "On further thought, I realized that guns probably aren't scary here in Japan in the same way as they are in the US to civilians, or at least to some civilians, because there is so little threat that one civilian will shoot another."


Indeed, as the New York Times reported this week, the likelihood of dying by gun violence in Japan "is about the same as an American's chance of being killed by lightning—roughly one in ten million." (In the US, the likelihood of dying by gun violence is on par with dying in a car accident.)

Slater says the escalating gun-related violence in the United States has impacted the country she calls home.

"Lately, I've realized that one thing that would make me nervous about repatriating to the US—especially now that I have a child—is how reasonable Japanese society seems to be to be about guns and how scary the US seems in comparison," she said. "I never thought I'd think something like this. But lately, I'm starting to wonder if the place where I feel most safe and at home in my heart—Boston and the US—is actually the place where I would be most safe. That makes me sad."

Ryan Greiss, expat living in Israel

Ryan Greiss served as a foreign volunteer (called a "lone soldier") in the Israel Defense Forces, which allowed him to carry a gun in plain clothes when off-duty. Even though guns appear to be virtually everywhere in Israel—people take them to the grocery store, to weddings, to the beach—Greiss said their ubiquity is misleading.

"It's hard for civilians to carry guns," Greiss told VICE. "Most soldiers are of the mindset that they'd rather not be carrying a gun. You can't compare American and Israeli gun cultures at all—people can't collect firearms in Israel. They are seen as a grim necessity."


Gun ownership among Americans is actually 13 times higher than it is among Israelis. US gun-related violence is 33 times higher.

There is no clear right to bear arms under Israeli law. The country restricts gun licenses to people holding certain positions, such as designated ministry employees, authorized community leaders, and licensed guards and escorts. Obtaining a gun license for private use requires proof of a justified reason, according to Greiss.

Although there have been mass shootings in Israel—including one earlier this month, where four people were killed and seven more were injured—Greiss believes that the heightened presence of security forces, including off-duty military personnel, makes the country safer overall. Almost all Israeli civilians have served in the military in some capacity, and Greiss believes that, for lack of a better term, the "good guys with guns" are better trained in Israel than they are in the US.

"Any non-law enforcement concealed carrier in Israel has gone through a more rigorous qualification process, and almost always also has military and/or law enforcement experience," he said.

Greiss, who recently returned to the United States, said it felt "strange" not to have a gun with him all the time. At the same time, living in Israel did change his perspective. "When I hear about people who own fifteen assault weapons, I think, Why do you need that? I've seen what assault weapons can do, so I don't think they should be in the hands of the civilians. Gun ownership should be a right, but less of one."


Tom Heberlein, expat living in Sweden

Twenty-one years ago, Tom Heberlein didn't think much about taking his long guns to Sweden. Moose hunting in Sweden is nearly as popular as deer hunting in Wisconsin, where Heberlein lived previously, but he quickly learned that the way people hunt is very different.

"Hunting in Sweden is a bit utilitarian," he told VICE. "The Swedes hunt in a big group with dogs. Once you shoot, you don't put your kill in the back of a pickup truck and show it off to all your friends. You butcher it."

While hunting is popular in Sweden, it's illegal to carry a gun in the country except for specific and legal purposes (like hunting or going to a shooting range), and firearms have to be stored in a gun safe. Guns can be confiscated from anyone who drives drunk, commits domestic violence, or shows other signs of irresponsibility. Those policies made Heberlein reconsider American laws too, especially because the United States has nearly seven times the number of gun deaths than Sweden.

"We can't just sprinkle Swedish dust on America, and it will change," said Heberlein. "But we have to change the framework to view guns as a responsibility, rather than a right. You must prove you are responsible before you have a right."

Cate Smith-Brubaker, expat living in Mexico

Cate Smith-Brubaker has lived around the world, but she settled in Mexico "for the low cost of living, scenic beauty, temperate climate, and the rich cultures." At the same time, Mexico tops the United States with its rate of gun-related deaths, which is roughly 121 per million people (compared to 31 per million people in the United States).

Despite Mexico's reputation for violence, its gun-control laws have actually been cited as a model for the United States to follow. The Mexican Constitution recognizes a right to arms only in the home, although previous versions recognized a right to carry in public. There is only one legal gun store in the entire country, and only 14 percent of Mexican households have a firearm (as opposed to one-third of Americans, according to a report in the journal Injury Prevention). Firearms that wind up in Mexico illegally are mostly smuggled in from the United States—as many as 2,000 per day, according to CESOP, Mexico's governmental research service—because it's so much easier to obtain guns there.


"I've always held liberal views when it comes to my feelings about the US and both its domestic and foreign policies," Smith-Brubaker told VICE. But in the six years she's lived abroad, she said she's "learned more about how those policies affect people around the world, and how many people from around the world look to the US as the something akin to the proverbial canary in the mine."

The number of homicides in Mexico attributed to gang violence is as high as 55 percent, by some estimates, and the prevalence of drug cartels could partly explain why the gun-related death toll is exceptionally high. Still, Smith-Brubaker said that as gun violence feels more and more like a part of daily life in the US, she finds herself not only dismayed but looking to her foreign friends for answers.

Smith-Brubaker says she finds it difficult to explain to people in Mexico why Americans are so obsessed with guns. "I try to explain the Second Amendment," she said. "But I also add that it's an outdated part of the Constitution and has not evolved to suit a modern society. It's never an easy conversation to have and often leads to more questions than answers."

Smith-Brubaker added that, now that she lives abroad, the ease at which Americans can access guns seems jarring.

"An assault rifle? The name says it all. One only purchases an assault rifle to take as many lives as possible," she said. "I won't be able to explain that one to a Mexican cab driver."

Chantal Panozzo is the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I'd Known. Follow her on Twitter.