Do I want to move back to the US? My answer tends to depend on the day and the arguement at hand. Today, for example, the answer would be no.
Like so many people, I woke up this morning feeling sick and disgusted after following the Connecticut school shooting story until bedtime last night. Since I feel so far away yet so connected at the same time, it’s jarring to view my own country struggle with a situation that’s practically inexistent in the country where I actually live. I can’t help but analyze this tragedy by comparing it to the Italian reality. And when I do, it only creates more anger, frustration, and confusion. I may critique this country for many things – but Italy definitely has us beat when it comes to this issue. Yesterday, we truly lost our innocence and soul as a country, in the most literal way possible.
Whenever one of our senseless gun tragedies occurs, the rest of the world definitely notices. Here in Italy, I get the usual look of confused disbelief and the inevitable, “How is that even possible in America?” question. Unfortunately, that question is an especially complex one to answer. Similar to the whole healthcare issue, the Europeans basically shake their heads and shrug their shoulders. They just don’t get it, and I can’t blame them. They call us “cowboys,” but not in any good sense of the word (if there is one). After these shameful displays, it’s completely justifiable that foreigners have come to define America as a reckless, gun-wielding society where you have to fear for your life at any instant. We can’t even send our kids to school anymore without worrying about them never coming home. Nowhere is safe, and nothing is sacred.
In my four years here, I’ve never heard a story even remotely similar to our school shootings. In my husband’s lifetime, nothing of the sort has happened in this country, if ever. So, I inevitably pose myself a very logical question: why do these horrific acts continue to happen on a repeated basis only in the United States? Without even calculating gun laws, what makes our society so different, in that people feel entitled to lash out and massacre the innocent for no apparent reason? And most importantly, regarding gun control, are we really so arrogant and misdirected as to think our way of doing things is better than what has been done for centuries (and worked) in so many other countries?
I believe things are different here for two reasons: clearly, the first reason is the difference in gun control laws. Here’s a brief run-through of my understanding of how guns are regulated in Italy:
In general, only select groups of people who are determined to have a specific need to defend themselves are eligible to privately own a pistol. These groups include certain types of merchants, like jewelry store owners, for example. To obtain a license to own a pistol for protection of home or business, you have to deal with a lengthy and involved bureaucratic process, which could take up to a year.
During this time, applicants are subject to a background check as well as a thorough psychological evaluation (which apparently many do not pass). Once a license is obtained, it must be renewed every year – but only after the psychological evaluation has been repeated. The same is true for those requesting ownership of a rifle for hunting purposes.
Each firearm is assigned its own unique identification number, so it’s always traceable. The few people who gain access to a personal pistol must go through training, and the gun must never be taken out of its assigned residence (i.e. home or business). Only law enforcement officials are permitted to carry firearms in public.
The general sentiment is that guns are certainly more trouble than they’re worth, and the less of them around, the better. The average citizen just doesn’t want the responsibility of having a gun. Even if a burglar were to enter your home, for example, the law is such that if he is only carrying a knife (which is the most likely scenario) and you shoot him, you would go to jail.
The second reason why I believe things are different here (and no doubt the more important of the two) is the moral integrity of the Italian culture, which still prides itself on maintaining a basic sense of human decency and respect. It’s a sort of unwritten code of conduct that isn’t a matter of law, but a matter of upbringing. It’s reminiscent of something that existed in the US some decades ago, but has since deteriorated and practically disappeared. The Italians probably think the same of their own country, but they don’t realize how in tact their collective conscience still is, compared to ours.
Religion may be the origin of this unwritten code, but since so many Italians are no longer practicing Catholics, I believe at this point it’s more a matter of tradition and a general sense of good will. Despite how modern this society is, they have managed to maintain these ideals through their stong family ties. Italians are creatures of habit, and they like the way they do things. They carry over the same pride and attention to detail they’re known for in their cuisine, fashion, and lifestyle to their society’s code of conduct. It’s instilled from the beginning, and although there are of course those who don’t follow it, they seem to be called out as ineducati, or uneducated/uncivil, and quickly shunned.
Italians use and live by this code without even realizing it. I realize it, because I didn’t grow up here, but they don’t. In this culture, certain known truths and rules just simply exist – always have, always will. These unspoken rules range from the most banal to the most profound, but regardless, they exist, like: binge drinking is stupid and uncouth; when you enter a room or a store, you acknowledge who’s already present and say “good morning”; younger people give up their seats to senior citizens; no cappuccino after 11am; one expensive, well-tailored suit is better than five made in China for the same price; and perhaps the most important of all, i bambini non si toccano – you don’t touch children. Children are literally sacred here, and as their track record shows, Italians do not mess with them.
Even the mafia, in all its warped and vile dealings, wouldn’t dare to touch a child for vendetta or something similar. In fact, most violent crimes involving guns here are usually linked to some kind of mafia involvement, which means when they do happen, there’s usually more to the story. Shootings are almost always linked to adults who have chosen a certain lifestyle, and suffer its consequences – not to innocent people randomly attacked while shopping at the mall for Christmas presents.
The US is the great melting pot, and there is beauty in that – but our diversity also comes with great difficulty in understanding and interacting with one another. We’ve gotten used to being on guard all the time, because we can never assume someone will behave the way we would in any given situation.
The reality of our history is that the various immigrant ethnic groups have always banded together in solidarity. They came from the same types of families, ideals, and culture. They were more comfortable together because they automatically had a point of reference in each other. Italians with Italians, Polish with Polish, Irish with Irish.
In Italy, everyone’s obviously Italian (at least, the overwhelming majority). So when you come in contact with someone, you can pretty much guess how they will react in most situations. Of course, personality is always a factor, but again, that basic underlying code of conduct exists at the core, and keeps everyone on a fairly level playing field.
I certainly don’t want to insinuate that crazy, twisted people don’t exist in Italy, because I know they do – but honestly, what happened yesterday would be unfathomable here. Regardless of gun laws, I just don’t see it happening – and that deepens the discussion for me because it means our American society is void of critical ideals others still hold dear. Those ideals must be discovered and appreciated again, and reintroduced into our society… Essentially, we need a return to innocence. It’s crucial to our existence, our well-being, and the future of our children. Let’s just hope it’s not too late.