Katie Denzin, who attended Saugus High School in California, holds a sign with current and former Michigan State University students during a rally at the capitol in Lansing, Mich., Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. Alexandria Verner, Brian Fraser and Arielle Anderson were killed and five other students remain remain in critical condition after a gunman opened fire on the campus of Michigan State University Monday night. Credit: Paul Sancya / AP

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.

Susan Young is the Bangor Daily News opinion editor.

I didn’t expect to talk about guns so much on a recent overseas trip. But, it was a topic that was brought up by taxi drivers, waiters, tour guides, and relatives, in Asia and Australia.

It isn’t the gun violence alone that is so shocking to people in other parts of the world. It is Americans’ tolerance of that violence. They were especially distressed by school shootings and how they have essentially become commonplace in America.

I was reminded of those conversations this week. On Valentine’s Day, we marked the fifth anniversary of the Parkland shooting. On Feb. 14, 2018, a teenage gunman murdered 14 high school students and three staff members at a high school in Florida. Seventeen others were injured.

The night before we marked this tragic anniversary, another shooting took place, this time at Michigan State University. Three students were killed and five people were injured.

Already this year, there have been 72 mass shootings in America, according to Gun Violence Archive, a group that provides data on gun-related violence. This doesn’t include many of the accidental deaths, domestic violence homicides and suicides involving firearms.

America is exceptional all right. It is exceptional in its toleration of gun violence, which is much more prevalent in the U.S. than other wealthy, advanced countries.

We have, I hate to admit, become somewhat inured to the toll of gun violence here. Sure, we express grief after mass shootings and, opinion writers like me, urge policymakers to toughen background checks or to restrict access to large quantities of ammunition.

But, sadly, we aren’t shocked when, quite often, commonsense changes get derailed by politics and campaign contributions. Polls show that we want tougher gun laws, but we tend to lose interest when good plans stall.

It’s hard, we often tell ourselves, to balance a constitutional right to possess guns (which is not unlimited, by the way) with the need for more restrictions on those guns. We cheer small improvements, like those Congress passed last year. But, we don’t push hard enough for other changes that could really make a difference.

Why can’t you do anything?

That was the succinct question put to me by a waiter at a cafe in Melbourne. He was quick to say that he wasn’t trying to be argumentative and he didn’t want to offend me. He knew about the 2nd Amendment, and America’s cherished “freedom.” But, he was genuinely puzzled by the gun situation in America.

And, terrified too, it turns out. He is from Malaysia and is studying computer science at a university in Australia. He said he’d like to study and work in the U.S., but he doesn’t want to be shot.

I explained that his odds of being shot in the U.S. are very small. Yes, he said, but why would he go someplace where he could get shot at a grocery store, a concert, a school, a parade. Why should he accept this risk, however small, when there are plenty of other countries where he could live and work where this risk is essentially zero?

Like Australia. After a mass shooting in Tasmania in 1996, the country strictly regulates gun ownership, including a near ban on automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Since then, shootings have been rare.

We both agreed that gun confiscation or strict regulations weren’t going to happen in the U.S., because of the 2nd Amendment. But, he asked, why won’t the American people demand other sensible restrictions? Why don’t they vote for people who will support steps to reduce gun violence? And, his most difficult question of all: Why do you tolerate the killing of so many children?

I didn’t have good answers and I don’t think I convinced him to come to the U.S. any time soon.

Some may say, who cares? So, a few people don’t come here because they are irrationally scared. Here’s the thing. He wasn’t unique. Numerous countries, including Australia, Japan and Uruguay, have warned their citizens about the potential dangers of gun violence in America. These advisories note that the U.S. is generally a very safe country, but they also cite the high rates of gun violence and the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

We shouldn’t change our laws around guns because other countries think they are weak. But, sometimes it helps to see your homeland through the eyes of people who don’t live here.

When so many people ask why we aren’t more upset about so many innocent people being shot dead, it kind of takes your breath away.

Here’s another smart question from the waiter in Melbourne: Why is the freedom to own a gun more important than the freedom to avoid being shot?

I honestly said I didn’t know.

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Susan Young

Susan Young is the opinion editor at the Bangor Daily News. She has worked for the BDN for over 25 years as a reporter and editor.