Monday’s mass shooting in my hometown of Louisville drove home the point, as if I didn’t already know: America is a dangerous place to live. Which is why I and most of my immediate family live in the Netherlands.
That shooting was something like the 146th mass shooting in the United States this year, and it was only 12 April. As surely as spring turns into summer, you know the violence will only accelerate.
There is no better motivator for becoming – and remaining – an American expat in Europe than the burning desire not to become bullet bait.
A child of the American gun culture
I’m a child of the gun culture, growing up in rural Kentucky. (Louisville is only my hometown because no one ever heard of my real hometown, Fisherville, Ky., 17 miles east of downtown Louisville.)
I’m a victim of the gun culture, having gotten myself winged by a crazy farmer when I was 15 years old.
I’m an advocate of the gun culture, having hunted a big part of my life, owning rifles and shotguns since I was 6 years old. I still love sporting/hunting guns and shooting sporting clays.
I’m a fierce opponent of the gun culture, which is literally killing America.
And as you can guess, I’m one big contradiction, which is pretty common for a Southern Man. Any American, for that matter.
How it all went wrong
On Monday, 10 April, a mentally unstable, disgruntled employee with an AR-15 assault rifle (what a cliché these days) killed a man I’d interviewed as a business reporter in Louisville. Banking executive Tommy Elliott – civic leader, political kingmaker and personal friend of Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear – died along with four other bank employees. This is one of the few times I can remember Louisville making headlines here in Europe outside of the Kentucky Derby.
Elliott’s murder started me thinking about how it all went wrong in America.
I actually have a date when I realized my country was going off the rails. In summer 2012, a friend gave me a nearly new Winchester Model 1400 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun that probably retailed new for $500. Literally gave it to me because no one else wanted it.
His father-in-law bought the Winchester new; probably never fired it. When he died, Jimmy took it to gun shops to get rid of it. But no one would buy it: “People only want military-style assault rifles,” he told me. As a kid, hunting birds, rabbits and squirrels, I literally dreamed of owning a shotgun like that Winchester, which came with two barrels – one full-choke for hunting, one modified choke for sporting clays and trap.
(You probably have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’m including this link to sporting shotguns.)
AR-15, the magical weapon that instantly makes you a man
Now, even in Kentucky, few people hunt anything other than each other. The state (population 4 million) reported more than 800 gun deaths in 2022, more than six times the 133 in the Netherlands (population 17 million). In 2022, Louisville alone had more gun-related homicides than the entire Netherlands, with 160 people murders.
About the time gun shop owners were turning Jimmy away, our cohort of the Baby Boomers were entering their 60s, with the oldest nearing 70 years old. We represent the largest demographic slice of the American population, and suddenly we were old, angry, resentful and afraid. Afraid of black people, Jews, Hispanics, feminists, communists, drag queens and vegans. Afraid of violent crime, which had actually decreased since the 1960s. Afraid of everything.
Resentful and entitled unlike any American generation that had preceded us.
With its military heritage (it’s the semi-automatic civilian version of the M-16), high-velocity rounds and deadly accuracy, the AR-15 was exactly what we Baby Boomers needed to get our mojo back. Now, it’s the ubiquitous weapon of mass slaughter for Americans of all ages. But it’s so much more than that. The AR-15 is a touchstone. Kentucky’s crazy rightwing senior congressman, Thomas Massie, and his family posed with assault weapons – including AR-15 variants – as they gathered around the Christmas tree in 2021, just a few days after a mass shooting killed four students in Michigan.
No European would even believe a governmental official would do such a thing, but Massie did. I mean, come on … how better to honor the birth of the Prince of Peace than with a display of 5.56 mm weaponry? The congressman must really love Jesus because Massie, a 52-year-old Republican, went all the way, posing with a M-249 Squad Automatic Weapon, which has a maximum rate of fire of 1,000 rounds per minute.
Feeding into this were all the Americans – millions since 1965 – who’d been through the military since Vietnam – Panama, then the First Gulf War in 1991, followed by Afghanistan in 2001 and the Second Gulf War in 2003. They came back familiar with, and proficient at, using military-style handguns and assault rifles. And this is where my classist argument comes in. The rural and uneducated from the South, West and Midwest make up a majority of soldiers. Many are hardcore gun owners and MAGA Trump supporters.
Gun-related deaths in America, which peaked in the 1940s then declined dramatically, suddenly started rising again beginning in 1999.
What’s going on today in America is the result of an unrelenting (and very successful) campaign by the far right National Rifle Association and its friends in state and federal government to erase all gun restrictions. In my home state of Kentucky, anyone can legally buy a weapon and carry it concealed without a permit or any kind of training or background screening. Want an AR-15? No problem … you can own as many as you want at any age. (You must be at least 18 years old to have a pistol. I’m not making this up.)
Our friend Thomas Massie believes it’s a good idea to require teachers at kindergartens and schools to carry weapons. So, the NRA dream of legally requiring every American to be armed is coming true.
Stand Your Ground laws
If you have that powerful assault rifle or pistol just sitting around, sooner or later, you’re going to get a hankerin’ use it. So, the logical next step is waiving the laws that prohibit Americans from legally shooting each other. In more than 30 of the 50 states, legislators have crafted laws that let Americans do just that. This get out of jail free card is also known as the Stand Your Ground Law, individual laws often written by NRA lobbyists. In many states, if you just feel bad vibes coming off someone, it’s your God-given right to shoot first and ask questions later.
Which is exactly what is now happening every week:
• Earlier this month in Missouri, a 16-year-old black kid walked up to the wrong house, looking for his brother. Without saying a word, the elderly white homeowner opened the door and shot the kid in the head. His defense: He was threatened by a skinny 145-pound teenager. The homeowner was initially released without charges.
• Also in mid-April, a 20-year-old woman was in a car driven by her boyfriend, who pulled into the wrong driveway, looking for friends. The property owner opened fire as they was trying to leave, killing the young woman. The property owner’s defense was, he felt threatened.
• in Texas, two teen cheerleaders were shot after one mistakenly got into a car that she thought was hers. The shooter’s defense? You guessed it.
I miss America. My friends and family are there. There is no more beautiful place than Kentucky in the spring. I love doing business there. But this political polarization and gun fetish is going to take generations to play out.
So, yo’, I’m good right here.
Read more by Terry Boyd here in Dispatches’ archives.