Global sympathy for Newtown, antipathy for US gun laws

Even as observers around the world mourned the teachers and children killed in Newtown, many expressed frustration with a US political system that has left guns so easily accessible.

Ferdinand Ostrop/AP
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle signs a condolence book for the victims of last week's school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, at the US embassy in Berlin, Tuesday. Though there has been no shortage of sympathy around the globe for the victims of the attack, many international observers wonder why the US seems unwilling or unable to act to prevent such tragedies.

There has been no shortage of sympathy from across the globe for the victims of the shooting rampage at an elementary school in the New England town of Newtown, Conn. But there has been another global response as well: confusion and frustration that the US seems unable, or unwilling, to tighten gun laws.

In Moscow, dozens of Russians spontaneously placed flowers at the US Embassy over the weekend in memory of the 26 victims who were killed on Friday, 20 of them 6- and 7-year-olds. News of the tragedy was shared across the Internet in China, which witnessed its own school attack Friday. From Germany to Britain to France, heads of state expressed their grief, shock, and horror.

With their empathy, however, came an apparent mounting frustration with a US political system that has left weapons like the Bushmaster AR-15 – the civilian model of the M-16 that law-enforcement officials have said shooter Adam Lanza used on his victims Friday – legal and accessible to the public.

Some nations, like Mexico, are directly affected by US gun laws. Other nations have themselves been the site of mass homicides by a lone shooter, but, in the wake of tragedy, have reformed legislation. They question why the US can’t do the same. For many residents of the world, the US continues to beckon with freedom of press, religion, and economic opportunity. But a perceived increase in gun violence has caused at least some to reconsider whether the US is the “land of opportunity” anymore if it can’t protect even its youngest citizens from senseless violence.

American academic Todd Landman, who grew up and studied in Pennsylvania but has lived in the UK since 1993, said he would think twice about moving his three children to live in the US.

“You will always get people who are violent against others – that is a constant – but it’s the availability issue in the US and cultural narrative of guns which is the issue,” says Mr. Landman, a professor at the Institute for Democracy and Conflict Resolution at the University of Essex. “I’m a proud American ... I thought about going back and raising my kids there – there’s opportunity, lower tax rates, great lifestyle, beautiful country. But I don’t want my kids to grow up in that gun culture.”

Gun proponents in the US vociferously defend their constitutional right to bear arms, but that doesn’t mean that horrific violence remains the exclusive domain of the US. In 1996, Britain, in fact, experienced an unprecedented tragedy when 16 children, aged five and six, were struck by a gunman who burst into a school. That same year, 35 were killed in a shooting rampage at a tourist attraction in Tasmania, Australia. In Norway last year, Anders Behring Breivik went on a shooting spree at a political youth camp, killing 69 on site.

But in many of the historic cases throughout the last century, countries have quickly moved to implement stricter legislation on guns, including in Scotland, Australia, and in Finland after two deadly shooting sprees in 2007 and 2008.

Empty talk?

The US has also been thrust into its own debate about gun laws and change. But across the globe, it’s been dismissed as “empty talk.”

In Russia, the independent Moscow daily Noviye Izvestiya summed the political talk as such: "Mass gun killings similar to what happened last week have become as regular as natural disasters," it stated. “After each massacre Americans talk about needed changes, but this is just empty talk. Pro-gun organizations and other lobbyists for unrestricted gun sales appear to be stronger than reason.”

In China, the “Southern Daily” wrote: “The gun culture and the gun economy have become key elements of US culture and are entangled in politics, the economy, and the law.” The paper did not hold out much hope for reform, titling its article “US Gun Ban: Mission Impossible.”

Guns are strictly prohibited in China, except in rare cases, and many observers here and abroad credited that policy with saving the lives of 20 Chinese elementary school children who came under attack just hours before Mr. Lanza opened fire across the globe. A man used a kitchen knife to stab the children in a wild assault on a rural school in Guangshan, in the central Chinese province of Henan on Friday. None of his victims died. The suspect is in police custody.

“How can guns be so widespread in America?” wonders Hou Honghua, a project manager at a high-tech battery company in Beijing. “It’s just too dangerous.”

Mexico's challenge to the US

Gun prevalence is more than just a rhetorical question in Mexico, where more than 60,000 were killed in drug-related homicide from 2006 to 2012. Mexican politicians have been calling on the US government to clamp down on the availability of arms that they say help fuel their deadly drug violence.

“Mexico is more sensitive to these deaths [in Newtown] because, even if in the US it’s been at the hands of a solitary individual and here in Mexico we have groups of organized criminals carrying out 60,000 murders … in both we see that the US shares part of the responsibility,” says Jose Arturo Yanez, an independent crime expert in Mexico City.

In Mexico, victims are often beheaded, killed en masse, and thrown into graves or piled onto highways as a threat. It is a sort of barbarity south of the US border that the American media, and the world at large, has fixated on. But Mexico is also fixated on what, to many, seems incomprehensible violence north. An editorial in the left-leaning La Jornada on Saturday called it “devastating” that a country with such high levels of development that attempts to be a model of civilization for the world is so often the site of "barbarity."

“The dissemination of arms among the American population is not enough, on its own, to explain the exasperating frequency with which these massacres have happened.”

In Israel, where citizens' daily lives being interrupted by violence is an all-too-familiar scenario, newspapers opined on the differences in gun culture between the US and Israel, where the limited number of mass shootings have taken place within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Times of Israel, a relatively new, centrist publication, argued that because Israeli gun owners are screened more carefully, better trained, and more willing to intervene in dangerous situations, Israel’s gun culture actually serves as a check on crime.

In Israel, only about 2.5 percent of civilians are legally permitted to carry weapons, according to local press accounts. Criteria for obtaining a gun permit are relatively stringent. Those who live or work in vulnerable areas, such as West Bank settlements, are allowed to carry guns, as well as those in roughly a dozen professions, from gold and precious stones dealers to those involved in vermin control.

In a commentary for Ynetnews, the English-language website of Israel's most widely read newspaper, Tzipi Shmilovitz writes that such attacks do not come out of nowhere. But the US "is not willing to discuss how it is easier to obtain a gun than to see a doctor; it is not willing to talk about unreasonably violent video games or address the gun-worshipping culture it is raising its children in."

"This is the fault of the American government.... They are giving licenses to shops to sell guns without discussion," says Palestinian Adiel Najj, a tour operator in East Jerusalem.

Damage to the US model

Though the Newtown killings have shocked the US and the world at large, the tragedy has not unalterably changed the opinion of many about the US. In fact Xu Yoyo, a product manager at a Beijing IT company, says that while China has remained largely silent about its own violent school attack, the US has been open and transparent. “Every country has a crime problem,” she explains, “but the important thing is how they respond to such tragedies. China is much worse than the US on this.”

Like hundreds of thousands of foreigners who view the US as the top tier for education, Henry Creagh, a marketing executive in London and father of six, would be happy for his children to travel and live in the US. “The US is a big place and things can happen, but statistically the chances are still low,” he says. “It’s shocking what happened with especially the age of the children but it doesn’t mean America is a bad place.”

Still, mass murders such as the one that occurred in Newtown hardly burnish America’s image in the world. “I don’t think that the US is a land of opportunity anymore,” says Ms. Hou, the project manager in Beijing. “The financial crisis is holding them back, and now there is this violence. I think opportunity in the future is to be found in China or Asia, because the world is establishing a new order.”

And for Shen Dingli, a well-known commentator on international affairs in China, “such cases harm the US image, without a doubt."

“If the US does not take action, the list of shooting cases will grow longer,” he warned in a commentary in Tuesday’s Global Times. “It will become less likely that the US model will be admired and followed.”

• Staff writers Peter Ford in Beijing and Christa Case Bryant in Jerusalem contributed to this report, as did correspondents Ian Evans in London and Fred Weir in Moscow.

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