This is another in an occasional series we are calling The de Tocqueville Interviews.*
This summer, America’s unique, exasperating gun culture has taken center stage. On May 24, the Uvalde school shooting horrified the nation. Within a month, President Biden signed into law (above) the most substantial piece of gun safety legislation passed in the U.S. in decades. Yet on June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense, significantly expanding gun rights in the country. Less than two weeks later, on July 4, a gunman stood on top of a building in Highland Park, Ill., and killed seven people who were watching an Independence Day parade.
Americans remain polarized on the issue of whether owning a gun is a right embedded in the Second Amendment or a privilege that should be regulated. To most foreigners, our gun culture is simply confusing. To get a European perspective on the availability of guns and the ravages of gun violence, Governing Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson recently spoke with Italian journalist Marzio G. Mian, an award-winning correspondent who has reported on cultural, social and geopolitical topics from 56 countries including throughout the U.S.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Governing: How does a European respond when you read about these mass shootings in the United States?
Marzio Mian: It’s easy for Europeans to use these shootings to portray an America they don’t like. The shootings are getting more and more absurd, and Europeans don’t understand the Second Amendment culture or ideology. They tend to think of this as Republican America, as Trump’s America, but of course it’s more complex than that. We know that the gun lobby is strong, and that Democratic presidents have done very little to curb gun violence.
I remember when Obama, for example, signed a law that allowed people to bring arms into the national parks, canceling a previous law from the Reagan era. We do find it interesting that there are 400 million guns and rifles in the U.S., and that 3 percent of the population owns 133 million of those. That indicates a niche of obsessed people. Still, the numbers are amazing, especially when compared to Europe. If there are 120 guns for every 100 Americans, there are 12 per 100 in Italy.
Governing: How is gun ownership looked upon in Italy today?
Marzio Mian: In recent years there has been a push by Italy’s Lega Party for more freedom to own a gun for self-defense on your property. But every time a thief or criminal is killed with one of these weapons — maybe three or four times per year — the judge will side in some way with the person who was killed, even when it’s very clear what happened. And this party that is so in favor of self-defense and the right to own a gun is the same party that is against arming Ukrainians who want to defend their country and their right not to be invaded. We’re living now in a world of contradictions, a world without logic.
Governing: Could you buy a gun tomorrow in Milan if you wanted to?
Marzio Mian: I was once working as a journalist in Missouri. Because I have an American passport, I applied to buy a gun. I was through the process in 15 minutes. I didn’t buy the gun. I just wanted to see how long it took for me to be approved. It’s different in Italy. It’s a very long process. Even if you want a rifle for hunting, it takes a year to a year and a half to complete the process. You have to have a clear police record, of course, and you have to pass a psychological test. You’re interviewed many times by the police. You have to train and demonstrate a certain amount of skill. It’s very complicated. In the EU, nine out of 10 people have never owned a firearm. Only 14 percent of those who do own a gun have it for self-defense. The others are for hunting or sport.
Governing: If you went through this process you described and were finally able to buy a gun in Milan, how would the cost compare to that of the same gun in the U.S.?
Marzio Mian: It would be more, much more. There is a Beretta Firearms store not far from where I live. Three-quarters of the store is clothing, but they have guns, and they are very expensive. You can have an AR-15 in the U.S. for what, $2,000? Here, it might be 5,000 Euros. But you wouldn’t find it in that store. It’s only available on the black market. It probably comes from gangsters in Serbia or Montenegro. And if there is an inspection in your house and a gun is found that is not declared, you go to jail.
Governing: If you did opt to buy a gun on the black market, how would you go about that?
Marzio Mian: There are some neighborhoods in Milan that I could go into. There are ways. I worked on a story some years ago where I was admitted into a hospital in Naples by pretending to have a heart attack. I spent three days in this hospital to see how things worked. It was unbelievable. Somebody in the bed next to me died, for example, and they left the body there with me for the entire night. And while I was in that hospital, I was able to purchase cocaine as well as a gun. There are places in Italy where you can buy stuff, and this hospital was such a place.
Governing: Are there mass shootings in Italy?
Marzio Mian: No. It has never happened. The big problem with gun violence across Europe is familicide. It seems that every other day, a woman is killed by her husband. I’ve wanted to do a story on this because the numbers are very clear. When a rifle is used, it’s almost always a policeman or a private guard, somebody allowed to carry a gun. I would say that 90 percent of these women are killed by gunshots from policemen, the Carabinieri, people who have guns for their work.
Governing: Many Americans will tell you that their gun is essential to the American idea of freedom. If that’s true, how can a European call himself free if the government doesn’t let him have a gun?
Marzio Mian: It would be difficult for me to explain it to that sort of American. Their view goes back to the old days and the myth of the frontier, where you faced “live-or-die” type threats daily. That, along with the militia concept, is really the root of this American viewpoint. I respect that narrative, but it’s a romantic idea. I’ve met people all over the U.S., and that myth is over. … Europeans can call themselves free because freedom is in the community. Individuals in a community make themselves feel free through law, not through violence. A big difference between Europe and the U.S. is that you have so many people living on the margins. If you put together the two factors — the number of people with guns or access to guns, and the number of people with psychological and mental problems that are left out on the margins of society without help — you’re going to have these problems.
Governing: You’ve spent time in the U.S. When a shooting like Uvalde happens, how do you explain it to friends who ask, “What is the problem with America that it doesn’t deal with this?”
Marzio Mian: As I’ve traveled and lived in the U.S., I’ve seen the gap between the elite and the rest of the country getting larger. In terms of education, really in terms of everything. So there’s an America that lives in a very comfortable world, out of touch of the rest of the country. There’s also a lot of hypocrisy in the U.S. When I try to talk about racism and segregation, even with my liberal American friends, it comes to a point where the discussion can’t continue. There is a limit to what you can say about the South and racism.
Once when I was in Birmingham, Ala., I visited the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It’s a memorial for lynching victims, and while I was there, I met a couple from San Francisco. They were very wealthy. They knew restaurants in Milan and Paris, and they knew shopping in London, yet this was their first time in the American South. It’s an interesting and intriguing place. There are answers in the South if you are willing to go there and look for them.
Governing: How do you come to terms with America’s inability to talk rationally about mass shootings in the U.S.?
Marzio Mian: It’s something that is going to have to be taken up by the Democrats. They were courageous with health-care reform, despite the heavy lobbying against it. They have to be courageous with guns. It could be the rebirth of American politics, the remarketing of America to the world. Right now, gun violence is making America seem weak and unreliable. It’s not just the power of the lobby, and it’s not just respect for the Second Amendment. It’s driven by fear, a fear of rebellion, a fear of revolution, something like that. When you have 400 million guns, when you defend a child before it’s born but not after, you have a big political problem.
Governing: Is it fair to say that Europeans are becoming more and more disappointed with America?
Marzio Mian: I would say that they are becoming “uncomfortable.” Europeans are very close politically to the Democrats and the American liberals, and they are uncomfortable because, even with liberals, they’re not seeing anyone with the courage to step up and address the problem. From the European point of view, the gun violence is unbelievable. It’s absurd. Even at high levels of government, they (Europreans) are embarrassed. Many knowledgeable politicians won’t give statements on gun violence because they don’t want to appear aggressive toward America. They are careful because they know it is a sensitive point.
But Europeans also have a partisan, sectoral way of looking at the U.S. They have this cultural habit of taking from America what they like, but at the same time putting blame on American imperialism and opportunism where it’s convenient. You can see it in the writers that get published, the ones who describe the idea of the famous “ugly America” that you have to accept if you want to really “know America.”
I once visited the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the “Angola Plantation,” as it was once called. I spent an afternoon on the hill there with a photographer friend. We saw prisoners, 99 percent of them Black, working in the cotton field. As Europeans, we felt he had to show this. “This is the South. This is still America.” Then, a few days later, I was in Philadelphia, speaking with a very good American friend of mine, a man with an open mind who is very willing to criticize the U.S. I showed him a photo from the prison cotton field, and he said, “Yes, it’s very easy for Europeans to show ugly America.” And he was right. It’s too easy. I was allowed to be there, after all, to see all of this. That’s why it’s so easy, it’s even fun, to be a European journalist in America. You can get answers. You can get all the pictures you want. It’s a free country. It’s a “free” country.
*After Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32, he returned to France and published his monumental “Democracy in America,” arguably the best book ever published about America by a foreigner. Tocqueville was able to observe American institutions and what he called “habits of the heart” from the perspective of a curious, rigorous and generous outsider. He held up a mirror to the people of the United States that continues to offer insights almost 200 years later. Democracy in America is a mirror we Americans should look into as we move into the middle years of the 21st century.
Marzio Mian of Milan, Italy, has lived in the United States, traveled throughout the country, from the prisons of the American South to the Badlands of the Dakotas. He has visited more than 50 countries, written books, as well as articles for a range of European and American journals.
Marzio, is one of several outside observers joining our Editor-at-Large Clay Jenkinson occasionally to comment on current events, with a special focus on how America and Americans are seen from someone outside the United States.