Guns are US(A)

A Vietnamese version of the article below appeared on 6 August in the Voices section of Zing.vn, a major media outlet in Viet Nam.  This is the unabridged English version with photos.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

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Stores that sell guns and related items are common in many US states.  Photo by Mark Ashwill

Unless you’ve been offline or haven’t picked up a newspaper for a few days, you’re probably aware that history in the United States has once again repeated itself with two consecutive mass shootings.  On 3 August, a gunman murdered 22 people and injured 26 at a shopping center in El Paso, TX in what is being handled as a domestic terrorist case.  The following day 9 people were killed and 27 injured in a shooting in Dayton, OH. 

As of 4 August, there have been 253 mass shootings in 2019 resulting in 1,047 people in 35 states being shot. Of those people, 280 died. (A mass shooting is generally defined as 3-4+ people shot in one incident, excluding the perpetrators, at roughly the same time, excluding organized crime, as well as gang- and drug-related shootings.)  This works out to about 1.17 shootings per day.  They have become so common that many involving fewer casualties are not reported in the national or international media.  Another day, another mass shooting, as if it’s become the new normal in US society. 

Gun Ownership as a Constitutionally Protected Right

While it’s difficult, if not impossible, for most non-US Americans to fathom much less to imagine, the right to own guns, including those designed with the express purpose of killing human beings, is enshrined in the US Constitution.  The oft-quoted 2nd Amendment states that “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  

Keep in mind that was in the late 1700s when there about 4 million non-native people living in the US with no police or army and no grocery stores.  In other words, the weapons of the day, primitive as they were by modern comparison, were necessary for self-defense and hunting.  There was sporadic conflict between Native American tribes and European settlers.  Slavery was legal (until 1863) so the right to bear arms also meant that slave owners, who included a number of Founding Fathers, could defend themselves against those slaves who wanted their freedom and were willing to spill the blood of their white masters to obtain it. 

The US Constitution was ratified 231 years ago at a time when common guns included muskets and flintlock pistols.  A typical musket had a one-round magazine capacity, could fire about three rounds per minute, at best, and had a range of 50 meters.  Fast forward to the present.  A-15 semi-automatic rifles have a magazine capacity of 30 rounds, can fire 45 rounds per minute, and have a range of 550 meters.    

Guns, Death, & Profit

The United States’ love affair with guns is so passionate that the country has 20% more guns than people at 393 million.  Owning guns is not only a constitutional right that was granted in a very different time and place, but also an extremely lucrative industry.  In 2016, the gun industry contributed about $51.3 billion, both directly and indirectly, to the US economy.  (That’s a staggering 21% of Viet Nam’s 2018 nominal GDP.) 

With so many guns floating around, it’s not surprising that the USA is #1 in this unenviable category:  gun-related death rates among high-income countries.  In 2017, nearly 40,000 US Americans were killed in shootings, 60% of which were suicides.  

The US was one of six countries that contributed to half of the world’s gun-related deaths in 2016.  It ranked 2nd to Brazil (43,200), followed by Mexico (15,400), Venezuela (13,300), Colombia (12,800), and Guatemala (5,090). 

To put this in historical perspective, there were slightly fewer US casualties on D-Day (2,811 deaths and 13,564 wounded) as part of the Allied invasion of Normandy 75 years ago this month, than the total number of casualties from shooting incidents through June 6, 2019.  This includes the a mass shooting in Virginia in which 13 souls perished, including the gunman, and one on 16 June in Pennsylvania in which seven people were injured and one killed. 

The high level of gun violence is one of the reasons why the US ranked 36th among 163 countries, according to the latest Global Peace Index (GPI).  (Note:  Countries are ranked in descending order from most to least dangerous countries.  Afghanistan is #1 and Iceland is #163.)  The index, produced by the Institute for Economics & Peace (IEP), measures global peace using three broad themes: the level of safety and security in society, the extent of domestic and international conflict, and the degree of militarization.  Viet Nam (1877) ranks 107th, while Australia (1419), Canada (1327), the UK (1801) & the USA (2401) rank 151, 158 & 119, & 36, respectively. 

Citizens Armed to the Teeth

The day after I drove by the store pictured above during a recent trip to the US, I encountered the scene below in a big-box store.  (MAA:  Yes, the same kind of store where the El Paso shooting occurred.)  My initial reaction, one of someone who lives in a country in which only the police and military have handguns, was “Maybe he’s a policeman,” but then I thought, code-switching to my US cultural mindset, “Maybe this is an open carry state.”  I later asked a cashier that question.  Her answer was a blank stare and shrug of the shoulders.  The short answer is It is.  In fact, you can carry a handgun anywhere – without a permit – except state and national parks, courthouses, police stations, and prisons. Why would this man need it while shopping?  No doubt he wants to seem more important than he is (he certainly caught my attention but not in a good way) or is waiting for the chance to be a “hero”, if this occasion arose, in a country in which this term has been cheapened beyond recognition.  

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Man standing in the car oil section of a big-box store with a handgun on his right hip and what appears to be an ammunition clip on the left.  Photo by Mark Ashwill

My follow-up reaction was that I had to have a picture of this wannabe tough guy because it was so surreal yet somehow so US American.  My interior monologue continued at rapid-fire pace:  “What if he sees me and becomes angry?”  The heat he was packing, which appears to be a CZ 75, according to two cops I spoke with in both the US and Viet Nam, one of the few “that combines function with form to make an effective and eye pleasing firearm,” in the words of a Gunbacker online review, is designed with one purpose in mind:  to injure or kill human beings.  “He could pull the trigger and claim that he felt threatened by me and my smartphone.”  Maybe he’d beat the rap or serve a light sentence.  Meanwhile, I’d be moldering in my grave having become yet another statistic in the annual slaughter that is US gun violence. 

Color me old-fashioned but I prefer not to see people in my midst, who are not law enforcement officers, carrying guns.  This is one of a number of symptoms of a collective insanity that has gripped the US.  No sane country allows its citizens to run around with handgun in a holster, as if it’s still the Wild West.  Statistics don’t lie, in this case, and there’s no way to spin the truth.  

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Photo courtesy of Pew Pew Tactical

Of Thoughts, Prayers, and the Status Quo

Whenever there’s a mass shooting in the US, and they come and go with tragic predictability, it’s always the same old song and dance, as if most people are following the same tired, old script.  More thoughts and prayers.  No solutions, no change.  More funerals, more sadness, more psychological trauma.  The beat goes on, waiting for the next one, a matter of when, not if.  It’s as if US society is afflicted with an incurable case of societal psychosis.  A country with 65 million more guns than people does not meet the definition of civilized. 

Since information is power, let’s see what the open carry picture looks like.  California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and South Carolina prohibit open carrying of handguns.  The nation’s capital, Washington, D.C., also falls into this category.  These states require a permit or license to openly carry handguns:  Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.  Finally, these states restrict the open carrying of handguns in public places:  Alabama (some private property restrictions), Missouri, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington. 

Guns for Sale

How to obtain a handgun in my home state of Delaware?  A piece of cake.  Just head on over to your nearest gun store, like the one pictured above, 1) be 21 or older; 2) provide state-issued ID (e.g., driver’s license); and 3) submit to a background check, which could completed within 90 seconds. 

You are not allowed to purchase a firearm if you are younger than 16, unless you are under direct supervision of an adult; have been convicted of a crime of violence including bodily injury to another, including misdemeanors, unless the misdemeanor was over 5 years ago; have been convicted of an offense involving narcotics, dangerous drugs, or controlled substances; have been committed to a mental institution or hospital for a mental disorder and do not have a certificate of rehabilitation; or were adjudicated as delinquent for conduct which would constitute a felony as an adult unless you are 25 or older. 

All of this information and much more is available on a website called Pew Pew Tactical, which contains detailed information about buying, owning, and using guns.  It is run by Eric Hung, an entrepreneur who gushes in the “About Us” section, “I really love my guns because…they are just fun.” 

Oligarchy, Not the Will of the People

What do US Americans think of this endemic problem?  According to a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, nearly 70% want strong or moderate restrictions placed on firearms.  However, only 8% were “very confident” that their elected representatives would do anything about it.  This is what happens when a political system becomes an oligarchy, whereby the wealthy dictate policy and the average citizen has little influence, at least at the national level.  That was the conclusion of a 2014 study by two professors from Princeton University and Northwestern University.

The National Rifle Association of America (NRA), a gun rights advocacy group founded in 1871, is a case in point.  The Washington, D.C. area-based organization reported 2018 revenue of $412 million and spent a record $10.2 million lobbying lawmakers and federal agencies in 2017 and 2018.

Gun Violence in Viet Nam:  A Moot Point

Viet Nam is faced with an array of pressing challenges, some of which are related to its status as a rapidly developing country.  Fortunately, Vietnamese shooting other Vietnamese or themselves with a handgun and all of the medical and psychic trauma that result from gun violence are not among them. 

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Illustration by Hà My.  Courtesy of Zing.vn

Gun Violence & Study in the USA

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I spoke to some students last Friday at a top private high school in Hanoi about overseas study.  Among the small group that was planning to study overseas, they mentioned Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and New Zealand as potential destinations.  Not one expressed interest in studying in the US.  When I asked why, they mentioned the following reasons:  too many guns, gun violence, shootings, high cost, and their view that US Americans are not friendly. 

A day later, there was a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 dead, including Holocaust survivors.  Some of the students’ impressions and worst fears were confirmed – yet again.  (The jury is out on the overall impact of these negatives on study in the USA among parents and students in Viet Nam, though there is a discernible shift taking place to Canada.)  As of August 2018, there were nearly 30,000 young Vietnamese studying in the US, a slight decrease from December 2017.  In addition, the number of student visas issued in the past year, ending on 30 September 2018, dipped by 5-6%, a possible harbinger of future enrollment decreases.)  

For Many, Perception is Reality

Aside from the tragic loss of human life at the hands of people who hate and have easy access to guns, including assault rifles, widespread gun violence, including mass shootings, are a PR disaster that is not going away anytime soon.  This issue weighs heavily on the minds of students and parents who might otherwise be interested in the US as a potential overseas study destination.  

top 10 gun-owning countries

Sadly, out of the world’s 251,000 gun deaths every year, six countries are responsible for more than half of those deaths, including the US.  The other five countries are Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guatemala.  The US is #1 among its peer countries in the industrialized world in the number of deaths due to gun violence.  (Note that those countries have weaker economies and institutions, e.g., criminal justice systems.  The study from which this information was obtained excludes deaths from war, terrorism, executions, and police.)  

For many students and parents considering study in the USA, perception is reality.  Do mass shootings occur everywhere?  Of course not.  Is the US the most statistically dangerous country in the industrialized world in terms of gun violence?  It’s not even close.  Are Australia, Canada, Germany, and other countries statistically safer?  Absolutely.  

Especially from an outsider’s perspective, the US love affair with guns is puzzling and widely viewed as a form of collective insanity.  Aside from presidential talk of “shithole countries” and other insults not likely to be forgotten or forgiven, this is one of the contributing factors to the perception that the US is unsafe and generally unfriendly. 

Whitewashing reality, along with with “thoughts and prayers,” ain’t gonna do the trick.  Those US colleagues who don’t think this is one of a number of factors in the perfect storm (read nightmare) that is international student recruitment for US educational institutions in these turbulent times have their heads buried in the sand, preferring to live in a state of denial.  

world view post iheJust like saying something doesn’t make it so, ignoring or trivializing reality doesn’t make it any less real and threatening.  Speaking of which, you might be interested in reading a blog post entitled #YouAreWelcomeWhere? A Call to Action, which I wrote for The World View, sponsored by the Boston College Center for International Higher Education and hosted by Inside Higher Ed.  

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Study in the USA: A Service Sector Export That No Longer Sells Itself

This matter-of-fact assertion does not (and should not) come as a surprise to US colleagues who recruit internationally.  Here’s a recent story that inspired this post, so to speak, plus a heartfelt appeal. 


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Photo courtesy of EducationUSA

I noticed that a number of students had applied to, been admitted by, and received visas to attend a particular school in the US.  This interest was the result of a couple of public events and, of course, what the school has to offer, including solid academics and attractive scholarships for qualified and deserving students. 

Amazingly, there would have been one more student but she withdrew her application because of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on 14 February 2018 in Parkland, Florida.  Her parents decided not to send her to study in the US.  (Maybe the USA’s loss is Canada’s gain, in this case?)  So, yes, safety, as an essential element of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, is a primary concern among parents, as it is for all of us.  The writing is on the recruitment wall and those of us who help international students study in the US ignore it at our collective peril.

While the number of young Vietnamese studying in the US is still healthy, these cases give one pause. You might say that this one student is insignificant because there were 31,613 Vietnamese students in the US, as of March 2018, but there are signs that others are following suit.  For example, there are about 15,000 Vietnamese students in Canada, nearly half as many as there are in the US, a country with nine times the population and thousands more educational institutions. 

Remarkably, Vietnamese students had the highest percentage increase in 2017 at 89%, making Viet Nam the fastest growing market in the country.  Canada is now a top five host country for Vietnamese students, after Japan, the USA, and Australia, followed by China. 

While US education, both secondary and postsecondary, is still a brand, it no longer sells itself.  Current news, e.g., the mass shooting du jour, a relatively high student visa denial rate, the latest policy announcement to require social media information from all visa applicants for the past five (5) years, the latest missile strike, and a roiling cauldron of perceptions (and misperceptions) can have a decisive impact on where a young person studies.

Do You Have Any I HEART Vietnamese Students Stories? 

I’ve heard stories from many colleagues about how much they value and appreciate Vietnamese students, not only for the financial contributions they make to their host institution and the communities in which they are located, but their academic performance, their integration into the campus community, their leadership qualities, and their positive attitude.

I would like ask those of you who have worked with Vietnamese students and have such a story share it with me in a 750-word essay, including photos and quotes, if possible.  I will take some of these essays and incorporate material into an article about Vietnamese students.  I would also like to translate some into Vietnamese and share them widely. By doing this, you will be helping to promote study in the USA in Viet Nam and, indirectly, promoting your institution.  Now more than ever is the time to show them (more) love.

Please contact me at markashwill[AT]capstonevietnam.com, if you’re interested in contributing an essay.

Peace, MAA

Set Thine House in Order

America’s Love Affair with Guns & the Potential Impact on International Student Recruitment

We have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere in the world.

US President Barack Obama

Exceptional indeed.  Another day in the US, another mass shooting.  Aside from the tragic fact that another 14 innocents were slaughtered and 17 people injured, physically and psychologically, in an attack at a San Bernadino center for people with developmental disabilities, no less, and all of the pain and sadness that entails, including the psychic suffering that survivors and their family members will have to endure for the rest of their lives, there is also a ripple effect that spans the globe for those considering the USA as an overseas study destination and those who recruit these students.

The US or Not the US:  Perception & the Element of Chance Trump Reality

maslows hierarchyIn Vietnam, for example, these massacres are reported in the media the same day they occur.  Safety and security, a key component of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which includes five motivational needs, are obvious concerns for parents even without the mass shootings that have become standard fare because the US lacks the political will to address this epidemic of violence.  This is on top of the usual run-of-the-mill violent crime prevalent in certain areas where there is a strong correlation between poverty and such crime, the kind of information included in many international student orientations.

Recently, I have been hearing more questions about personal safety than in the past.  One parent recently chose Canada for her child because of concerns about violence in the US, by which she meant mass shootings as a common occurrence.  Can I assure her that it will not happen to her child? Not with 100% certainty.  With easy access to personal weapons of mass destruction, e.g., military grade assault rifles (as opposed to 18th century muskets) designed to kill large numbers of human beings in a short period of time, it could happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime.  It’s clear the US has long since reached a tipping point. Inaction is still action and one with dire consequences, in this case.

I can only tell a parent that the chances of it happening are slim but, of course, not as slim as in Canada, Australia and other countries that do not have this problem for various reasons, including legislative action taken to prevent such incidents.  Chalk up safety and security as a “selling point” for countries other than the US.

They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love?

gun shutterstock_279383699Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s statement at an early December student convocation at Liberty University, whose motto is Training Champions for Christ Since 1971, is not the solution and only serves to pour more rhetorical gasoline on an already raging fire.

“If some of those people in that community center had what I have in my back pocket right now …,” he said while being interrupted by louder cheers and clapping. “Is it illegal to pull it out? I don’t know,” he said, chuckling.

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Long-Term Impact?

This orgy of violence and anti-Muslim sentiment and actions fueled by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Donald Trump have the potential of making it increasingly difficult to “sell” US higher education abroad, one service sector export I am proud to promote. (Update:  Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. endorses Trump.  Two peas in a pod.)  While I know that the issue of international students studying in the US is not a high priority in the wake of the latest mass shooting du jour, it could very well have a decidedly negative impact on the status of the United States as the world’s leading host of international students and an industry that contributed $30.5 billion to the US economy, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

MAA