I was buying tickets at a water park earlier this summer when I noticed the sticker on the ticket window: a gun in the middle of a circle with a red line through it. It looked like a “no parking” sign. Those stickers are everywhere in the state of Illinois, in the so-called heartland of the United States, where fields planted with corn and soybeans stretch for miles and fluffy green trees make summer canopies across small town streets.
In Illinois, it is illegal to carry a gun openly, although it is possible to apply for a concealed carry licence. But if you have the requisite licence in 13 states, you can carry a gun openly – and in more than 30 states, open carry is legal even without a special licence.
According to pro-gun activists, business owners who try to keep their premises gun-free with signs and stickers like the one I saw at the water park are creating “disarmed victim zones”, a rhetorical sleight of hand that illustrates the depth of the country’s obsession to firearms.
The gun madness that saturates the US means that when we go to the movies in America, my older son does a careful survey of where the cinema exits are, “just in case”.
That my children feel safer in Abu Dhabi than they do in the US seems terribly ironic because when we first moved to Abu Dhabi nearly eight years ago, people asked me if I were going to be safe “over there”.
Now, however, almost no one asks me that question, in part because the US has no claim on safety. There have been nearly 9,000 gun-related deaths this year – and it’s only August. How can there be 9,000 deaths in a country that is not at war? Or should we consider the US a country at war with itself?
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Our day at the water park passed without anything more violent than a splashing fight in the wave pool, but the no-guns sticker made me wonder: why would anyone want to bring a gun to a water park in the first place?
Do you just toss it into the swim bag next to the sunscreen, a shady hat and a bottle of water? Is that the dreadful logic behind wanting to create guns from 3-D printers – so that you can create a plastic gun that you can take down the waterslide with you and then if necessary enforce your place in the queue for the lazy river ride?
Once I started noticing them, I saw those no-guns stickers everywhere, even on the doors of Chicago airport – and again, I had to wonder. Does anyone think it’s a good idea to have a gun in an airport, particularly in the US, where the indignities and injustices of domestic air travel could drive the calmest person on the planet crazy?
And what happens when 3-D guns become available? The Trump administration decided, earlier this summer, that the templates to print 3-D guns could be made available online, despite the fact that those plastic guns could well be undetectable in airport security.
That means all those disgruntled travellers you see arguing with airline clerks about their missed connections and lost luggage could be carrying small pistols. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
Luckily, a federal court judge blocked the Trump administration's decision but the company that wants to distribute the plans says that the files have already been downloaded more than a million times. A million times, downloaded from anywhere: a little gun, made from the same plastic used for Lego. Almost a toy, like a mini Nerf-gun, except that this toy kills.
I don't know if the federal court decision will be itself overturned. By the time that happens, if it happens, I will be back in the safety of Abu Dhabi. But in a world where you could print a gun off the internet, there are going to be fewer places on the planet that are truly safe.
Deborah Williams is an associate professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi