The bullets from Las Vegas Sunday could be heard 6,000 miles away here in Rome. They sounded a little louder above the bank of the Tiber River where I stared at my computer and saw the crude videos shot by terrified concert goers. Mass shootings in the United States don’t normally make me sit upright anymore. I’m an American. Mass shootings happen in America as often as fireworks. According to the non-profit Gun Violence Archive, the updated number of mass shootings, defined by at least four people shot, is 1,516 in 1,735 days. Total dead: 1,714.
But the Las Vegas massacre caught my attention more than others for two reasons: One, the 59 dead, plus more than 500 injured, marked it as the worst in modern U.S. history.
Two, I lived in Las Vegas for 10 years.
I remember nights sitting in the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s sports department from 1980-90 listening to the police radio on a nearby desk. Seemingly every evening someone who bought a gun to protect themselves from everyone else who had a gun was shooting an ex-loved one. Gang members killed other gang members for crossing the wrong street. Most of the murders never even made our front page.
Meanwhile, here in Italy I looked up how many gun massacres the country has had since, oh, say, 1966.
That’s right. Niente. Nein. Nyet. Not even one.
I’ve written before about Rome’s relatively safe streets. Last year I took a police ride and compared some frightening but revealing statistics. Three years ago, according to City.Data.com, the U.S. had 33,169 people die from guns; Italy had 475. Over the last 10 years, Detroit, a city of 200,000, averaged 345 gun deaths. Baltimore a city of 622,000, averaged 234.
ANSA, Italy’s wire service, reported Rome, population 2.6 million, averaged 30.
Between the two cops I rode with last year and three I tagged along with in 2002 for a book chapter, I have interviewed five Rome cops with a combined 70 years of experience. Not one had ever fired a gun. They had only seen one cop shoot one. Why would they?
Hardly anyone else carries a gun, either.
It doesn’t take the brain of a Nobel Peace Prize winner to figure it out — although it may take a brain bigger than the average NRA member. It’s gun laws. Italy’s gun laws are strict; the United States’ are … well, they barely have them.
Thirteen U.S. states don’t even have background checks. The states that require them often take only minutes on a computer to approve. You can buy a gun for as little as $100, making them the cheapest in the world. The U.S. has 54,000 gun stores with 98 percent of the population living within 10 miles of one. Besides, who in America doesn’t live within 10 miles of a Walmart? Yes, you can buy guns there, too. The number of gun shows range from 2,000-5,200 per year. This is a big reason why there is 1.13 guns per every American.
In Italy, these are the requirements:
* Be 18 or over.
* Obtain a shooting safety certificate from a gun safety course.
* Pass a medical exam showing you are mentally sufficient.
* Prove you have a clean record at the police station.
* Register all guns at local police department within 72 hours of purchase.
While you can buy guns in Italy, the types of guns are even more prohibitive. Any military weapons such as assault rifles and machine guns are strictly outlawed. Any rifle made in Italy after 1976 must be identified with a progressive catalog number assigned by a commission composed of police and government officials. All guns must be stored in a locked cabinet. A quick search for “Negozi di pistola Roma” (Gun stores Rome) revealed only 13 in the city. I have that many pizza joints in my neighborhood.
Still, looking at the low number of homicides and limited shopping options, I was surprised to see the number of registered guns in Italy: 7 million. However, if you think about it, in a country of 60 million people, that’s only one for every nine persons. That’s only the ninth highest in Europe and more than 10 times lower than the U.S. That number includes hunting rifles and people with more than one gun.
“You have more possibility to have a terrorist attack here than a mass shooting,” said Sabrina Magris, president of Rome’s Ecole Universitaire Internationale and an expert on anti-terrorism and violence in Italy.
I met Magris, 29, for coffee on Piazza Mattei, ironically in the Jewish Ghetto where, on Oct. 16, 1943, occupying Nazis hauled off 1,000 Jews to concentration camps. Only 16 survived. So Rome knows a little about gun violence and mass death.
The difference is Italy, except for isolated pockets, has no gun culture. Its constitution does not say every person has the right to bear arms. Thus, they don’t. In the U.S., gun owners wrap themselves in the Second Amendment and say it’s not only their right but their obligation to own a gun.
“I do not have a weapon,” said Magris, who grew up in Pordenone near Venice and has lived in Rome three years. “Nor my mother, my father. You don’t need a weapon to be safe in your house.”
Italians, unlike Americans, have learned from their history. After World War II came the mafia wars and the clashes between the Red Brigades and fascists. Italians have had enough. While their level of distrust in their government is among the highest in Europe — look how few Italians pay their taxes — they somehow trust the government to protect them.
Rome is the No. 2 pickpocket capital of the world (behind Barcelona) and sexual assault is a concern, as it is every corner of the world. But gun violence is the least of an Italian’s worry. It helps that the gun laws in Italy are national laws. In the U.S., many guns used in the 762 gun deaths in Chicago last year were bought in from Indiana which has less gun control.
The lack of gun control is thanks to the National Rifle Association, a bigger threat to the U.S. than Isis. It’s an organization so arrogant that it held a rally in Denver the week after two teenagers gunned down 13 people at suburban Columbine High. The NRA has been in bed with as many Republican politicians as $500-a-night call girls but are more morally corrupt. In Italy, the gun lobby consists of a guy named Guido shooting wild boar in Tuscany.
Mattei also says cultural differences extend to the trigger finger.
“A lot of Italians are scared to use a weapon,” she said. “If you buy a weapon or if you have a weapon, it’s not the same as to be able to use it. People buy them to think they are safe. If you are not able to manage a weapon it isn’t easy to shoot.”
Which is somewhat of an argument the NRA has trotted out for years. Guns don’t kill people; people kill people. The problem is with the people, not the guns.
CHE CAZZO! (WHAT THE FUCK!)
If people who murder with guns are deranged and mental illness is the problem in the U.S. and not gun laws, who really thinks Americans are 10 times more crazy than Italians? If mental illness is a bigger problem in the U.S., then why make buying a gun no more difficult than buying George Foreman Grill on your way home from work?
Magris’ point about home safety hits home. The Northern League, Italy’s most far right party, is pushing to give gun owners more rights. Under Italian law, any home owner must prove he’s under serious attack before he can use a weapon but the movement isn’t getting much traction.
In the U.S., the NRA’s need for guns to protect their homes has all the validity of a teenage girl needing a car. I’m 61 years old. I have never in my life heard of one American protecting their home with a gun. Why? Because criminals who invade homes don’t do it when you’re home. They also aren’t armed. They don’t knock on your door and point a gun. They sneak in, rob you and leave.
And if your gun is in a locked cabinet as it should be and not unlocked in your lap, what the hell are you going to do if the thief surprises you? If you keep it in your nightstand drawer, statistics show you have about a 1,000 times more chances of a family member getting shot than any thief. Somehow, some way, the average American gun owner can’t comprehend a simple math equation: the loosest gun laws in the industrialized world equals the most gun deaths in the industrialized world.
It’s all a cop out for a culture that equates gun ownership with patriotism while the rest of the world equates the streets of America with a war zone. The Las Vegas gunman had enough guns to outfit a third world militia and he bought everything legally. I’m sure they were still counting the dead when the NRA started waving the Second Amendment, a rag that was written when Americans used single-gauge rifles and needed them to defend themselves against a government, not each other.
The U.S. Constitution is about the only thing that’s bulletproof in America. But, as so many other countries have done, it needs to be rewritten. As Australian comic Jim Jefferies said, while pointing out Australia hasn’t had a gun massacre since the government outlawed guns following a mass shooting in 1996, “It’s called an amendment!”