Firenze: A Different Life, Part I

We’ve been living in Italy for a little over a year now. A lot has happened, and much has become clear. I have a series of cultural observations in mind that have been percolating, and today is the first one in the series.

I am not afraid of being shot in Italy.

We moved here from Oklahoma in 2016. Oklahoma is a very gun-friendly state that has allowed open carrying of guns since 2012, and which recognizes as valid any gun license from any other state. It was a common enough thing when I was growing up in Oklahoma that people had guns around, or went hunting.

I will confess here that as a teenager I had an episode on the banks of the Cimarron River playing with firearms north of the county line that I’m frankly surprised I survived (sorry Mom).

We never had guns in the home, and my family are not hunters.

I heard a lot of rhetoric from my male peers in Oklahoma, especially in high school and college, along the lines of you don’t understand, Monica; guns are a part of my life. They are a part of our life. You think guns are bad and they’re not. In my high school there was a senior who had to have been about 19 who sold guns, including sawed-off shotguns, from the back of his truck in the school parking lot. He was never arrested or asked to stop selling guns in the school parking lot; he just did it. This can’t have been legal and yet it was something we all joked about.

In the eighties and nineties, however, what you didn’t see in Oklahoma was people openly carrying guns. In public. In completely unnecessary situations, like picking up a toddler from daycare. In a store. At Starbucks. This made me feel unsafe. To me, carrying a firearm seems a bit like drinking, in the same way that drinking impairs a person’s judgment about their judgment. After a second glass of wine, or when you’re toting around your gun, you think your judgement is fine – but it is not.

If you find yourself in a dispute, the gun is at the ready for you to pull on someone, as a parent did recently at a Target store in America over school supplies. As a man did to the wife of one of our former faculty colleagues in Oklahoma at a Starbucks. You’re just going through your day, and then a gun is in your face, and the person holding it has not thought things through very far, in either direction.

It was a significant aspect of the dominant culture in which I chose to not participate. And yet, I was forced to participate in gun culture, on many levels and without my consent, due to the participation of so many people who create and foment gun culture.

The daycare guns were what killed me. The staff in Oklahoma laughed when they told me the stories of mothers picking up their children from Victor and Eleanor’s daycare, patting their pistol on their hip, and reminding their children, Don’t hug mommy on this side, it’s her gun side, it is loaded.

People. This is madness.

I asked the daycare to please set a policy that parents could not carry guns into the school unless they were a uniformed officer. I stood in the office and asked them repeatedly and calmly. I followed up with an email. They avoided the question for a while, and then returned with some “research.” The school refused to do so since state law permitted it.
But this is private property! I said. You can make your own rules!
But it will upset the parents who want to carry their guns to school, they said. We follow state law here.
I said, but state law does not say they HAVE to carry their guns everywhere.
But parents want to, and they can. We won’t make the rule that you propose.
This was in our top choice daycare, in a town where the waiting list lasted four years to get in, where there was no other place for our kids to go. I was beside myself. In a culture that does not recognize or support working mothers, childcare demand outstrips supply many times over. (More on that in a later post.)

Three times that year before we left, our children’s school or Jason’s campus was in lockdown for gun-related violence. Each time, I spent the day with sweaty palms, the taste of adrenaline thick on my tongue, to get them or not to get them? But in a lockdown, you cannot get them. That’s the point of a lockdown.

This was not like a tornado, a menace from nature. The gun menace is made by humans, those lockdowns and the violence and loss of life.

I reject the logic that says I should have bought my own gun, and trained on it.

Uh, no. That is the last thing I want to do. I do not want a gun. I do not want to carry it. I do not want it in my house. 

To many people in Oklahoma, this seemed like a logical choice that I stubbornly refused to accept. Actually, y’all know what? We could leave this place and move to ….

Italy.

Guns are sensibly controlled here. Getting a firearm license is akin to getting a driver’s license, with a medical exam, eye exam, insurance. It expires regularly. There is no conceal or open carry for citizens. I do not know that I have even seen the carabinieri (federal police) armed, although they do have smart uniforms featuring white leather accessories. But I am never, ever worried that someone is going to get out of hand in Italy and pull a gun on me. I have been able to completely put this fear to rest.

This results in a civil society. I feel so much less like a lab rat on a stress test. Shouting matches do not escalate into death, at least not on the streets of Firenze. No one is going to pull out a Glock because I grabbed the last copy of a new book in Feltrinelli. No one is going to point a gun at me because I said something about his dog in a coffeeshop.

The gun culture in Oklahoma was killing me. Every day, in every way, I was reminded how my right to live in a safe and civil society and without fear of harm was trumped by the rights of others to openly carry their weapons wherever they pleased. It’s governed by macho, and might makes right. They are no trophy hunters in Oklahoma, either; not like up north, in Michigan or Wisconsin, dead bloody ten-point buck tied to the front fender, staring blindly ahead. I disagree with sport hunting too, but at least it’s a sport. Kind of.

There is nothing at all sporty about getting drunk and driving your pickup truck around, aiming a gun out the window to shoot at mailboxes, or to shoot beer cans off a stump, or to shoot aimlessly into a choked red river. What a constitutional right to protect. What idiocy.

My transition from open gun culture to controlled gun culture plays out in amusing ways on the playground in Italy. The first few times I saw kids with toy guns in Piazza d’Azeglio I thought I was going to have a cardiac. My cultural conditioning screamed, get down! Those are real! But of course they weren’t. Yet my amygdala did not know that. Of course in Italy toy guns for children may look as realistic as possible, because the alternative reality of actual children holding actual loaded guns is impossible. The Italian children happily ran around the playground with their very realistic toy guns, and not a single parent twitched. I remembered all the specialized vocabulary that some parents friends of ours had – we call it a shooter, not a gun. The rules – do not ever point it at anyone’s head, or at anything with eyes, no guns for birthday presents, no play guns when they visit.

In a perfect world, kids would not have toy guns at all. But in a decent world, there is no question about the realness of the guns. I’ll take a decent world anyday. That world in Oklahoma, with all the open guns? That is a mad world. It is uncivil. And that is a part of Oklahoma that I am not at all sad to have left behind.