No Guns, No Fear: Why Oxford Feels so Safe to an American Exchange Student

TW: Gun Violence, School Shootings

 

On Wednesday, the 2nd of November, Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. This ruling came four years after Cruz shot and killed 14 students and three teachers in 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School (Parkland, South Florida). 

I was a sophomore in a public U.S. high school when the Parkland shooting took place. Now, in my third year of my undergraduate degree, I can confidently affirm that nothing has changed: there have been 133 school shootings in the U.S. since 2018. Outside school grounds, there’s still the threat of gun violence and mass shootings everywhere: nightclubs, churches, music festivals, or even the grocery store. Even in the home, there’s the possibility of domestic gun violence or unintentional shootings. A third of U.S. homes with children have guns, and from 2015-2020, there were 2,000 unintentional shootings by children. 

 

Since I was educated under the constant threat of gun violence, bombing, and assault, I’m used to practicing extra security measures, like active shooter drills and avoiding certain areas when the sun goes down. I’m privileged to have never experienced a mass shooting, or losing a loved one to gun violence. However, when the threat of such a powerful and lethal weapon was such a central part of my upbringing (as it is for most young people in the U.S.), it inevitably brings up a lot of anxiety. 

So, when I came to Oxford for a year abroad, the most “culturally shocking” part of England was not the people, food, or the direction of traffic, but the absence of this paranoia and anxiety.

To be clear, I’m still extremely vigilant about threats of sexual violence, hate crimes, physical assault and theft – these will be issues no matter where I travel. However, without the constant threat of gun violence and the possibility that almost anyone might be carrying a lethal weapon (and in public, in all 50 states), this fear is much more rational and manageable. While there have still been incidents of gun violence in England, policy reform has made its threat much more contained and improbable. 

To understand gun policies in the U.K., I traced a rather devastating parallel between responses to school shootings in the U.S. versus the U.K. Since the fatal Dunblane primary school massacre in 1996, there has not been a single school shooting in the U.K. Parliament banned private ownership of most handguns, banned semi-automatic weapons, and instituted mandatory registration for shotgun owners through the Firearms Amendment (No.2) Act of 1997. In 2018, a group of Dunblane survivors and their families wrote an open letter to the Parkland survivors, issuing a push for hope. Unfortunately, the U.S. is operating under a very different group of politicians. Although the majority of Americans favor gun reform “common sense” laws, Republican senators are incredibly reluctant to support these proposals. Ironically, many of them have proposed that to combat gun violence in schools, teachers ought to possess their own firearms as a line of defense. 

 

Since I’ve gotten rather pessimistic about gun reform in the U.S., I never imagined how different my life and education would be without firearms. As a student at Oxford, I’ve realized that learning in a safe environment makes an extraordinary difference. Although guns and education should never be associated with each other, they preoccupy many discussions in U.S. schools. When students spend their time in the classroom wondering about their escape plan, chronically stressing over the possibility of a shooting, and feeling unsafe in a seemingly “safe” institution, thriving in the classroom becomes a difficult task. If students aren’t plagued by a surge “in depression, anxiety, and suicides,” they can go emotionally numb (American Psychological Association). 

I hadn’t realized how stressed and hyper aware I still was over gun violence until I came to Oxford. Places I’d typically avoid because of their association with gun violence – such as parks, open public areas, even the sidewalk late at night (for fear of drive-by shootings) – are no longer a glaring threat. In school, I find myself feeling extremely comfortable studying and interacting with other people. Many of these factors have helped make my integration into the Oxford student body much smoother. My focus on my education and my will to travel and explore has never been more passionate. 

While I’m sure there are multiple factors contributing to the overwhelming safety I feel in Oxford, I am certain that the absence of guns is a leading one.

For all of the differences between the U.S. and the U.K., they are far more similar than I anticipated – but the glaring absence of guns and the threat of gun violence is by far one of the distinguishing characteristics. Although I’ve only been studying at Oxford for a little over a month, my experience so far has revealed much more to me about guns in the U.S. than I ever learned while living there.

 

Image description: A sign indicating no guns

Image credit: Scott Beale via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)