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Is it Safe?

I am often asked when people hear that I am traveling to Uganda whether or not it is safe. There seems to be a prevailing misperception that African countries are dangerous, especially more dangerous than high-income countries in the West. Lately, I have been struck by the hypocrisy of US citizens questioning public safety in other countries. Not only does the US suffer more deaths at the hands of guns than all other countries of similar socio-economic status, but our gun violence statistics compare with some of the most politically unstable countries in the world and we repeatedly suffer many times more indiscriminate mass shootings than any other country
 
There are guns in Uganda. You often see automatic assault rifles casually slung over the shoulder of security guards, police and military personal throughout the cities. However, in Uganda there simply isn’t the same level of civilian gun ownership or firearm availability as we have here in the US. In all my time in Uganda, I have heard gunshots once. I was sitting on the balcony of the Days Inn Hotel in Lira this past June, late in the night when sharp pops broke the silence. My friends and I, conditioned for the state of gun violence present in the US, assumed the worst, panicked, and retreated into our hotel rooms. In the morning we sought to find out what happened and were informed by the (very nonchalant) staff at the hotel that police had fired warning shots to prevent violence between a shop owner and a homeless youth that was suspected of shoplifting. No one was injured. Not only were our fears of gun violence wrong, but the presence of a police force in the area that is alert and responsive helped to quelle our anxiety for the remainder of our stay. 
 
This month in Gilroy, California, El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, many people heard that same sound. Just as in Uganda, the police response was quick and decisive. But, in Dayton alone, 9 people were killed within seconds. The fact is, the availability of powerful weaponry in the United States makes it more dangerous here than many of us care to admit. People (think Neil deGrasse) like to argue that because mass shootings make up so little of daily deaths, even in relation to ALL deaths at the hands of firearms, that the problem is not worth addressing. Maybe banning assault weapons won’t be the end all for gun violence, and maybe the total amount of lives lost to firearms will barely be decreased, but why should we not take all sensible steps we can to save lives and communities when we have that power? How many people, including young children, would be alive today had these weapons been kept out of the hands of those who least deserved them over the past decade? It seems even one of these lives is worth sensible restrictions on gun ownership. 
 
The fact is, firearms in this country are enabling domestic terrorism, turning us into targets and making us fearful of living in our own communities. Both Uruguay and Venezuela have recently issued travel warnings to their citizens planning to travel to the United States, citing indiscriminate violence, especially against minority groups, and the government’s inability to control the situation given widespread civilian ownership of firearms. In remaining idle while gun culture ravages our country, the US appears less and less as an international symbol of freedom and opportunity, and more as the home of machine gun fanatics whose obsession renders us complacent in the face of great danger and tragedy. So, before we are quick to judge other countries, let’s ask ourselves how do we fix our shooting epidemic at home?
 
There is sufficient evidence from around the world regarding what can be done to address the gun violence problem. Countries like Australia, in the wake of great tragedy, have taken significant strides to ensure the future safety of their citizens, with measurable success. Unfortunately, many in the US have the hubris to claim that solutions that have proven effective in other countries would not succeed to reduce gun violence here. Such claims gain traction among those who have never travelled abroad, know very little of other countries, and under-estimate just how much we share, especially with countries in Africa (such as Uganda) and Asia. Without this experience, they are fearful and assume ‘exotic’ foreign places must be worse off than their own communities. I believe it is not until we explore the world outside our own that we discover that some of the world’s greatest horrors don’t find sanctuary abroad, but reside within our very own cities, streets, and homes. It is then that we finally accept to learn from others. 

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