The US Could Do Much Better for its Citizens, Starting with Keeping them from Being Shot

by Neil H. Buchanan

It was only five days ago that the news broke of the shooting at Michigan State, in which 3 students died immediately and 5 others were seriously injured.  Today, that story is completely missing from the news sources that I monitor.  It is old news, and by the standards of the US, that incident is sadly (but frankly) not especially notable.

As frequent readers of Dorf on Law know, my academic and professional commitments have changed in the last decade.  In particular since I accepted a position at the University of Florida's Levin College of law four years ago, my work has called on me to do a great deal of foreign travel.  This involves the usual academic trips to attend conferences for a few days, but it also includes spending weeks or months at a time as a visiting scholar at foreign universities.  I am on sabbatical this semester, and I chose to spend part of the time living in Amsterdam and doing my research independently, before resuming my standard pattern for the next two months, in this case by visiting universities in New Zealand and Australia.

When I am on these trips, there is a constant stream of news from home about mass shootings, many of them at colleges and universities.  Unsurprisingly, I sit up and take notice.  Until I followed up on the Michigan State story to write this column, I had not known that the shooting happened while a class was in session, with the professor seeing a masked gunman walk into the lecture hall and open fire on his students.  I have had precisely that nightmare vision when thinking about the trend of violence in my country.  Coldblooded killing is always tragic, but there is no denying that we take special notice when it feels most salient, as if it could be us.

What do I, as an American spending long stretches of time abroad, take away from all of this -- not only in this most troubling trend of American exceptionalism regarding off-the-charts gun deaths, but more generally regarding life in the US as opposed to life in its peer countries?

Two weeks ago, after I spent a few days in the UK to give a talk at the University of Nottingham and to meet with co-authors elsewhere in England, I wrote a couple of Dorf on Law columns comparing two once-great nations (the UK and the US), both of which are feeling the effects of decades of neoliberal-fueled decline.  While the US's aggregate economic numbers are currently pretty good, whereas the UK's are terrible, both countries are falling apart in the face of growing inequality and increasingly open bigotry.  Brexit and Trumpism are not the same thing, except that they are.  The clown car of Tory leadership merely looks like the Republican Party, but driving on the left side of the road.

Where those two countries differ, of course, boils down to one word: guns.  Like every country other than the US, the UK has long been sane when it comes to severely limiting the availability of weapons of death.  It is a big story when a British MP is stabbed to death, as it should be.  And in one case, the killer did indeed use a gun (as well as a knife), but no one there responded by saying that everyone at campaign rallies should pack heat.

The murder rate in the US is four times that in the UK.  Although New Zealand's intentional homicide rate (2.6 per hundred thousand) is relatively high by the standards of similar countries, it is only forty percent of the rate in the US (6.5).  The other countries in which I have recently spent extended time have much lower rates: Australia (0.9), Austria (0.7), Canada (2.0), Ireland (0.7), and the Netherlands (0.6).  I do not feel less free in any of these countries, to say the least.  And my colleagues in non-US universities do not worry that their universities might be the sites of the next mass killings.

Beyond this extreme kind of violence, however, it is notable just how much calmer people seem to be in these other countries.  There is an entire meme culture in the US based on the question: Am I the asshole? There are certainly a few a-holes in other countries, but the vibe simply does not produce and reinforce the same kind of toxic US bro-style confrontation anywhere that I have spent time.  And this carries over to things like driving, with the very idea of pedestrians finding themselves in serious danger from cars in a place like Amsterdam being unthinkable.  (Weirdly, the only negative interaction between a driver and a pedestrian that I have witnessed here happened to me.  The angry driver who stopped to yell at me for existing was ... a Brit.  As I said: Weird.)  Indeed, the action here for pedestrians is all about dodging bicyclists.

To be sure, I am sharing anecdotes, but the data back me up.  In addition to those murder rates, the US's death rates for cycling and pedestrians are far higher than in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark.  Moreover, the US is the only one of those comparable countries in which the pedestrian death rate has actually risen in recent years.  It is not, therefore, merely that I am living in the Dutch equivalent of the Upper West Side.  These are dramatic national differences.

And speaking of Manhattan, even though the crime rate there is quite low by both historical and within-US comparative standards, I would still hesitate to walk at night through Central Park, even to this day.  My Amsterdam apartment is steps away from Vondelpark, and I would never hesitate for a moment to walk there.  Indeed, people are biking, running, walking their dogs (off-leash!), and living the good life there at all times of the day and night.

Meanwhile, I honestly cannot keep straight the mass killings in the US, even the most recent ones.  To remind myself of a shooting at a college that I could only vaguely remember from a few months ago, I just now typed "shootings at the uni" into Google.  Before I could even finish typing the fourth word, the following list popped up: "... university of Virginia," "... university of Idaho," "... university of Arizona," "... university of Texas," "university of Iowa," and "university of Alabama."  I think -- but I am honestly not sure -- that it was the Idaho incident that I was trying to remember.  And of course, any college or university (like Michigan State) that does not begin "university of ..." is not on that list.

How much is it worth not to have to worry about that?  More broadly, how much is it worth to live in a place that is walkable, clean, and vibrant?  People tend to think that the European cities that are currently known for being highly livable were always this way, but that is simply not true.  Amsterdam, for example, turned itself from a car-oriented city into a pedestrian- and bike-dominated city through planning and massive infrastructure improvements.

Actually, I lied when I wrote above that I had only seen one negative traffic interaction in my time here.  The other day, a bicycle delivery person was (quite justly) berating a van driver for trying to use the bike lanes.  Why do bike lanes exist (everywhere) in this city?  They were not inherited from the Golden Age or bequeathed by the Dutch masters.  Cities like this happen on purpose, and many of the people who made them happen are still alive today.  Meanwhile, Amsterdam and cities like it are getting "awesomer" even as we Americans cannot figure out that building more highways is only making things worse.

This requires money, but it pays off.  In the 2016 primaries, Hillary Clinton's campaign predictably red-baited Bernie Sanders for identifying himself as a democratic socialist.  Sanders pointed to Denmark as a high-tax country that clearly has not suffered from low economic growth.  All Clinton could do was smirk and say that the US is not comparable to a tiny country like Denmark.

I miss home.  I also worry about it.  What seems insurmountable there has been surmounted elsewhere.  Every country has its faults, and the US is not beyond hope.  But if the US wants to be "the greatest country the world has ever known" -- as almost every American politician likes to claim -- it needs to look around and notice that there are a lot of countries that are outperforming us.

And I have not even talked about health care, which is simply too depressing to add to the conversation at this point.

In any event, it is now after dark.  Time for a brisk, safe walk.