A Canadian gets to the U.S. border and is asked if he's carrying any firearms. The surprised Canadian replies, "Of course not." The customs officer hands his gun to the Canadian and says, "Well, you better take mine -- you'll need it down here." The old joke is funny and sad because it's true.
Before moving to California in '93, I worked all over Canada as a standup comic, from Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto to Flin Flon, Thompson and Fort St. John. Even in the roughest bar gigs in front of the drunkest, most aggressive audiences, the thought that someone in the audience might possess a gun never crossed my mind.
When my wife and I moved to California, we were quickly introduced to the American gun culture and my attitude changed. In her first month teaching, two of my wife's middle-school students were gunned down in a parking lot. One dead. One crippled for life.
The same week, I had a chance to see Michael Jordan play in the old Chicago Stadium. I was in line to get a beer when I heard a scuffle followed by the panicked shout. "He's got a gun!" Everyone hit the deck, except me, the naïve Canadian who didn't know the drill. It turned out to be an argument. I'm not sure if there was a gun.
After working at the Laugh Factory in Memphis, I was being paid by the racist woman who ran the club. Sitting on the table as she counted out my cash was a snub-nose .22. She caught me staring at the gun and said in her southern accent. "That there is in case some ***** tries to rob me." I wanted to quip, "White guys get a spanking?" But she did, after all, have a gun.
While working on a talk show in New York, I lived with my friend A. Whitney Brown. Whitney had dubbed himself a "liberal with firearms" and used to say, "At the end of every winning argument is the barrel of a gun." The loaded .357 magnum and .44 that sat ominously on the coffee table made me uncomfortable. I convinced him to put them away in case he mistook me for an intruder, or felt like winning an argument.
Just last month, I sold a trailer to a well-off businessman from Indian Wells, Calif., one of the most affluent cities in the U.S. As we drove to the bank in his brand new Mercedes SUV, I joked that he should ask the teller for all the money. He lifted the lid of the leather console to reveal a nickel-plated .38 and joked, "I'd need this to be taken seriously." He said he kept a gun, "Just in case."
Since the Newtown massacre there have been the usual calls for more gun control and easier access to mental-health care. The NRA has predictably and irrationally called for armed guards in every school and to further its agenda is using the threatening line: "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."
Nothing much will change. Not because the NRA is powerful or that mental-health care is too expensive, but because it would mean changing the collective ethos of the Americans.
Americans own guns like Canadians own skates. While most Americans are responsible gun owners, there are many with a narcissistic, cultish obsession for weapons designed only to kill humans. The gun, for many Americans, has become sacred. It is their Golden Calf.
These gun owners, like the mother and victim of the deranged man who murdered all those innocents, are euphemistically called "enthusiasts."
She purchased guns and introduced them to her children, taking them to the firing range like a hockey mom takes her child to practice. The guns used by the killer were a familiar part of his world and he picked them up that morning like a Canadian kid picks up a hockey stick.
Canadians aren't immune to gun violence and we've had our mass-shooting tragedies. Even though gun ownership is high in Canada, gun crime is still exponentially lower than in the U.S.
Canadians may be owners of guns but it seems that guns have become the owners of Americans.
Bruce Clark is a part-time Winnipegger.