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February 12, 2014

RON du BOIS: A Canadian’s brush with America’s gun culture in Florida

STILLWATER, Okla. — Traveling from Stillwater to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, is a bit arduous but once there well worth it.

It’s straight north of Oklahoma. This summer my wife and I visited Canadian relatives as we have for decades. I found myself on the porch of my relative’s cottage facing Lake Winnipeg. Wildlife is abundant, the air and water pure. Along with the family chit-chat we discussed both Canada and the United States in terms of mindset, values and culture. I thought of the words of Stanford professor Elliot Eisner, “Everyone is born with brains, but the mind is a cultural achievement." 

Eventually, among other important issues on which Canadians and Americans disagree, we came to gun control. He mentioned Canada like every other industrialized nation does not have a second amendment, i.e., the constitutional right that most Americans interpret as the right of every citizen to bear arms. Yet, I thought, how many Americans understand that such a right is peculiar and unique to the U.S. ?

He recounted the story of a visit to Florida that he and his wife made several years ago. His story as I remember it is as follows:

A few years ago my wife and I, both Canadians, traveled from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, to Florida, U.S.A., for a short golf holiday. One evening,  we ate in a restaurant that was popular with the locals. The food was good and the place was busy. Before we left a man with an intense manner came over to talk to us.

He started by saying in a friendly manner that he noticed we were not from the area. He asked, “What do you think of Florida? As a polite Canadian, I stated that we found it very agreeable. He then suggested that I probably envied Americans and wished that I could live in the U.S. as well.

Before I had a chance to answer he said that he felt the biggest advantage over Canadians was that he could carry a concealed weapon for protection. In fact, he said, he happened to be carrying his gun at that very moment.

He even showed me his gun permit!

He expressed concern that Canadians were not allowed to carry firearms over the border.

As he warmed to the subject I was amazed. I realized that I was in the middle of an unforgettable cross-cultural experience. As a Canadian I struggled with the challenge of how to de-escalate the situation calmly.   

Then he played his trump card. He offered to show me his gun!

I had no wish to see his concealed hand gun (handguns are out-lawed in Canada) but didn’t want to offend him.

I politely declined his offer. I said I had every reason to believe he had the gun and needed no further proof.

He seemed to accept my explanation, but remained tense. He reverted back to his view about how envious I must be of him and his family and how I as a Canadian must yearn to live in these parts or anywhere in the USA for that matter.

My read on him at this time was that I was talking to a person with mental illness … I had to agree with him or things could really go off the rails. I knew I had to come up with something that he could accept without losing integrity either for myself or Canada. It couldn’t be a lie or misrepresent Canada. 

Then the words came to me. Without hesitation I said to him that I knew how much he valued his country and the fact that he was born in the USA.

I also got him to agree that one of the main reasons he loved the place was that his roots were there including family and friends.

I then said I did not want to offend him but I hoped he realized that I was born in Canada and made my home there with my family and friends … that it was equally important to me to want to remain where my heart was. Again I emphasized what a wonderful place Florida was.

He looked me over carefully and appeared to buy my story. Suddenly we were bosom friends!

He expressed his wish that I and my wife would visit a backwoods fish camp for a few beers and the best fish fry anyone could  have. I politely declined with the truth that we were leaving early next morning.

He gave me his business card urging me to contact him … so that on our next trip we could do the fish camp.

We shook hands and parted friends.

Later I read his card and saw he was a certified public accountant. As I thought about our chance encounter I wondered how it added up in the understanding of strict gun control in Canada, as compared to fanatic opposition in the U.S. under the sway of the second amendment and the NRA, both of which are non-existentant in Canada.

I also thought about the words of Sen. William Fulbright’s wife who said when she spoke at OSU years ago, “We can no longer afford dogmatic ideologies, we can no longer afford looking through the keyhole rather than walking through the door for the full view … our future is in our own minds and hearts.”

Ron du Bois is a professor emeritus of art at Oklahoma State University.

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