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Can't You Read the Signs?

Cars, guns, values, the US Constitution... like a yellow traffic light, their meaning and importance, relative to oneself, is open to interpretation.

In reading Bill Bryson’s marvelous book of columns, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, about the wonder and strangeness of the United States from the perspective of an ex-pat who’d returned after 20 years living in England, I came across two astonishing statistics in two separate columns (I’ve updated them here). They got me thinking a lot more about the strangeness than the wonder of this country.

Statistic #1: There were approximately 240 million cars in the United States in 2005.

Statistic #2 (2005): There were approximately 240 million guns in the United States in 2005.

Kind of gives new meaning to the phrase drive-by shooting, doesn’t it?

This near-evenness in the number of cars and guns can’t simply be a coincidence, can it? Maybe there’s some gun tie-in at car dealerships that I’m not aware of. I’m imagining that it works along the lines of the firearms giveaway at the bank Michael Moore visited in Fahrenheit 9/11 (although that is purported to have been staged for the film – but still, how do people get all those guns?).

Or maybe, without my realizing it, guns have become a standard feature of passenger vehicles, like CD players or passenger-side makeup mirrors or multiple cup holders. At this very moment, there’s probably some grandfatherly gent out there bouncing young Johnny on his knee and regaling him with stories of the ol’ days when you had to roll down the car window to get some air, and drive with a cup of steaming coffee wedged between your thighs, and your glove compartment held -- get this -- just the owner’s operating manual and maybe your car registration, not a Smith & Wesson Model 63 Revolver.

Or maybe cars and guns are simply Americans’ two worst addictions. Recent newsworthy developments highlight the never-ending hold on the American imagination that both cars and guns seem to have, despite the obvious consequences.

On 18 September, the Texas Transportation Institute released its annual study on traffic conditions in the US. The major finding? Traffic congestion continues to worsen in American cities of all sizes. The average peak period traveler spends nearly a full work week stuck in traffic each year (that average work week being 40 hours 40 hours, for those who still enjoy such a luxuriously short work-week). And he or she wastes approximately 26 gallons of fuel at a cost of $710. This amounts to 4.2 billion lost hours and 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel in total, costing the nation an astonishing $78.2 billion, annually.

Just a few days later (and at the same time as the celebration of World CarFree Day), the other American vice was being touted as a virtue at the National Rifle Association convention, held in the nation’s capital. This year’s theme was “Celebrating American Values”. Now, this strikes me as a misnomer or a typo or a grammatical error because the NRA appears to care about one, and only one, supposed American value: the alleged right to bear arms.

As a reminder, the Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Of all amendments to be written ambiguously, why, oh why, did this have to be the one?

But, naturally, there was little ambiguity to be found in the speeches delivered in person or by video by the Republican presidential candidates (and the Democratic candidate Bill Richardson).

Mitt Romney, who’d earlier in the campaign attempted to proved his great love of hunting by asserting, “I've been a hunter pretty much all my life” (but was later discovered to have made only two known trips to hunt…bunnies and quail) called the right to bear arms “a cornerstone of our personal freedom.”

John McCain, partly in reference to Romney’s transparent and continual pandering said, “The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it is about freedom.”

Mike Huckabee aimed straight at the heart of NRA members (who knew?!) by describing one of his most valued possessions: a 20-gauge shotgun that his father gave him, and which he hopes to pass along to his children someday.

Fred Thompson pulled out the big guns by claiming, "I think we're winning on the interpretation of the Second Amendment."

Only Rudy Guliani offered a more nuanced view, emphasizing the need for stricter enforcement of gun control laws. Yet, he just couldn’t resist tying 9/11 into the gun ownership issue, saying that his views have been shaped by his years as a prosecutor and a mayor, and even by 9/11, which “puts a whole different emphasis on what America has to do to protect itself.”

Huh? Is he saying people should keep a personal handgun in their night table drawer because a terrorist might break into their home and force them to renounce the gas guzzlin’, gun totin’ American way of life?

Nah, nothing could get Americans to do that.

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