Non-Americans tend to view the heated debate about gun control in the United States with disbelief. DW correspondent Ines Pohl hit the streets of Washington D.C. to better understand people on both sides of the issue.
"You Germans of all people should understand us. We don't want the government to take our guns away and control us and know who has a weapon. They want to make us so weak that we can no longer defend ourselves."
Dan Dearing is standing in front of the White House. It's cold and dark, but he wanted to stretch his legs after a long day of conferences. He comes from Arizona, where he works on "immigration issues," and is here in the capital to better inform himself. He doesn't want to elaborate. Dan is one of countless lobbyists that you meet routinely in Washington.
I meet him on the day of President Barack Obama's announcement of executive action on gun control. Obama is seeking to expand the system of background checks on people who buy guns, and prevent people suffering from mental illness from being able to easily obtain deadly weapons.
On average, around 90 people die every day in the United States in gun violence, almost as many as die in traffic accidents. There are more than 200 million pistols and rifles in private hands in the US, a country with 320 million people. That makes it the country with the highest density of weapons.
'Man, horse, guns'
"I don't think that Europeans will ever really understand our American culture," said Sam Fulwood III. As a member of the liberal think tank, the Center for American Progress, one might think he works for the gun lobby with a statement like that. But the opposite is true.
He is working for clear limits and better controls. "More weapons means more deadly violence," he said. And yet, he has little hope that there will be any fundamental change to US gun laws. Not just because the weapons industry is so strong, but also because gun control is a matter of national identity. "America is based on three pillars: Man, horse, gun. That's what people needed to ride from Virginia into the West to settle new land. If you want to understand the American psyche, you need to watch ‘High Noon.' That pretty much says it all," said Fullwood.
Now that the election campaign is heating up, the anti-government voices are getting ever louder. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are masters at condemning everything that comes out of Washington, using a simple argument: Since the state is invasive and evil, we have to protect individual liberty at any price. The candidates use such rhetoric to invoke the myths of America's founding. The pilgrims fled a country that wanted to forbid their religion. And Americans were only able to defeat the British and win the War of Independence because they were armed. And anyway, the US Constitution protects the right to bear arms.
'Just like in a good family'
Falls Church is an affluent suburb of Washington, just over the state line in Virginia. Here, in the second floor of a quaint, white wooden house is "The Gun Dude." Flags above the entrance and rainbow stickers on the door signal that gays and lesbians are welcome. The shop brews its own brand of coffee, but its main business is selling weapons.
"We want to be a community where people care about each other, and treat each other with respect, just like in a good family. You're free, but you look out for one another," said Josh Karrasch, who's been operating the store with his brother for a year. Karrasch listened to snippets of Obama's speech on gun control. "Of course I'm in favor of background checks for people who are buying guns." And since he takes orders online, that's already part of his job, as is contacting the police about certain potential customers. He has a special license that allows him access to official data. If, during the course of a background check, he finds that a customer is wanted or has a criminal record, he has to inform the authorities. "In that case, we don't go through with the sale."
So why is he critical of Obama's plan for new background check requirements? "We Americans have a problem with trusting Washington," he said. "After all, we were only able to gain independence because we were armed, back then at the time of the Revolution."
But does he really think that Obama wants to take away Americans' constitutional rights?
"Maybe he doesn't want to, but you don't know what's going to come next. We've seen that in other countries. Like Germany. You should know that."
Karrasch is committed to good customer service. For him, that means wanting the best for each customer. "The store is full every time there's a mass shooting, including after the recent San Bernadino terrorist incident." He takes time for his customers, and gives them thorough consultations. He says he's noticed more and more women coming in to buy guns. "Not just to keep in their purses, but proper guns, to learn how to shoot." They can do so at "The Gun Dude" which offers regular trainings.
Does anything ever go wrong?
"A few months ago, one of our customers killed himself with the gun that he bought here. That was tough."
But he doesn't think Obama will succeed in implementing regulations that would prevent people suffering from mental illness from buying guns. "How is that supposed to work? I went through a really rough time after my divorce. Should that always be in my records and mean that I would never again be allowed to carry a weapon? That would go against our constitution."
Karrasch would prefer a system where people who are not well could hand over their weapons for a certain period. "That's what I did. My brothers kept my guns for me for a while," he said.
He wishes that more gun dealers would follow his and his brothers' example. "Not every responsible American should own a gun, but every American that owns a gun should treat it responsibly." He says it's up to every gun dealer, gun owner, as well as the community, to ensure that happens. "But not the people in Washington. It's not their job, and it will never be their job."