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Commentary: Gun violence in Kansas City, through the eyes of a Bhutanese visitor

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Jae C. Hong
Elena Mendoza, 18, grieves in front of a cross honoring her cousin, Amerie Jo Garza, one of the victims killed in this week's elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, Thursday, May 26, 2022.

A journalist from one of the happiest countries in the world, where people don't need guns, visits the United States during a summer when much of the news is about mass shootings.

I am a journalist visiting the United States for the first time.

After five flights and a nearly 31-hour journey from my home country of Bhutan, I arrived in Columbia, Missouri, on the night of April 23 to begin my Alfred Friendly Press Partners Fellowship.

Through a partnership with the Missouri School of Journalism, the Alfred Friendly program allows journalists from countries where the media is considered “underdeveloped” to spend time in newsrooms across the U.S. so they can learn about journalism here. The fellows in my class came from places like India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Sudan, Russia and Guatemala. I was placed at KCUR for the past three months.

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Courtesy of Chencho Dema
Chencho Dema, center, during the campaign of the former Bhutanese opposition leader Dr. Pema Gyamtsho, right.

I learned one thing, more than anything else, about the United States.

Before I arrived, I knew very little about gun laws and mass shootings in the U.S. What little I knew came from social media and I didn’t bother to know much else. But my perspective changed during my stay in the city. I was shocked when I first heard Dan Margolies, KCUR's health and legal editor who works in a cubicle near mine, tell one of his colleagues about a 14-year-old boy who shot a 19-year-old.

"A 14-year-old boy shot and killed a 19-year-old boy in Kansas City Missouri."

Did I hear that correctly? I had to check to confirm the news. Eventually, six teenagers would be charged in the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old on May 14. As reporters in the KCUR newsroom worked on the story, I was shocked.

In Bhutan, a 14-year-old would probably be in 7th grade playing with toy guns. And here you are saying that a 14-year-old shot someone? It seemed like a scene from a movie.

It’s not possible to buy a gun in my country. If someone wants a gun, they have to import it. Under Bhutan law, a person under the age of 21 is not allowed to import any kind of gun. For those over 21, the procedure to acquire an import license is stringent and depends on why the applicant needs the gun. The 1990 Firearms and Ammunition Act of Bhutan limits the types of arms someone can import to: .22, .25, and .32 caliber handguns; 12 and 16 gauge shotguns; muzzle loading arms; and .22 rifles. After authenticating the case, police issue a permit to import the gun if the applicant provides an airline ticket as proof they are going to said place to purchase the gun.

But in Kansas City, anyone above the age of 18 can buy a gun. And in Missouri a minor can purchase a gun with parental consent. This is crazy.

Bhutan is a peaceful country where you do not need a weapon. In the U.S., you do not need a license to own a gun, but in Bhutan, a person found in possession of a gun without a license can be jailed from one month to five years or fined from 1,000 ngultrum ($13) to 10,000 ($129) or both.

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Courtesy of Chencho Dema
Major Wangdi of the Royal Bhutan Police in Jigmeling, Gelephu.

Police officers in Bhutan have guns, but they do not carry them even when on duty because they do not think it is necessary. The security personnel who stand guard in front of financial institutions carry guns, but they are usually not loaded – they are just to discourage people from robbing them.

Now, I am sure you are wondering how the police do their job without guns? I was asked the same question, and to provide a specific answer, I called one of my friends who is a police officer in Bhutan and asked him if he carries a gun while on duty, and if not, why?

He said police carry guns when they go to troubled or violent areas when they perceive a threat, especially in the southern regions where Bhutan shares a porous border with India. But when police are doing their normal duty, they do not carry guns because the society is peaceful. Maybe our Buddhist religion and culture have something to do with it. People in Bhutan are not violent and not so keen on taking the lives of others. If police officers’ lives are not threatened and people are not armed, there is no need for police to carry weapons, especially if they can solve problems with other strategies.

When the public does not carry guns, the police officer told me, it gives police confidence that they don’t need to carry guns either, unlike in the U.S. where police carry guns because they know the enemy is armed with a gun.

In Missouri and Kansas, it is legal to shoot someone in self-defense without first withdrawing from the situation.

“Welcome to America, the world of guns, where your safety can’t be assured,” my friends in New York told me, jokingly but weighing the truth, when I talked about guns. This scared me a lot. So, I kept reminding myself never to argue or fight with Americans or they would shoot me. Jokes apart.

On May 14, 10 Black people were shot to death in a racist attack at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket. Ten days later, 19 children and two teachers were killed in a shooting by an 18-year-old man in Uvalde in Texas. On July 4, a gunman murdered seven people at a parade in Highland Park, Illinois.

And I keep seeing the news of gun violence each day in the papers and on social media.

How many more innocent people, especially children, must be shot or die before those who resist some gun regulations to come to their senses?

Will lawmakers’ children or relatives have to be shot and killed before they realize what their reluctance to changing the gun laws is doing to innocent people and children?

As of June 5, there had been 246 mass shootings in the U.S., according to NPR.

The unending wave of mass shootings across the U.S. will never end unless every individual works for the change.

My country, Bhutan, is a small landlocked country that many in the U.S. might not have even heard of and is consistently ranked as one of the happiest countries in all of Asia. Bhutan was also chosen as the best travel destination for 2020 by the Lonely Planet travel guide.

America is a great country, and you can be greater country. There is one thing Bhutan can teach you: You can learn from us the art of living in harmony without the guns.

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Breathe Bhutan
Indigenous Layap people dancing during the Royal Highland festival in Laya, Bhutan.

Chencho Dema is an Alfred Friendly Press Partners Reporting Fellow currently working with KCUR. She works with Business Bhutan, the only financial newspaper in the country of Bhutan. Follow her at @chenchodema1987.
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