02/09/2016 10:59 BST | Updated 01/09/2017 06:12 BST

My Summer Encounter With US Gun Culture

Upon returning to the UK after a month travelling around the US by bus, I have to admit that I breathed a sigh of relief. Not just that I would never have to step on a Greyhound bus again, but because over the last month I had come to understand a new menacing phenomenon, guns.

Of course, I never truly entertained that anyone would really go out of their way to shoot me or my two friends; who was realistically going to shoot three, white, British 21-year-old women? Something tells me that the white cops we passed on the street certainly weren't going to.

However, where there are guns, there are stray bullets. Where there are guns, bystanders and innocents die. Where there are guns, and people willing to use them, who knows? This is the realisation that we quickly came to, and soon the subject of guns was never far from our minds.

In Denver, Colorado, a man walked into an office and shot dead a woman and then himself in a part of town we had walked around countless times over our stay there.

In San Francisco, there was a standoff between an obviously disturbed man and police two blocks from our hostel. As we watched the television, my friend turned and said how she had just walked down that road some 45 minutes earlier.

In Portland, Oregon, we walked past a group of heavily armed police officers, with great big batons and guns, doing a training activity. They must have seen the sheer look of abject horror on our faces, as they one by one looked up, lowering their machines, and wished us a good day.

Again, I must repeat that we were three, white, British girls. Would the two African American boys we befriended at our San Francisco hostel, one of whom is a student at Harvard, have been shown such politeness?

Because that was the other side to this menace that became all too clear. In the USA today the trope of guns cannot be untwined from that of race. There is a major problem over there, I can say - I've seen it.


photo credit: Isabel Bull

When sat in the Greyhound bus terminal in San Francisco, breaking news flashed up on the televisions. A video showing the killing of the unarmed African American Charles Kinsey by two white police officers had just been released. Kinsey was clearly unarmed.

The bus terminal erupted. The majority of the workers there were African American. We witnessed their shocked faces, their fear, their grief and finally their anger. Our bus left late, our driver had been hotly debating 'why' with an indignant younger man.

In Washington DC, when exiting a museum I was called to one side by a member of staff. He was an older African American and had a kind face. He asked me where I was from and what I thought was the biggest difference between my country and his. He stopped my response and said one word, guns.

The subject of guns came up with nearly everyone we met and spoke to. It was inescapable. I would joke during such conversations that, well, guns don't really exist in my country for me. Except this was joke was half true, because the American reality surrounding guns is unfounded here.

Through the sheer happy accident of birthplace and being me, well my skin tone, I had 21 years privilege of never even having to think about guns. When my sister and I were children our parents never sent us off to school with the sharp pain in the pit of their stomachs that today could be the day. I do not know anyone who has been harmed, killed or otherwise associated with guns. Heck, aside from those rifles one finds at amusement fairs, I'm not even entirely sure if I had ever seen a real gun outside of a museum.

Guns were not a part of my reality, until they were, for a few weeks over this summer. And this is the message what we in other countries should be calling out. Say loud and clear to the US, having a great big gun problem is not normal! Life without guns, contrary to certain realms of American thought, is actually pretty great!

The older African American at the museum looked at me intensely, recounting the pains of his community and the horrors of guns. I nodded in agreement. "Well why don't you write about it?" he said, "they could listen to you", he said.

Isabel Bull is a student of French and Politics at the University of Bristol. She is an active WILPF UK member, and a member of the UK Labour Party. She can be found on both Facebook and LinkedIn as Isabel Bull.