With 5 percent of the world's population, Americans now possess about half of the world's guns. Is it any wonder then that mass shootings in the U.S. have skyrocketed in the past decade? And in the wake of the grotesque massacre at Sandy Hook, is it surprising that sales of kids' bulletproof backpacks have soared, or that our culture more than ever is drenched in the language of guns?
As I watch left- and right-wing politicians and pundits "up in arms" on TV, battling in a "crossfire" of blame, each side looking for a "smoking gun" to explain or cast blame for horrifying gun-related catastrophes, I've become increasingly aware of how our culture's preoccupations with guns are reflected even during innocent "shooting the breeze" conversations.
We often value the "straight shooter," yet are wary of those who "shoot their mouths off," those who "shoot from the hip" or glibly end an argument with a "parting shot." We caution colleagues to avoid "shooting themselves in the foot," and counsel them not to "shoot the messenger."
Without suspecting what drives our language, we are "blown away" by adorable photos of loved ones. At the movies, many audiences are thrilled by "shoot-'em-up," "double-barreled action" scenes, or are excited by car chases where actors "gun" their engines.
I often ask friends to "shoot me" an email and I've encouraged job seekers to give an interview their "best shot" and "stick to their guns" during salary discussions. And if a job is offered, I might congratulate them for doing a "bang-up" job.
In sensitive business negotiations, I've advised patience, urging clients to "troubleshoot" solutions, but to avoid "jumping the gun" and to be aware of "loaded" questions." To get the biggest "bang for the buck," I've recommended bringing the "big guns" to the table. We look for "silver bullet" solutions, hoping for "bulletproof" results. And when success is in sight, we say: "You're on target," or "you're going great guns!"
We encourage entrepreneurial risk taking, even if the project doesn't have a "shot in hell." Just "fire away" when you make that "killer" presentation, and if your idea is "shot down," don't be "gun shy." Just "bite the bullet" and go at it again, with "guns blazing." Don't be afraid to "shoot for the moon," even if it looks like a "shot in the dark."
Having worked as a university executive with students from more than 80 countries, I've noticed that students from abroad are struck by the violent language in our songs and films, and they hear it bleeding into our political discourse.
Many have asked me in amazement why it is even necessary to state that guns and ammunition are banned from university residence halls. Yet, "son of a gun," 26 colleges in three states permit guns on college campuses. And gun liberalization legislation for colleges is in the "cross hairs" in at least nine more states.
I've heard staff and students alike stressed by an approaching deadline, instinctively describing themselves as being "under the gun." Sometimes my colleagues have described emotional co-workers as "loose cannons" or having "hair-trigger" personalities. And when a student has gone off "half-cocked," psychologists have advised employees to "keep their powders dry" and to review "bullet point" guidelines for handling volatile personalities.
In the same way that the U.S. is flooded with millions of guns (there are 90 guns per 100 Americans), so our newscasts -- "sure as shootin' " -- are exploding almost nightly with murder stories, reflecting the newsroom mantra: "If it bleeds, it leads."
When the local story becomes a national tragedy, there is "new ammunition" for both gun control supporters and opponents of fire arm bans in such places as elementary schools, day care centers, churches, or even the neighborhood bar!
The world of guns has had our rhetoric in its sights for a very long time. And our wounded language -- now more than ever with a gun to its head -- is telling us that our culture is on the firing line.
Joe Lurie, executive director emeritus at the University of California's International House, is currently a cross-cultural communications consultant.