View from the Street: Is It Still America The Beautiful For Visitors?

@rballantyne

View from the Street: Is It Still America The Beautiful For Visitors?

The timeshare saleswoman from Newport Coast had failed, once again, to persuade us to buy a week-long slice of California sunshine, and we had side-stepped into a conversation on her upcoming trip to Europe. “I’m not going to Paris, though,” she said, “and we’ve just cancelled London – too dangerous.” Brussels had probably not crossed her mind.
 
The lady in question lives in Orange County, The OC, not much more than an hour’s drive from San Bernadino, scene of a mass shooting two years ago, and an hour’s flight from Las Vegas, scene of the latest and worst shooting in the US. And yet she regarded the risk of terrorist attack in major European capitals as much greater – to the extent of switching her expensive vacation.
 
So, from the other end of the telescope, is it still America the Beautiful? Just how dangerous is it to visit the US, the land of the free and home of the most lax gun laws in the world?
 
The answer, surely, is still not very, despite this week’s appalling news. It’s important not to have your views of the US darkened by southern California’s biggest industry – the movies.
 
You can drive through the desert along Route 66 without being hounded by a psychotic truck driver or menaced by rednecks in pickups.
 
You can exit a city freeway on the wrong ramp at night without being plunged into a Bonfire of the Vanities nightmare of accidents and gang attacks.
 
You can leave a bar on 42nd Street feeling somewhat merry and get to your Broadway hotel without getting mugged.
 
It’s not like the most violent movies, almost all of the time. For visitors, America is mostly perfectly safe.
 
Admittedly, it doesn’t look like that in real life after this week’s headlines. And if you switch on local news in virtually any city from Miami to Los Angeles, you will hear a litany of armed robbery and shootings, exacerbated beyond any doubt by the ease with which guns can be obtained and the shrill defence of the right to bear arms by right wing politicians and their financial backers, the National Rifle Association. It’s a cultural cancer tagged on to a constitutional shibboleth which countless presidents have failed to cut out.
 
That’s not, however, a question that visitors can resolve. The US must address its lethal gun obsession, sooner or later. Meanwhile, visitors should be careful and realistic in their perceptions.
 
The United States may be one country under God, but it covers a wide variety of cultures, the broadest of broad churches, ready to trip up most generalisations. But there are clear differences city to city and state to state.
 
East Coast cities with large numbers of tourists – such as Boston, Washington DC and post-Guiliani’s New York – have the tightest gun laws. Similarly, California’s waterfront cities such as San Francisco and San Diego are perfectly safe in their main tourist areas. The tourist traps of Disney and Universal, in both Florida and California, have their own security – Mickey Mouse checks for guns at the theme park gates. And most hotels have security, particularly Las Vegas casino hotels, which not surprisingly is now being tightened.
 
But you need to recognise when you are leaving tourist America for the real, grittier, America. Florida tourists have stumbled into dangerous areas of downtown Orlando not far from the theme parks, to their cost; the darker side streets of New Orleans are only steps from the jazzy bright lights of the Big Easy; New York, Washington DC and San Francisco all have red lines on the map where walking at night would be unwise. And in general it’s still a little wilder in the west, with Texas, Arizona and Nevada having the loosest laws, including in some areas the so-called “open carry” of rifles. The nervous may not want to go west.
 
It’s only common sense to take care. Late night subway trains or walks up dark alleys aren’t clever in any large city.  Road rage is undesirable anywhere, but could be lethal in a state with handguns in every third glovebox or a rifle in a pickup’s back window. But it’s important to remember that a large majority of Americans share the European view on guns – 22% of Americans own guns, and half the guns are owned by just 3% of the population.
 
It would be absurd to miss the natural wonders of the US for fear of risks that are infinitesimally small. Don’t allow fear of earthquakes to keep you from exploring the precipitous California coastline, which parallels the San Andreas fault; don’t miss the wonders of the Yosemite valley, despite recent fatal rockfalls; and do not miss the astonishing Grand Canyon, even though you may fly in through the nearby bright lights of “sin city” Las Vegas.
 
I love America. I’ve visited every year for the past 40 years, travelled through more than half the 50 states, on vacation, for work, or visiting relatives. It’s big, brash, vibrant, dynamic, diverse, unpredictable, hospitable and friendly – and yes, sometimes dangerous.
 
But there’s no need to emulate my Californian acquaintance who is cancelling European capitals. Just as I continue to visit London, Paris and Brussels, so will I continue to fly across the pond. Despite the headlines, the rewards remain greater than the risks.