Even European biathletes think U.S. gun culture is out of control: 'I would not feel safe'

Biathlon is one of the more unique and surprisingly compelling sports of the Winter Games.

Cross-country athletes with rifles strapped to their backs maneuver grueling ski terrain, making stops with each lap on the course to take five shots of target shooting. For the medal contenders, each shot is packed with stress and drama, with a miss forcing a short penalty lap that could be the difference in gold and missing the podium completely.

It is riveting to watch.

Not only are these world-class athletes, but world-class marksmen. Being the fastest cross-country skier in the world would not make up for poor shooting in the biathlon.

Needless to say, these are people who have an intimate relationship with their guns.

And in the wake of the tragic Florida school shooting that claimed 17 lives last week, several international athletes have spoken out critically about the United States’ obsession with guns.

USA Today spoke with multiple biathletes from European countries where the ownership of assault weapons is heavily restricted or outright banned. Places where mass shootings aren’t just uncommon, but almost unheard of, thanks in large part to a culture that doesn’t fetishize gun ownership or have a massive pro-gun lobby in the pockets of their lawmakers.

Not surprisingly, these world-class shooters and gun owners think U.S. gun culture is out of control.

Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff is a world-class athlete and elite shooter. (Reuters)
Norway’s Tiril Eckhoff is a world-class athlete and elite shooter. (Reuters)

“In Norway, it’s really strict to buy weapons,” bronze-medal biathlete Tiril Eckhoff told USA Today. “I think that’s the main thing in America. Everyone can buy a gun, and that’s totally wrong, I think.

“The world is not safer with guns. It’s maybe weird when I say it because I do sports with gun. But I think when you don’t have good training like you have in military or like you do in our sport … when people think you can do like in ‘Call of Duty,’ when mentally not-healthy people can go out and buy a gun, it’s not good for the planet, or the U.S.”

“I don’t think (U.S. President Donald) Trump would like me now,” Eckhoff added.

Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi echoed Eckhoff’s sentiments.

“It’s very dangerous in U.S. and not in Italy,” Vittozzi told USA Today. “If I was in America, I would not feel safe, I think.”

Switzerland’s Elisa Gasparin contrasted her country’s gun laws with those in the U.S.

“It’s surely important to regulate who gets weapons because I think it’s easier in America to get to a weapon than in Switzerland,’’ she told USA Today. “In Switzerland, you need to confirm that you’re not (mentally ill), and also you need to prove that you don’t have any (criminal) history. Sadly, something like this can happen.”

Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi competes in a biathlon even in PyeongChang. (Reuters)
Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi competes in a biathlon even in PyeongChang. (Reuters)

She’s right. It is much easier to get a weapon in the U.S. AR-15 assault rifles like the one used to murder 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are not difficult to obtain in many U.S. states.

The AR-15 is a lightweight, rapid-fire military style assault weapon often equipped with high-capacity magazines. It was the weapon of choice at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Las Vegas, Aurora, Colorado and San Bernardino, California.

The NRA calls it the most popular rifle in American. In Florida, you can walk into a gun store and out with an AR-15 on the same day.

And while the current administration and congressional majority are concerned with building border walls and expelling people of color from our country in the name of safety and security, these crimes are usually perpetrated by white male U.S. citizens with outrageous access to assault weapons — access that doesn’t exist in European countries where these critical Olympic athletes hail from.

And while it’s correct to acknowledge that addressing the mental health of would-be shooters is a proper approach, it’s a fallacy to use that as an argument against gun control. European countries have citizens with mental health struggles. What they don’t do is equip those people with assault rifles.

While it’s easy to dismiss the outside criticism of foreign athletes because, well, they’re foreign, it’s long past time for members of our federal government to take some cues from our European allies instead of cash from the NRA.

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Jason Owens is a writer for Yahoo Sports