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Though Costa Rica is often called the Switzerland of Central America, there are precious few similarities in the defense strategies of the rifle bearing Swiss and the demilitarized Ticos.

Costa Rica’s president, Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, is proud there are no arms factories in his country and that Costa Rica would be as helpless as a puppy if attacked by any military force. He is a firm believer in safety through cheerful defenselessness. He rarely passes up an opportunity to cut a gun in half in public and extol the virtues of civilian disarmament.

Costa Rica famously has no military, relying instead, without any formal treaty, on the goodwill of the United States for its protection against sometimes hostile neighbors. The policy has worked surprisingly well. Costa Rica avoided the horrific slaughter of the Central American civil wars of the 70s and 80s, enjoyed abundant American investment and is now arguably the most prosperous and peaceful country in the region.

In their private lives, however, the Costa Ricans are more sanguine about the usefulness of firearms in preserving the peace. There is a firm faith in an ounce of prevention. Armed guards are everywhere. In front of banks, grocery stores, furniture stores, car dealerships, or any establishment where any appreciable amount of cash may change hands you will find men wearing body armor and carrying guns.

Costa Ricans may legally own and carry guns for their own protection. The rules are similar to those for concealed carry in most U.S. jurisdictions, except the guns have to be registered along with those who carry them.

Gun permit holders have to take a psychological and a marksmanship test. I have no idea what the psych test is like. But I’ve heard you have to take the shooting test with the shot-out old iron at the testing center. You can’t use your own gun because, with seamless bureaucratic logic, before you pass the test you are not allowed to carry your own gun outside your home. If you can hit anything smaller than a beer truck with the antiques at the testing center, you are a good shot indeed.

No shooting test is necessary, by the way, for the shotgun like the one the guard in the picture has. I guess the reasoning is that accuracy is less critical with sufficient firepower.

As soon as my Spanish was good enough to read a newspaper, I noticed that when a good guy shoots a bad guy here, it gets just as much ink as when a it happens the other way around.

Maybe it’s the language. Spanish has a way of  softening hard, tough Anglo-Saxon. In Spanish a shoot-out is a balacera. It sounds like something featuring finger sandwiches, chiffon-draped debutants and waltz music. Maybe they report all the balaceras because they are so rare and sound like such fun events.

A recent story in La Nacion, the biggest San Jose daily, reported that a gunman shot a knife-wielding mugger dead as the mugger threatened to stab a female tourist at a bus stop. The shooter didn’t hang around to talk to police. Witnesses were hazy about what he looked like. Everybody seemed impressed, however, with his shooting ability.

One to the chest, one to the head. The bad guy departed this world before his knife hit the ground. Tirador experto, expert shooter, said La Nacion. Can’t argue with that. Nobody seemed too concerned about finding him, least of all the police.

Just two days ago there was a report of a messenger who was confronted by two revolver-bearing thugs. The messenger pulled out his 9mm pistol and shot them both. One died a day later. The other is in the hospital under arrest. No charges were brought against the messenger. The police checked to see if he had a permit and that his gun was registered. He did and it was. They gave the piece back to him and said buen dia, good day. For all you could tell from the story, they might have said buen trabajo, good job.

In the U.S. the messenger would never have been allowed to go home with his gun, or to go home at all for that matter. No matter what happened he would need a good lawyer. Even if he wasn’t charged, he would need legal help for protection from the lawsuit the wounded thug would file against him. 

And would a story like this have made the papers in the US? Not likely. When civilians use guns to defeat thugs in the U.S., the media doesn’t think it is worth reporting.

Consider the shooting that was halted by two armed students at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, VA in 2002. A Lexis-Nexis search two weeks after the event, reported by James Eaves-Johnson in The Daily Iowan, showed that of 88 stories about it, only two reported that the students who stopped the shooter were armed.

A similar Lexis-Nexis search on the school shooting in Pearl, Mississippi found 687 articles written about it. Only 19 reported that Assistant Principal Joel Merick had gotten his gun from his car and held the shooter at gunpoint for almost five minutes before police arrived.

The numbers weren’t much different on reports of the Edinboro, Pennsylvania restaurant owner who held a student shooter at gunpoint for over 11 minutes until police arrived.

Media bias? What media bias?

But it is the overwhelming media bias against guns that helps lead Americans to think there is safety in helplessness and only bad guys use guns.

I would never have thought I would have to move to a tiny, demilitarized, socialist country in Central America to get honest reporting on private citizens using guns for self-defense.

Perhaps a little Spanish charm and poetry would help with the truth. If we start calling shoot-outs baleceras, perhaps people who use guns to protect the innocent and keep the peace will get as much ink and air time as thugs and gangsters.