I’ve never really been much for guns. I’ve never owned one — never really had an interest in owning one. When I was a kid, my dad had a rifle buried in the back of his closet. I know he had a FID card, but to the best of my knowledge that gun never left that closet. He was an older parent, born in the early days of the Great Depression, and life was very different then. I’ve never hunted, never wanted to.
I grew up in the same town my dad did, some 40+ years later, but it was a very different place. Almost city compared to the suburban town where he came of age. We didn’t go hunting, we didn’t target shoot. I can’t say I ever shot a gun other than a paintball or BB gun until last year. They’ve never really had a place in my life in anyway other than in concept.
My own philosophical bent is libertarian leaning, perhaps more of a constitutionalist than a libertarian. I’d prefer the government have less authority and control in our lives, with governmental authority to be strongest at the most local level and radiate outward. Frankly, I think we’ve come far too far in granting the Federal Government power: we’ve gone from a founding set of principles that granted a limited scope of authority to the government where the people had to grant government authority, to one where now the government grants authority to its citizenry.
At any rate while firearms were tangential at best in my life, my wife’s experience with them was far more clear and present. She grew up at a time and place where the people with guns weren’t the people you wanted with guns. The city was rife with gang conflict and drugs and gunfire, along with all of the foreseeable consequences thereof.
Needless to say, neither of us have had much interest or use for firearms.
Early on in our marriage, we moved to the Central Massachusetts: a place much different from the urban eastern part of the state from where we both grew up. There is an active sportsman community here: people hunt and fish, the corner store actually sells live bait next to the potato chips, “right to farm community” means that people actually do keep chickens in their yard (a not insignificant issue when your new neighbors decide that’s exactly what they’re going to do, but that’s a topic for another day).
So, we’ve long been settled down in this sleepy bedroom community in Central Massachusetts, raising our family. It’s at the point of no return that we learn that our child is clearly not growing up in the same place we did. He’s actually interested in sportsman activities: Fishing. Shooting.
This community is Everytown, USA. There are gun owners everywhere. We had NO idea, I mean like none. It’s never been a thing, and now…well, now it is.
If the boy is into guns, then we decided we needed to get him (and us) an education. At the end of the day, it is a part of American life and part of an ongoing debate in American life.
But there is where the conflict begins. We found a training program at a local fish and game club, underwritten by Winchester and the NRA. It’s a program dedicated to the sport of target shooting, of which gun safety and maintenance is a major component: the safety rules are strict and non-negotiable. At the end of the day, if your kid is going to learn about guns, these are the people you want teaching your kid how to use a rifle. If your kid spends any amount of time playing Xbox first person shooters, she or he is learning about guns.
Given this is Massachusetts, we’ve gotten some push back from friends and family about exposing him to guns and, likely more pronounced than that, the NRA itself. The NRA is a polarizing force in American politics. It hasn’t always been that way, but after the 1968 gun control act, the group’s internal politics began fermenting two opposing groups, the activists eventually took control in 1977, but the sportsman faction remains a substantive portion as evidenced by this program. In the time he’s been participating there have been two mass shooting events, and with each one in the news the questioning of our participation increases in volume and scale.
This irritates me because it’s exactly what I find wrong with our politics. The argument goes that we’re participating in a program subsidized by the NRA and therefore part of the problem: we’re teaching our son how to use a firearm. Yet, it’s exactly the education he’s getting that would prevent such violence. He’s learning respect for the power of the weapon, how to use the weapon, how to maintain and care for it. In other words, he’s learning how to be a responsible and skilled gun user – perhaps owner. Exactly the sort of person envisioned in the Second Amendment.
There is no simple solution to American gun violence. There is no one panacea. No one law that will fix everything. There isn’t a pot of money that will fix the problems. Background checks will not fix everything. Banning all guns wouldn’t fix everything. Increasing access to firearms, creating incentives for teachers to carry guns would likely make schools less safe, “Hardening” (presumably “soft”) schools would only create a siege mentality and one I’m not interested in engaging. No, what strikes me is that education is probably one of the most important things we can do. Respect the weapon.
Which is probably the only thing we do have – a gut feel – because in 1996 Congress (at the behest of the NRA) prohibited the CDC from researching gun violence. So, without any research, we only have polarizing arguments without facts. In that environment we can only engage behaviors that seem correct. No one has any facts. You can’t refute “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun” because there’s no data to support you – but that’s okay, because there’s no data to support the opposite either. Just anecdotes.
The research that’s out there seems to be studies of the personalities who have gone on mass killings. From an article by Patrick Sauer on Smithsonian.com about Howard Unruh, generally considered to have been the first “Mass Murderer:”
“Unruh really matches the mass murder profile. He had a rigid temperament, an inability to accept frustration or people not treating him as well as he wanted, and a feeling of isolation, all things people accept and move on from,” says Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and the director of the master of arts in criminal justice at DeSales University, as well as the author of some 60 nonfiction books including Inside the Mind of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill. “He had a free-floating anger, held grudges, owned weapons he knew how to use, and decided somebody was going to pay. It’s a typical recipe for internal combustion.”
The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History By Patrick Sauer
Troubled personalities, rigidity, isolationist, anger and access to semi-automatic weapons. In this case, Unruh was declared to have paranoid schizophrenia. 17 years later, a gunman opened up on the University of Texas, Austin. This combined with the assassinations of John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, presaged the 1968 Gun Control Act. Which in turn mobilized a militaristic faction of the NRA as I mentioned earlier. A bit of Newtonian political physics that hasn’t stopped reacting.
Which brings me around to the original point. We’ve made his participation in this program the only way that he will get the opportunity to use a weapon. He takes it seriously and he respects it. Yet, the push back we get is real. Why would we want him to use a gun? The answer is that we don’t necessarily, he wants to learn how to use one but if he’s going to use one he will learn how to do so responsibly. Of the people I know who use guns, they are responsible and use them responsibly. If he is going to use one, he will learn to be responsible.
It seems to me that is the activism the NRA should be engaged in: creating educated, experienced and responsible gun users. And it is this education that we really should be encouraging, not pushing back against. We’re so polarized that we can’t even see the middle ground that makes the sense, a balance that could possibly slow that Newtonian reaction. The landscape is complex, the NRA is neither all good nor all bad; its important to remember that ambiguity.