I was raised on a Wisconsin farm tended by the real-life incarnation of Oliver Wendell Douglas in the TV series, Green Acres. My father wasn’t much of a farmer but he was an avid hunter, and a pretty good one, too. As such, I grew up with a fairly impressive collection of firearms which I eventually learned to use well enough, though no one ever called me crack shot.
As a teenager, I might occasionally take the 45-70 off the rack, go to the back yard and pop off as many rounds as I figured my dad wouldn’t notice missing. I was on a farm, after all, and even if a neighbor did hear the gun shots they would have figured, correctly, that the only danger is to a rabbit or a fence post. I have genuinely fond memories of those warm summer afternoons when I defended the house against the hostile advances of bottles, tin cans and the occasional melon.
Let’s be honest here. For their own sake guns can be truly seductive. I marvel at them as pieces of machinery. A fine rifle has the craftsmanship of a Swiss watch with parts that mesh and click with a near poetic beauty. Yet, it retains the utility and ruggedness of a jeep, without the slightest hint of estrogen. What’s not to like? Form, function and beauty; this is a wearable machine with an ergonomic heft that fits into your palm as an extension of your arm. You and the gun become one.
This marriage is consummated when a talented markswoman levels a rifle to her shoulder and sights down the barrel, woman and machine merge to create a powerful experience. She pulls the trigger and a loud crack from the barrel reports the excitement while the recoil resonates through her body. When that bullet hits its mark there is a visceral excitement involving all of her sense, validating that union.
If you think I’m exaggerating, check out R. Lee Ermey (Gunny) gushing like a twelve-year-old when he obliterates commie watermelons with a variety of firearms. In those moments, there is no second amendment or gun control, no property to defend or to take, no God and Country. For now it’s just him, a semi-automatic and a bunch of dead watermelons that makes him squeal with delight.
While you may think I’m picking on Gunny, I’m not, for two very good reasons. First is that even in his late sixties, if he told me to jump, I’d be wise to ask how high on the way up. Secondly, and more on point, I am absolutely no different. There is just no disguising the fact that guns are really, really fun. In one very limited sense, it could be argued that it is the same as a pinball wizard and his machine or an accomplished skier and his equipment.
What is different, of course, is that you can also use the gun to kill people and manage people’s behavior. (At least, in ways that are less practical than with a pinball machine.) If I’m a store clerk with a gun pointed at me, that gun owner is my new manager and I will obligingly empty the till into his sack. I also believe that the vast majority of gun owners have a very sober and mature recognition of this. I know an avid hunter who couldn’t enjoy playing paint ball because pointing a gun at the other players was distressing and went against his natural instincts.
As a rule, however, owners are comfortable with the guns themselves, if not downright fond of them. Most owners believe that they are both safe and facile with their use. The rabid poster child Chuck Norris not withstanding, your average gun owner is also your average citizen, complete with the very natural and human goal of protecting themselves and their family, as well as their property and ideals. How dangerous our world really is can be rather subjective but there are few places left that aren’t touched by violence. With all that in mind, it would be almost crazy for a gun owner to not see that firearm as a friend and ally in defense of the many threats, both real and imagined, that lurk outside his door.
As it happens, my wife stands in exemplary contrast to my personal gun experiences. When I met her, she knew there was a middle America largely because it was a five hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. Her sole experience with guns were nightly reports of drive-bys, hold-ups and the usual urban mayhem. She grew up in a world where the gun had no charm and no ulterior motive. Rather, it had a singular and ugly purpose. Whether for good or ill, it is nothing more than a tool for killing another person. She had no warm summer afternoons of picking off coke cans and the only thing she’s ever hunted was a cab.
Once, when she saw a shotgun on a table with barrel broken and no shells in the chamber (to the uninitiated, read “nonthreatening”), she grew pale and stiffened, as if she had stumbled on a coiled and hissing rattler. I remember her discomfort, many years ago, when there was a gun in our house even though it was unloaded, in a case, safely buried in a closet and no ammunition. Like the viper she spied on the table, it still, somehow, retained the ability to slither in the night and strike us in our sleep.
For anyone who lives in the city, the anxiety that guns evoke is not particularly irrational, even if they or their family has never been a victim of gun violence. If you live in Los Angeles, sooner or later you will have to detour home because of the police barricade that is investigating a shooting. I have seen police with weapons drawn just a few times which makes it, relatively, a lot. It is true that some city dwellers are safer than others but the reminders that a city is a dangerous place are constant and real.
John Atterberry, a music executive, was randomly shot and killed by a stranger who apparently was distraught over a recent break-up. This happened at an intersection that I have often walked through with my wife when out for a movie and a drink. Ronni Chasen was shot and killed in her car by a would be robber on a bicycle at a stoplight in an affluent neighborhood. This incident was at a light on a commute route that I used for six years. Too often, in some way, we are able to locate ourselves at the site of a recent tragedy.
If the dangers are so thoroughly understood by the urban denizen, why would they want gun controls rather than carry one themselves. They share the same world with the same dangers and the same fundamental goals as the guy who sleeps with a Glock. They have the “very natural and human goal of protecting themselves and their family, as well as their property and ideals.” And just like the gun owner, they are making largely rational decisions about that cost to benefit of gun ownership and control laws. Their conclusion is that owning a gun will not make them safer than simply having fewer guns on the street.
Realistically, there is little chance that they will be able to draw and use that weapon effectively in an emergency, especially if they remain uncomfortable with it. For most, it isn’t even a viable option. And in their world, there really is a corollary between the number of guns on the street and the rate of gun violence. The idea of more law-abiding citizens carrying as a deterrent to crime just won’t gain traction in those woods. This belief is drawn from a long history of prisons being choked with arrogant, stupid and brazen criminals despite three strikes and the death penalty.
For these gun control advocates, concealed carry and the expansion of gun-ownership rights has the same logic as using more landmines to make the city safer. My wife will never hold a gun much less keep one for personal safety. It just isn’t in her DNA. Whether legal or otherwise, another gun on the streets is just one more opportunity for her or someone else to die a capricious and violent death. No one is made safer.
The gun control debate has evolved into a litmus test of personal character and political values. We have become a divided culture hurling insults more than debating. It is an emotionally charged debate and, even recently I’ve been drawn into this mindset. No longer exchanging ideas, we find ourselves screaming with veins popping, “Why can’t you see what is so painfully obvious to me?” There is nothing particularly wrong with that question, either.
I just think that it is a worthwhile reminder to recognize that most people never say out loud what, in their hearts, is actually driving their beliefs. Nor are those feelings particularly irrational. Rather, it is a conclusion produced by their own survey of the landscape and their own experiences. At the most basic level, choosing to support gun owner rights or support additional gun control laws is a personal calculation of what is deemed best for them and their families. Yet, we have all learned that saying things like, “I just like them” or “they just scare me” doesn’t count in reasoned debate. So we are left with lobbing statistics, anecdotes, nuance arguments and idiotic excuses at each other. And we all know how well that’s been working.