I was raised on a Wisconsin farm tended by the real-life incarnation of Oliver Wendell Douglas of 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 sure-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 thought, 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. 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 – not the slightest hint of estrogen. What’s not to like? Form, function and beauty; this is a machine with an ergonomic heft that fits into your palm as an extension of your arm. You and the gun become one.
When a talented marks woman levels a rifle and sights down the barrel, she and the 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 it’s it mark there is a visceral excitement involving all of the senses, validating that union.
If you think I’m exaggerating, check out R. Lee Ermey gush like a twelve-year-old when he obliterates commie watermelons with a variety of firearms. In those moments, he is not thinking about the 2nd amendment or gun control, nor of property to defend or to take, or of God and Country. For now it’s just him, a semi-automatic and a bunch of dead watermelons that makes him squeal with delight. For a gun enthusiast the experience is visceral.
While you may think I’m picking on Ermey, 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 the experience 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 a hunter who couldn’t enjoy playing paint ball because pointing a gun at the other players was distressing and went against his 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. 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 from the many threats, both real and imagined, that lurk outside their doors. As one gun owner put it, “It just makes me feel safer.”
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 (read “nonthreatening”), she grew pale and stiffened, as if she 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 a 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 as I do, sooner or later you will have to detour home because of a 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 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 stop-light in an affluent neighborhood. This incident was at a light on a commute route that I used for 6 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 also have the goal of protecting themselves and their family, as well as their property and ideals. Just like the gun owner, they are making decisions about the cost to benefit of gun ownership and control laws.
However, 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-biding 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. Their conclusion is that owning a gun will not make them safer than simply having fewer guns on the street.
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 perceived as just one more opportunity for someone to die a capricious and violent death. She and her family have racked up several lifetimes of living in big cities, and not one of them has been the victim of a gun crime. Still, the very idea of more guns out there just makes her feel less safe.
The gun-control debate has evolved into a litmus test of personal character and political values. We have become a divided culture with reasoned debate quickly devolving to hurling insults. No longer exchanging ideas, we find ourselves screaming with veins popping, “Why can’t you see what is so painfully obvious to me?” But it really isn’t that obvious. Most people never say out-loud what, in their hearts, is actually driving their beliefs. We aren’t allowed to say things like, “I just like them” or “they just scare me.”
However, with this in mind it should come as no surprise that we get little traction when we apply rational arguments to something that is much closer to a faith based position. At the most basic level, choosing to support gun owner rights or to support additional gun control laws is a personal and emotional calculation. Only then are the reasoned arguments developed to support those beliefs. Yet we bury this notion, and what we are left with is lobbing statistics, anecdotes, nuance arguments and idiotic excuses at each other only to perpetually fall on deaf ears. And we all know how well that’s been working.