December 16, 2012
First of all, I've got what borders on a shameful confession to make. My own opposition to gun ownership has become a little fuzzy over the years. I think in large part, that might just be pragmatism. Guns are a reality in this country, to the point that perhaps it is a little foolish to stand on principle in deciding not to have one, even if that means being that last unarmed citizen standing. I do still stand on that principle, primarily because I have a kid in the house, and I've seen that story on the news too many times to believe that I'm the one guy who will somehow keep his kid from shooting herself when no one's around.
But I also get why people feel the need to have a gun. Take my Liberal card away if you must, but I really do.
A few years ago, someone on the highway threw something huge and heavy, perhaps a brick, at my car, hitting it just above the doorframe on the driver's side back seat where Schuyler was sitting. It left a sizable dent; two or three inches lower and it would have gone through the glass and hit Schuyler. I never knew what I did to deserve that. Who knows? Does it matter? All I know is that I felt threatened, truly threatened, and when I got home, I found myself researching handguns online.
I found one that I thought would be perfect, too. It was a small caliber revolver, nothing crazy. I chose a revolver because it was small and less likely to jam, and because its hammer action made it much less likely to misfire if my hands were shaking in a crisis, which I can guarantee they would be. Of all the self-protection options I explored in the previously unexplored world of firearms, it seemed the least likely to end badly.
I didn't buy it. I spoke to a member of my family and was immediately told that no, I needed to get a 9mm semi-automatic weapon, because of the increased lethality and the ability to fire quickly and repeatedly. I needed to pack some real heat. That was what it took to snap me out of my new gun fever. I imagining Schuyler getting hold of this thing, and suddenly my fear of Very Bad People was dwarfed by my fear of the Very Worst Thought Imaginable. I deleted the link to my handgun of choice and I put our big aluminum softball bat next to the front door. And that was that.
But I thought about it. I seriously considered it.
And now, in the wake of the Newtown shooting, I'm left, as we all are, with some serious questions, and some harsh realities. What do we do about this increasingly dangerous world that we, and more importantly our children, find ourselves? And do we as a society need to exercise a right that may or may not be Constitutional to own military-grade weapons that are designed for one purpose only: to kill a great number of people in a very short period of time?
The debate over gun ownership isn't as black and white as the gun lobby would make it seem. If we accept that there are probably three reasonable reasons to own a gun -- home protection, personal safety and for sport/hunting -- then we have to decide where assault weapons and deadly, rapid-fire ammunition fit.
Conventional wisdom says that a shotgun may be the most effective gun for home defense. It's extremely effective at close range (ie. your house), requires no accuracy so you're unlikely to miss your target, and the sound of the gun being cocked is unmistakable and likely to scare off whoever is trying to steal your tv without firing a shot. If you feel that protecting your home requires an assault weapon or something that can fire off multiple rounds quickly, you might want to consider moving.
As I mentioned before, a revolver is the gun most recommended for personal safety. Unless you're living in a video game, it will almost certainly provide you with enough shots to defend yourself against an assailant, and its hammer action makes it less likely that you will accidentally shoot off your own foot, or that your kids will accidentally hurt themselves with it.
If you're a hunter and you need to bring down your target in a hail of rapidly fired lethal rounds designed for military combat, you might be missing the "sportsman" part of the deal. Unless you are targeting bears wearing body armor, you might also be overestimating your prey.
So we come back to the question of the kinds of weapons that are being used in incidents like Newtown. What is their place in our society? What does the Constitution really have to say about them? Do we have a legal right to sell and own semi-automatic weapons and rapid-fire ammunition? Should we?
Today, two days after Newtown, I feel like the answer is becoming more clear. If the reports coming out of Newtown are accurate, the shooter got off over a hundred rounds in a very short period of time. According to a medical examiner, those children were shot multiple times, from three to eleven times EACH, with a weapon described as "the civilian model of a military weapon used by military and police organizations in over 60 nations around the world". (Does that phrase even make sense? The civilian model?) If the information from Newtown turns out to be true, then twenty-six innocent civilians, most of them six and seven year-old children, were killed by multiple wounds inflicted by the same bullets used by troops in Afghanistan.
There's a lot to talk about in the wake of these shootings, and I think an equally important topic is the state of mental health treatment in this country. It's a subject that I very much hope gets discussion, and much needed action. But the fact remains that if the Newtown shooter had come into that school with a shotgun, or a revolver, or a hunting rifle, or for that matter a knife or a hunting bow or a hammer, we would be facing a very different level of horror, and having a very different conversation.
If you're reading this, I grant that you are unlikely to be one of the citizens who feels a right and a need to easily purchase and own these weapons, or ones just like them, or things like high-capacity gun magazines that allow shooters to fire off multiple rounds in quick succession. But if you are, let me ask you. Why? Do you feel the need to be armed and equipped to fight in a military combat situation? Do you like owning the same weapons that you see in your video games? Is it about feeling safe, or feeling cool?
Because nothing's free. Your right to own weapons designed to kill a lot of people very quickly isn't one that has been handed to you by two hundred year-old frontiersmen with muskets. It's one that has been paid for, and dearly. It's a right that has turned our public places into crime scenes that look like war zones. It has turned our teachers into first responders. Your fight for personal freedom has enlisted our children as unwilling warriors. Warriors, and martyrs.
But I have another shameful confession. I think it's probably too late. If you're all about having these weapons remain cheap and easy to get in this country, I don't really think you've got to do anything at all. You've already won. I don't actually think we are going to meaningfully address this problem. We can try, and I hope we do, but those weapons are out there. You can't solve clean air problems by stuffing the black clouds back into factory smokestacks. We can't unfrack the earth. And we can't take away all the military grade weapons that are now in the hands of, well, whomever. We don't really know, do we? We hear a lot from those who loudly proclaim that the Liberals want to take away their guns (and they're kind of right, when they're talking about those specific weapons of mass killing), and we certainly know where they stand on the issue. Cold dead hands, etc.
But then there are the quiet ones. The wounded ones, the angry ones, the lost ones, the forgotten ones. The ones we don't think about or worry about or try to help, not until we see them on CNN. Their unbalanced rage and impulse to hurt or kill isn't something new, nor is it specifically American. But while we can continue to choose not to help them or care about them or even think about them, we might try not to arm them quite so effectively.
But I'm not sure we can now. And I'm not sure we have the will to try.
I'm not here to call anyone to action, not directly. I'm not going to tell you what to say when you write your representatives. I know what I said when I wrote my own, including my new Tea Party-affiliated Senator-elect, but if you have any idea about the state and the county in which I live, you'll know that my messages were very likely dumped directly into a "left wing loony" file. I certainly can't tell you what to say, or what's the most effective way to affect change. I'm a writer, so I write. Whatever it is that you do is what you're going to do, I guess.
But I hope you're thinking about this, and I hope your horror doesn't fade. When enough of us decide that we're going to take the mental health of our citizens seriously, and when we decide that the right to own cool guns is being paid for with our most precious blood, then perhaps something will happen. I have my doubts, and they are extreme, but I'd love to be wrong.