I was born and raised in Montana, and growing up as I did about a mile or so from town I had plenty of opportunities to familiarize myself with guns. We hunted often which brought me as a child out into the woods, in the pitch of black, at the earliest possible hours, where I smelled and heard massive animals that I could not see and quaked in my boots as those animals thunderously bugled back at us. I cherish countless such memories from my youth. By the time I was twenty I had fired “wimpy” rifles and rifles that could bring down an elk, semi-autos, paintball guns (technically “firearms”), even an 1860’s vintage musket not to mention a multitude of handguns and shotguns. Personally, I always loved the handguns. The 357 stands out for me because it looks the part – a stumpy, silver, serious-looking cowboy-style 6-shooter – and because while it punches a hole in a fence-post that accommodates a pencil, it doesn’t quite rebuke you for firing it the same way the 44 will.
I enjoy guns, I understand guns, but what I cannot understand and am enjoying less and less is the seemingly empty conversation about gun regulation in the United States. As I write this less than 24 hours has passed since an apparently unstable home-owner opened fire on an advancing constable sparking a shootout that killed 3 in Texas, less than two weeks have passed since a white supremacist marched into a doctrinally peaceful Sikh community in Wisconsin and opened fire killing 6, and less than a month has passed since James Holmes allegedly carried an arsenal into a movie theater down the road from my family’s new home in Denver Colorado – into a theater that friends and colleagues of mine frequent – and opened fire killing 12.
By some counts the Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin brought the number of mass killings that the US has suffered since 1999 (the year of the Columbine massacre) to over 60. Yet in that time we have allowed the Brady Bill (a Clinton-era piece of legislation that would have outlawed many of the guns used in the Aurora shooting and which invigorated back-ground checks that may have hindered the rest) has been allowed to expire, and groups like ALEC and the NRA have successfully pushed conceal and carry as well as so called “stand your ground” laws through the legislative branches of several states. Laws like these make access to the weapons one needs to kill several people at a time incredibly easy – and we see the consequences in the United States every year.
Research comparing the United States to other developed nations in per-capita gun violence is tricky. This is primarily because the rest of the developed world hardly ever experiences them. Since 1999 Americans have witnessed mass shootings in high school and college campuses, a movie theater and in our backyards, even in a places of worship. The rest of the developed world with the exception of last year’s Norway shooter, has seen nothing like it. And yet we are told, as the veritable critic/comedian Bill Hicks once put it, “there’s no connection between having guns and shooting someone with them, and not having guns and not shooting someone, and you’d be a fool and a communist to make one.”
This country seemingly will not have a grown up conversation about guns. Many of us were told after the Aurora shooting that that ‘was not the time.’ We were told that it was somehow disrespectful to the dead to try to make sense of their slaughter. We were told that to search openly and vigorously for solutions so the rest of us can once again feel safe was putting politics where it was not wanted. Frankly, that response shocks me. It shocks me because of all of the things that shooting guns taught me growing up, the first and most important lesson was always, always, to respect their tremendous and immediate power. We neglect that lesson completely when we refuse to talk about the laws surrounding their ownership and use.
Guns are, technically, a privilege granted to us by the Constitution. While the fuse-ignited flint-locks of the 1700’s bear practically zero resemblance to the AR-15 assault rifle of today, pretending that they are not is futile. The Constitution famously relegates their use to “well organized militias,” sorely needed at the time to ward off the invading foreign armies of Britain and France as well as for protection against the “hostile” indigenous peoples of the frontier. The US now outspends the next three or four global spenders combined in national defense, it is hard to imagine a scenario where our national security depends on militias. One could possibly make the argument that guns are necessary to protect Americans from their own government, an argument demonstrated as fantasy over a hundred years ago. If an organized and internationally supported Confederacy, with all their guns and ammo and military training, could be so certainly and thoroughly crushed by Uncle Sam in 1865, what would our revolt look like with the US defense apparatus of today? And nowhere in the Constitution does it justify the ownership of guns for individual, vigilante-style, civilian-versus-civilian self defense as “stand your ground” (or as I prefer “shoot first”) laws insist. I am in fact much more convinced that the opposite intent was the case in the Constitution, as seen in the establishment of the “inalienable right” to due process.
Obama knows gun regulation will set off a political fire-storm and given the nature of the more extreme adversaries of his I wouldn’t blame him for being legitimately fearful of proposing serious legislation. It is absolutely the case that gun advocates including the President of the NRA have stoked fears since his election (fears that so far have proven to be utterly unfounded) that what Obama “really wants” is to ban guns forever. Needless to say top-down reform seems, even in the wake of all that has happened this year, to be pretty far-fetched. But if it comes, it will very obviously be long overdue.
Nobody is seriously supporting prohibition – we have learned the lessons of prohibition and can only imagine the consequence if the “illicit material” were guns themselves – but something must be done. But nothing will be until we vigorously, sympathetically, openly, and eagerly discuss the problems, and the potential solutions, together.