First, a trip down cinematic memory lane. [(Relatively) Mild Language warning : turn down the volume or don't play at all if little pitchers have big ears or you yourself are especially sensitive. Also, worm guts.]
It may come as no surprise to you that I don’t own a gun. There are no guns in my home. There were no guns in the home I grew up in. My father grew up on a farm in Idaho, so I reckon his home had guns. At least one. I mean…you’d need one to shoot a horse or something, right? I seem to recall him mentioning a rifle at some point. Anyway, my father did not take any guns with him when he left Idaho. My mother’s family did not own any guns. My mother was afraid of guns because her ex-husband threatened her with one once. That will do it, I think. I’ve never had any particular desire to shoot a gun. I was never any good at those shooting games either. We did play with water pistols, though. I think somewhere in our family album there’s a photograph of my father crouched behind a wall with a water pistol, ready to ambush one of his unsuspecting children. But that’s neither here nor there.
It is highly unlikely that my husband and I will purchase a gun any time in the foreseeable future, because it would not be safe to keep one in our house as long as our autistic son is both curious and clever enough to figure out how to retrieve it from its secure location. I believe that it’s possible to store guns in a home safely. But Elvis was unscrewing the child locks at age two. He’s almost ten now, and he’s not only smarter but his manual dexterity has gotten much better. I don’t trust him with a gun. Not because he has violent tendencies, but because he’s never seen the damage an actual gun can do. He understands danger, and he understands pain. He has a panic attack every time one of us uses glassware because he’s seen glass break. If he understood what a gun could do, he would be the world’s safest person to have around guns. But he doesn’t understand what a gun can do. More to the point, he doesn’t understand death. It would be extremely foolish for us to own a gun under these circumstances, considering that we don’t really need one.
We live in a very safe neighborhood. No one is stalking any of us (that we know of). No one has threatened us. The government has definitely overstepped its bounds in recent history, but not in a Stalinesque way (yet). So I think we’ll be okay.
That said, I have nothing against guns personally, and nothing against the idea of owning them. I can easily imagine scenarios in which I would prefer to have a gun than not have a gun. I think that one of these days it would behoove me to learn how to use one. I’m not super-anxious to do so because shooting a gun does not hold any special allure for me. I don’t have some badass lady action hero fantasy I’m dying to live out. (I can’t speak for my husband. And yes, I meant for that last bit to be as ambiguous as it sounds.) It just seems like a practical skill that could potentially be very useful. Especially when the Apocalypse starts to come ’round.
I know people (admittedly, not many) who keep guns in their home. I don’t have a problem letting my children play over there because I know these people aren’t idiots and they store their guns safely. I don’t worry about any kids getting their hands on them. I also don’t worry that my friends are secretly psychotic and could turn on us at any moment. I trust that they use their guns for legitimate, legal purposes.
I remember hearing about the school shootings in Jonesboro and at Columbine. Jonesboro was right before I had my first child. The story broke while I was at work–at a newspaper, as it happened, so I remember it coming over the wire. Columbine was after I’d quit my job to take care of my daughter full-time, and I had nothing better to do than listen to news/talk radio all day. So I heard these stories at the same time everyone else heard them. I remember being profoundly affected, emotionally, by both of them. I was especially horrified by Jonesboro because the shooters were so young–eleven and thirteen years old. I specifically remember thinking how horrible it must be to be the parents of those boys. How do you raise a murderer? How do you go on with your life after the child you love has taken the lives of other children, or the life of anyone? Can you love your child after that? I can’t even think about it. Columbine broke my heart because I heard the live reports and the voices of the survivors still frantic or in shock over the experience. And I was angry, too. Because what makes a kid think it’s okay to murder his classmates and teachers? What makes him think that doesn’t make him a monster? Or what makes him think it’s okay to be a monster?
Those last questions are kind of dumb. There isn’t a good explanation for why some people choose to do evil. It isn’t something non-evil people can understand. And because we can’t understand it, we can’t really predict it–except in the sense of being cynical and pessimistic enough to understand that evil is bound to happen and it’s mostly luck that keeps it from happening to us. (Is that cynical and pessimistic, or is it just realistic? It depends on your point of view.)
Here’s a thing I never wondered in the midst of any of these school shootings: How on earth did these kids get their hands on those guns? I assumed they got their hands on them the same way any murderer does, i.e. by buying or stealing them–in other words, whichever way was easier. If they’d used plutonium, I might have wondered, hey, where’d they get that plutonium? Not because it’s illegal for most citizens to own plutonium (just as it’s illegal for middle schoolers to buy guns), but because plutonium’s kind of scarce and its homicidal features require a certain level of education to use effectively. There aren’t a lot of legitimate home uses for plutonium. None that I’m aware of, in fact. But guns are fairly prevalent in this country, for better or worse. They’ve always been prevalent here because it’s always been normal for Americans to have their own guns. I reckon back in the day on the frontier, it would have seemed pretty stupid for a person not to have a gun. At least, that person would probably not have survived for very long. (Unless they wanted to join an indigenous tribe, but then they still would have had to fight off the other white people who chose not to join up with the indigenous peoples…and who would have had guns. Of course, the indigenous peoples would also have had guns, eventually, so it’s not like you could have just opted out of the gun culture without putting yourself in grave danger. But I digress.)
I no longer listen to news radio or watch television. I get all my news from the internet, and contrary to popular opinion, I do not spend all day on the internet. So the first I learned of the Newtown massacre was on Facebook–which is a horrible place to learn about anything. I read the news story, but my reaction was not as visceral as it was with the school shootings in the ’90s, simply because I was not experiencing it “live” the way most of America was. It took a bit longer to sink in, but I couldn’t stop it from sinking in. How terrified those children must have been. How devastating for those parents waiting to hear if their kids were safe, only to learn that they would never be reunited with them. Most of those kids probably had presents already waiting for them under Christmas trees, and those presents will never be opened. Again, what kind of monster murders children? But not once did I wonder, “Where did that bastard get the gun?”
He stole it from his mother, as it happened, but what does that prove? That she should have been wiser about where and how she stored her guns? That she never should have taught her son how to use one? I’m not really comfortable criticizing murder victims, so I can’t go there. I’m really just angry at murderers. But maybe I’m missing the point.
Plenty of people have asked, “Why do you NEED an assault weapon?” But far fewer people ask, “What IS an assault weapon?” Well, it depends on who you ask. If you want a legal definition, it depends on which law you’re referring to. “Assault weapon” has no consistent, specific definition. An assault rifle is fully automatic, i.e. it fires multiple rounds (bullets) continuously when the trigger is pulled once. This is the “machine gun” effect like you see in gangster movies. Full-automatic firearms have been severely restricted since the 1930s. You can’t just go out and buy one. The military has full-automatic firearms. Also, people who make movies about people who use machine guns. They are not the first choice of either hunters or criminals; they are just too much trouble (and too expensive) to get. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban that expired in 2004 did not include assault rifles or other full-automatic firearms because full-automatic firearms were already as regulated as they could be and criminals weren’t using them. The Federal Assault Weapons Ban covered certain semi-automatic firearms that possessed the cosmetic features of a full-automatic firearm, not the operational features. If it had the operational features, it was classified as a Title II weapon, the regulation of which fell (and continues to fall) under the National Firearms Act of 1934.
Most guns used in crimes are semi-automatic firearms. Most guns used for any reason are semi-automatic firearms. The technology dates back over a hundred years. If you want a gun to kill people, you should probably buy a semi-automatic. By the same token, if you want a gun to defend yourself (or others), you should probably buy a semi-automatic. I would argue that you definitely NEED one, if you’re planning to defend yourself against somebody who is using one to kill you. Do you need one with the cosmetic features of an assault rifle? Eh, probably not, but then again, why not? As long as you’re not going to shoot an innocent person with it, I don’t really care.
So there’s also the issue of high-capacity magazines. Why does anyone NEED a high-capacity magazine? Well, you tell me. Maybe there’s an optimal number of rounds that one should be able to fire before having to reload. Ten, apparently, is too many. Is five too many? I wouldn’t know. I’ve never needed any bullets, ever. So I have a hard time doing the calculus here, not only because my calculus is super-rusty, but because I don’t really think it matters how many rounds are in your magazine unless you are having a shootout with a bad guy, in which case you would optimally have at least as big a magazine as he does. I don’t know. I don’t have strong feelings about the magazine issue. Make it seven rounds, make it five–I really don’t think it will make much difference. Especially not if the guy brings two guns. Which he might. (It’s been done before.) Especially not if he’s shooting at a bunch of unarmed people.
After Newtown our neighborhood elementary school had a meeting with the principal about school safety and security. Our current principal has been big on school security from the get-go; some parents thought he went a little overboard. But some parents at this meeting demanded that more be done in the wake of this recent tragedy. They wanted armed guards. They wanted armed teachers. I mean, this is the suburbs, but it’s the Portland suburbs. I wouldn’t have expected so many PTO moms to be on the same page as Wayne LaPierre. I reckon individual communities can decide for themselves what type of security their schools need. Personally, I don’t think our neighborhood elementary school needs an armed guard. If we’re going to hire more personnel, I’d just as soon they give us back our librarian and music teacher (and okay, maybe the P.E. teacher too).
I think we’ll be okay without armed guards. At the same time, I’ve never really understood the point of gun-free zones, except to advertise that you’re unarmed. It doesn’t bother me that no one at our school is armed; the odds of a horrifically violent incident are still rather slim, regardless of how close to home the evening news hits. At the same time, it wouldn’t bother me to learn that so-and-so who teaches fifth grade carries a semi-automatic pistol around with him. Does he have a concealed carry permit? Has he been trained to use a firearm? Then I’m okay with it. That’s assuming he’s safe to be around children to begin with. If he’s a homicidal maniac, then I don’t trust him with a stapler around my kid–or with his bare hands, for that matter.
I understand why people get freaked out about guns. My mother was a little freaked out by guns, as I told you. I don’t find them especially cuddly myself. On the other hand, if some criminally-minded person were assaulting me, I don’t think there’s anyone else I’d rather see than some normal person with a gun. Under the right conditions I find the presence of guns very reassuring.
I really like it when police officers have guns. In some countries the police don’t carry guns, and I don’t really understand how that works. I guess it works if the criminals don’t have guns either, but I can’t envision an America with zero guns. Maybe we’d be a better, more peace-loving country with fewer guns, but it’s a little late for that, considering there are hundreds of millions of guns in the U.S. and no way to get rid of all of them unless we repeal the Second Amendment and take extreme police-state measures to confiscate all of them. Even then, I am skeptical that we would be able to get rid of all of them. (And what would we do with them then? Melt them down and make a sculpture dedicated to the brotherhood of man? I guess that’s an idea.) The easiest ones to get will be the ones owned by law-abiding citizens. Criminally-minded gun-owners will probably not give theirs up quite so readily.
But let’s say we manage to round up all the guns, even the ones owned by criminals. I’m not super-comfortable with a society where only the government has guns. That seems kind of creepy to me. Yes, I realize other countries do it like that, but if I wanted to live in those countries, that’s where I’d be. I know, I sound like Archie Bunker now. Well, fine. I don’t feel like Archie Bunker. I feel like a paranoid liberal with a healthy distrust of executive power. If it’s possible for paranoia to be healthy. I don’t know. I’ve changed my mind about a lot of issues over the years—abortion, taxes, capital punishment, education, universal health care…tons of issues—but my position on gun control is basically the same as it was when I was sending money to Amnesty International and ordering anti-Bush t-shirts from the back pages of The Progressive. People scoff at the idea that Americans would ever need to protect themselves from their government, but I don’t see what’s so Idaho-redneck-survivalist about it. What if Mitt Romney had won the election? Wasn’t he going to put us all back in chains? (I jest, but for a lot of people, it isn’t a joke at all.)
Yesterday I read this article comparing gun-rights advocates to abortion-rights advocates. The two groups are similar (the argument goes) because they react to every proposed regulation as though it’s an assault on liberty itself. So the NRA and other Second Amendment enthusiasts can seem a little kooky at times. “Waiting period? Gah! Hitler!” (Not unlike “Waiting period? Gah! Handmaid’s Tale!”) But at the same time, gun control advocates tend to talk as though there are no laws regulating guns, or that the only thing standing between us and peace on earth is the right gun regulation. You know what I say to a reinstatement of the assault weapons ban? Meh. It didn’t decrease crime while it was in effect, and crime hasn’t increased since it’s expired. So, yeah. Meh. We already have hundreds of laws regulating guns. Guns should be regulated–they’re dangerous! But anyone who’s inclined to knock off a liquor store or murder his fellow citizens isn’t going to be too persnickety about buying his firearm from a licensed gun dealer. So good luck with that. Law-abiding citizens already jump through plenty of hoops to get their guns. It’s the people not jumping through the legal hoops that are the real problem, and setting up more hoops for the law-abiding citizen isn’t going to be any skin off the criminal’s nose.
There are two issues here: 1) the practical problem of keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous persons and 2) the right of law-abiding citizens to own firearms. No one’s proposing anything new. Not that I’ve heard. We’re talking as though there’s something new going on—a new assault on gun rights, or a new restriction on gun sales that will actually have some effect on gun-related crime—but there’s nothing new. It’s the same old stuff, for the fifty billionth time. I get bored, but only because otherwise I’d tear out my hair.