Now Is the Time for That Discussion About Guns


    Let’s begin that discussion about guns: the current application of our Second Amendment protects the proliferation of weapons. At the time it was written, it was damn difficult to kill with them, though Aaron Burr managed not long thereafter. That amendment was never meant to aid and abet carnage.

    I don’t remember not owning a firearm. My first was given as a Christmas present when I was young; a Savage over and under .22/.410. My father instilled the greatest respect for firearms in me. He locked them away and I did not have access unless there was a purpose. Later I learned that upon his return to college from the Pacific theater and engagements on Tarawa and Saipan, he’d kept a handgun at his bedside. One night late, a spring roller blind in the bedroom snapped open and by the time he awoke he had locked, loaded, and drawn down on my mother who’d jerked up next to him in bed. He’d nearly killed her. Weapons in their home remained secured after that.

    As a college student, I carried a weapon wherever I travelled. I did not have one with me the morning in Richmond when three fellows with sawed off shotguns came into the convenience store near Carytown where I worked. Thinking back, I don’t think it would have helped the situation much, even if I’d open carried. After all, they were only exercising their own open carry rights.

    You’ll find no one more rationally and sentimentally supportive of the second amendment than I. But all this silliness, false bravado, and acting out about what gun rights mean misses the problem it has created: we have guaranteed access and availability of firearms to every individual regardless of their capacity, intent, or history. And our own Governor McDonnell is on record as supporting “the more the merrier” approach to provision. This outcome and attitude is sinfully irresponsible and far from the intent of the framers.  

    This society is not the society extant at the turn of the 19th century. The weapons and ammunition available today weren’t even science fiction when the Constitution was written. There was no rifling and people had to stand a few paces from their target if they hoped to do more than scare their adversary with a pistol. The reload gave time to reconsider. Early Americans knew, cared for, and used their weapons purposefully, most often to stock the table. They weren’t toys or extensions of their “selves.” And they usually didn’t own an armory’s worth. If they did, they kept them in an armory.

    Imagine my surprise when I checked into Quantico for Officers Candidates School and my weapon was confiscated (along with an unopened fifth of Johnny Walker). You see, the military understands a weapon’s purpose and does not allow the casual brandishing or unsecured possession of personal arms aboard forts and bases. Years later, when I was assigned to temporary duty there and an officer candidate in another platoon, screened and selected for a commission, threatened another with a bayonet in a deserted squad bay, I understood the wisdom of that policy as two others on staff and I responded. Wise, even though the only one “armed” at the moment happened to be the perpetrator.

    When my father and I went to hunting camps, restrictions were stringently enforced. Upon the return from the hunt, we always cleaned and maintained our weapons then placed them in a secured space usually locked by the cook who left for the night with the key. No one was allowed to uncork a bottle of booze while any weapon was unsecure. It is absolutely true that guns and alcohol do not mix. These were rules that were respected. The camp policed itself.

    So when I have to think about whether it is open carry or concealed carry that is allowed at a bar in Virginia, I still get confused. And if I am confused, what the heck with the thousands of Virginians who get concealed carry permits without ever handling a weapon. When I attend political gatherings where there are people with holsters strapped around their generous bellies, I am alarmed. I wonder if one of these fat f^%$ has a heart attack and I try to give CPR, I might get drawn on.

    During my assignment to recruit training there was an incident where a recruit, while being closely supervised at the pistol range (as in one coach per two recruits), managed to shoot himself in the head during familiarization firing. Even under controlled conditions, guns are dangerous. Guns have become symbols rather than practical tools of self-defense. They have proliferated for reasons beyond individual rights. There is a certain status they convey for any of a number of reasons; most not good. These have nothing to do with defending against a tyrannical government. Many gun owners have no inkling that that is the defense that allows us to play with them without any coaches (or many rules) at all.

    “Not even kindergarteners learning their A, B, Cs are safe. We heard after Columbine that it was too soon to talk about gun laws. We heard it after Virginia Tech. After Tucson and Aurora and Oak Creek. And now we are hearing it again.” – New York City Mayor Bloomberg

    The fact is, guns do kill people, no matter how snappy that worn out mantra is. I do not believe for a moment that it would have been my father who killed my mother if he had pulled the trigger that night in Columbia, Missouri. No more than the law believes that John Hinckley was “responsible” for shooting Ronald Reagan, Thomas Delahanty, Timothy McCarthy, and James Brady. That’s right, there were four of them shot that day, not the two always remembered. Two of them armed at close range, against one assailant.

    When I was living in Damascus a Syrian woman told me she would never come to America. It is too dangerous. What she saw on TV led her to believe that getting mugged at an ATM was a common occurrence and that nights were unsafe here. Of late I have wondered if her mind had changed relative to her own country. But yesterday it wasn’t at an ATM or at night. And it was no less tragic than what must be her own story today.

    The contemporary interpretation and application of the Second Amendment is absurd. What we have managed to do is to guarantee that all criminals have guns in quantities only armies would require. Yet somehow the discussion always seems to get stymied at “assault” weapons as a place where we find some common ground. You will hear such wisdom as that if the teachers had been armed yesterday, the tragedy could have been prevented. No. Professionals, a DC policeman and a Secret Service Agent could not keep a President (or themselves) safe. And in neither of these cases was an assault weapon used. (Update: the Connecticut shooter was reportedly armed with a semi-automatic rifle but that does not remain consistent.)

    Our camp needs to refine its mores. While social norms remain deficient, we require stricter, enforceable laws. And now and even afterwards, we need a cook to hold the keys.  

    • Jim B

      Maybe this country has gone too far off the edge to pull back. Gun nuts are ruling the country thanks to one political party and cowardice by the other.

    • Thanks for writing that and posting here, I hope a lot of people read this.

    • Jim B

      In my younger days I don’t recall there being much gun control or maybe there was none. I may be wrong, but it seems the gun nuttiness began with gun control laws. Of course we can’t go back to those days, but where do we start? It has gotten so ridiculous that people don’t want to restrict 50 cal machine guns.

      I served in the army and no body I knew ever wanted to bring a 50 cal gun home. The discover channel has gun shows showing the firing of these weapons as tho they were a sport.

    • Elaine in Roanoke

      Surely, it’s time for a few sensible things to be done:

      1. Close the gun show and Internet gun sales loopholes in background checks.

      2. Have the Federal government provide the money to put mental health records for identified mentally ill people in the background check data base. Supposedly, we became committed to do that after Va.Tech, but the money isn’t there.

      3. Require mental health professionals to notify police of those they see who appear to be an imminent danger to themselves or to others.

      4. Counter the worship of weapons by the NRA and the gun manufacturers who fund the NRA. That will take a grassroots movement.

      No steps will end the craziness like that in Connecticut, but we need  

    • George Burke

      You provided a unique, reasoned (and damning) perspective on guns, free of hyperbole and angst.

    • Teddy Goodson

      Owning your own gun for hunting was still a tradition, especially but not exclusively, in the rural South, but long gone from urban society when I was a child. We often had venison, dove, wild duck, wild goose for dinner (my Yankee mother had to learn to cook such, to her, exotic items), and we always had at least one dog my father used to take with him when he hunted, and which he had personally trained. His weapons were locked away in a special gun cabinet, the ammunition kept separately. Guns were treated with respect and great caution, and this attitude was explicitly passed down to the next generation. I even remember my Southern grandmother telling my uncle she wanted him to shoot a hawk that was after her chickens, and he did… with a rifle.

      I cannot relate in any way to this bizarre mania to own multiple guns which are never used for hunting, and usually not even used for firing at clay pigeons, yet many “conservative” publications (even investment news letters) harp on doomsday, the coming breakdown of society, and encourage readers to stock up on all kinds of weaponry for “self defense” and to protect their families. It’s a crazy rationale, and so laden with emotions that it’s like a religion, and not subject to discussion.

    • aznew

      Dan – possibly the best single essay I have read on guns.

      It seems after every one of these tragedies, we wonder what it will take to bring these pro-gun zealots to their senses. And just when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, it somehow does.

      I’m not anti-gun. And I respect the Constitution, even when in my view it requires a conclusion that is at odd with my political and policy preference.

      At this point, it seems to me that anyone who argues that the easy access to firearms and the lack of effective gun-control measures does not contribute to what we are seeing these days in America — and here I speak not only of mass killings like yesterday’s tragedy, but also the senseless carnage we see every day — they are either liars, willfully deceiving themselves or too dumb to recognize what is happening right in front of their faces.

      Either way, there is no arguing with these people. If anything is to get done, it will be in spite of these people, not because they have been persuaded.

      I don’t think we have gone too far. I think there are enough persuadable people in America that there is hope.

      President Obama promised “meaningful” action, regardless of the politics. He seem genuinely touched by yesterday’s event. Let’s keep the pressure up, and lets see what he does.

    • Interesting column by Paul Krugman:

      Nate Cohn argues that this same logic applies to gun control: the voters who care passionately about their semi-automatic weapons are rural whites who ain’t gonna vote Democratic in any case – and the new Democratic coalition doesn’t need them. David Atkins takes it further, saying the awful truth: the pro-gun fanatics are basically the kind of people who think that Obama is a Kenyan socialist atheistic Islamist, and the urban hordes are coming for their property any day now. People, in other words, who already vote 100 percent Republican – and lose elections.

    • kindler

      Much better coming from someone with experience and understanding of guns than for somebody like me whose experience is limited to water pistols…

      One point to add: the NRA and company will use the fact that the issue in these mass shootings goes beyond guns (to mental health, etc.) to say that it’s not about guns.  As Elaine noted above, we need to act on all of these issues in concert.