Responsible Gun Ownership
I grew up in a small mining town in southwestern Colorado, and guns---hunting rifles, anyway---were ubiquitous. I would walk in a friend’s house, and there would be a rifle, leaning in a corner of the living room or kitchen, or on a rack of antlers above the TV. Ammunition was “stored” (if that is the right term) anywhere convenient: window sill, top of the refrigerator, wherever. In the summer, half the teenage boys would run around with .22s, shooting pretty indiscriminately at birds and squirrels.
There was no shooting to speak of inside the city limits, but there was plenty otherwise. Most of the highway signs in the county bore at least one bullet hole. Some “deer crossing” signs were absolutely perforated.
And people were pretty careless with guns generally. I can remember a number of accidents, including two fatalities, all in a county of only about 1500 people. One of the fatalities was a rancher who stopped his pickup to take a shot at a coyote. He pulled his loaded rifle from the gun rack muzzle first. That’s pretty careless, but I really couldn’t say that it was exceptionally careless for the place and time.
What my childhood world did not have, however, was the school shootings and other massacres. They were simply unheard of, and the question has to be “Why?” What is it that distinguishes the gun-happy 1950s and 1960s from the gun-loony present day?
I have thought about this a lot, and I really believe that the fundamental difference arises from a dramatic change in the NRA’s mentality and public statements during the 1970s.
With freedom comes responsibility. For a long time, that expression of common sense was the mantra of the National Rifle Association. The NRA reasoned that the most effective way to protect the right to bear arms was to encourage its members to set a good example. The organization concentrated its activities on safety and marksmanship classes, and counseling prudent behavior. In 1934, the President of the NRA characteristically stated that “I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. ... I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns.” When I took an NRA gun safety class in junior high, the instructors were sober as judges, and shooting at signs was held up as particularly idiotic behavior.
In 1977, however, a convicted murderer and devotee of the John Birch Society led a hostile takeover of the NRA management, and ever since the NRA has promoted a 24/7 stew of paranoia, conspiracy theories, and wild talk right out of The Turner Diaries. One might imagine that the sudden lurch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde would have prompted a massive loss in membership, but, for whatever reason, that somehow did not happen. The members accommodated themselves to the new regime, and after a while accepted it as “normal”.
The NRA claims that we don’t need regulation of firearms because the vast majority of gun owners are law abiding. This, unfortunately, is irrelevant. We don’t enact criminal laws because of the 95% of the population who are responsible. We enact criminal laws because of the dimwits and fools who cannot or will not regulate themselves. If every responsible, law-abiding person in this country owned a gun, that would only mean that each dimwit and fool would think he needed to own a dozen.
Moreover, the primary purpose of criminal laws is not to punish, but to deter: to speak to the irresponsible in a language that at least some of them may understand. Of course, it would be far better, and ultimately more effective, if this message were conveyed by other means. Our gun problem is a cultural one, and cultural problems demand cultural solutions. Those who regard guns as toys and fantasy objects need the admonitions and good example of friends, family, churches and community leaders. However, when those people or institutions are silent, or are themselves irresponsible, it falls to government to furnish leadership, as imperfect as it may be.
But when society in general and politicians both are supine; when even after a Las Vegas slaughter there is a virtual silence about banning “bump stocks”, that silence speaks volumes to the impressionable: volumes of the wrong message.
Government---whether acting through the criminal justice system or otherwise---cannot be the whole answer to the problem of gun violence. But if some limited governmental action shakes the other elements of society out of their lethargy, then government can be part of the solution. Perhaps it can be the start of the answer.
We didn’t use to have this problem of school shootings and other massacres. There is nothing inevitable or usual about them. They are not the price that we must pay for freedom. They are a diminution of our freedom.
The historian Jacques Barzun said that in his field of study, the word “decadent” was not a slur, but rather a technical term. A society is decadent “[w]hen people accept futility and the absurd as normal”. By that measure, our decadence can hardly be denied.