11 October 2017

The Devil Loads Empty Guns

David Edgerley Gates


Back in the late Bronze Age, when I was a kid going to summer camp, the NRA was a sportsmen's organization. They taught firearms safety, and sponsored marksmanship competitions, and published The American Rifleman, which was pretty much the only gun magazine available, aside from maybe Shotgun News, which was basically classified ads. I learned to shoot at Camp Chewonki - I was ten or eleven, if memory serves - and I was awarded the NRA pins and patches for whichever level I got to.  I think Sharpshooter, that first year. We shot prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. Single-shot .22 bolt actions. Paper targets at fifty feet. Ten rounds. You needed to score in the black. I want to emphasize, though, that riflery was one of a mix of activities, swimming, canoeing, lanyard-weaving, woodcraft. They wanted to keep us busy, that critical mass of boys.

My dad let me buy my own .22 when I was fourteen. He was from Ohio, he'd served in the war, and like a lot of people his age, it seemed perfectly natural for kids to learn basic shooting skills. How not? He and I shot up a lot of tin cans.

I went in the military, then, with a little preparation, and qualified Expert on the .30 caliber carbine. Now, the .30 carbine is a lightweight compared to the M-14 the Marines were still being issued at the time, or the M-16 the Army had transitioned to, and they were shooting at distances out to three hundred yards, but still. Iron sights on a little gun that fired what wasn't all that much more than a pistol load? I thought I did okay. 

In the years since that first .22, I've had a few other guns, a couple of single-actions, cowboy guns, a couple of auto-loaders. One of the things I've always liked about guns is their simplicity of function. I'm no good at working on cars, I couldn't take a carburetor apart, but guns are straightforward, mechanically, like a watch. The single-action Army, for example, a design that dates to 1873, has six moving parts, with three springs. There aren't that many more in a .45 auto, the 1911. Guns you can drop in sand, or salt water, and they'll still operate. That's why they were military-issue.

This is prologue. I'm telling you so you know where my sympathies lie. It's a familiar story. Anybody of a certain generation, or anybody with a certain background, is going to say more or less the same thing. They grew up in a culture where hunting and shooting were part of the metric. It didn't make you a nut. Of course, this is also a culture where military service was often the norm. So, it depends on your attitude toward that. If you can't see yourself in uniform, you might be unsympathetic. Same with guns. Or broccoli. 

But my actual question here is, What the heck happened to the NRA? How did they shape-shift from a generic bunch of hunters and recreational shooters, back in the day, into this pack of rabid crazies? (Exaggeration for effect, of course, but that's how they're perceived by many.) The answer is that there was a coup, at the national meeting in Cincinnati, in 1977. 

Forty years ago, a dissident group led by Harlon Carter waged a floor fight, and voted the NRA board of directors out of office. Carter's platform was simple: on 2nd Amendment issues, there's no room for compromise. Compromise means erosion, and the end result of gun control can only be confiscation and tyranny.

This is how the argument continues to be framed. If the gun-control advocates suggest banning high-cap mags, to take an example, 2nd Amendment absolutists say this is gradualism, a wolf in sheep's clothing. They've got a point. Once you start loosening the bricks in the wall, you hasten its collapse, and gun rights people simply don't believe it, when you tell them these are just common-sense measures. They know your real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. And when you come right down to it, there are people whose real agenda is getting rid of guns, period. It flies in the face of reason and experience to say that isn't true. So the problem isn't just the gun guys. The problem is that both sides believe themselves to possess the True Cross, and Satan rules their adversaries.

Where do I stand, personally? Like more than a few gun guys, I'm for gun control. But the dialogue, if you can call it that, is owned by the extremes, and what's in short supply is trust.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.

9 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Gun control. As a retired police officer, I'm for it, been for it since my earliest days in law enforcement. When I became a homicide detective - well I'll give you one anecdote. We handled a double killing once, outside a bar where two half-drunk men argued over a parking spot, both pulled out guns and shot each other. Do I need to mention drive by shootings? Mass killings? America is a half-cocked gun waiting to go off.

We license and regulate automobiles, we should license and regulate firearms. How would we pay for this? License fees for guns. That's right. If you have 27 guns, you'll have to pay a license fee for each gun - yearly. Also, put a tax on ammunition like we do with cigarettes.

Yes, and only law abiding citizens will be able to have guns. Ones without criminal records of violent crimes. Ones not on no-fly lists. Ones not flagged with mental issues. Unregistered guns can be seized.

Possessing an unlicensed firearm would be a crime. OK, our jails are too full. Make the punishment economic. A fine. Then another and another. Hit them where it hurts. Money.

If you ever had to put on a rubber glove and fish though a blog of blood and brains to find a bullet, you'll see the light.

I will never get over Sandy Hook. All those beautiful children killed by a madman with easy access to firearms. And Columbine and Virginia Tech and Las Vegas, the list goes on and on. But you know that. We all know that.

Steve Liskow said...

Excellent post, David.

I've fired a gun a few times in my life, but I've never owned one and wasn't in the military because I went directly from a student deferment into teaching.

I agree with you and O'Neil because you know more about the subject, but I think you hit the crux on the problem dead center with your comment that the dialogue now belongs to extremes and that there's no trust.

Unfortunately, that's pretty much the political climate across the board, isn't it?

janice law said...

A good column. I grew up in the country where even my dad who didn't hunt kept a .22 to shoot the occasional rat or woodchuck. No one thought it necessary to have a hand gun or a home arsenal. One of the things that troubles me is that we have become such a frightened nation, fearful of our neighbors and of some undefined 'other".

R.T. Lawton said...

David, I'm with you, we need some gun control. Who needs an automatic rifle with a 20 or 30 round magazine to hunt deer? That's a man killing weapon. Much of any gun control argument comes in the details of that control. Unfortunately, there will always be a black market for anything that is banned, plus if a criminal wants a weapon, he can always steal it from a registered gun owner. And, with the mass of weapons available in America, there are plenty to steal. Not sure what answer will work, but we need to try something. Like others have said, trust becomes a problem.

How well is the UK ban on handguns working? At one point, enough criminals were coming up with handguns that special policemen were designated to carry firearms in order to meet the threat.

Eve Fisher said...

I remember back when armor-piercing bullets were introduced, and it seemed like every local, state, and federal law enforcement did NOT want them legalized, because of their obvious danger to law enforcement personnel. But they were. That's when I knew that the NRA had ceased to give a damn about law abiding citizens, because if they were, they would have listened to the pleas of cops, etc. around the country.

I've never owned a gun. I've been in a lot of dangerous situations. I have managed, so far, to either talk or run my way out of all of them, which is fine with me. I can take the time to do that.

I don't want to ban guns. But I want them regulated. I want them registered, licensed, taxed, and insured. I want people who want to buy one to have to undergo a background check (criminal, mental health). I would also like some psychological testing required. One of the first questions I would ask is, "Do you believe that owning a gun will make you feel safe?" If the answer is yes, then I really don't want that person to have one, because it means that the person is depending on something outside themselves to make them FEEL safe. And nothing exterior ever makes you FEEL anything for very long at all. And nothing exterior will ever make you never, ever, ever feel afraid again.

John Floyd said...

Great column, David, as usual.

O'Neil, you and Eve have made two of the best arguments I've ever heard, on this subject.

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks, John!

David Edgerley Gates said...

O'Neil - Here's something I think is an interesting sidelight. When concealed carry was debated in New Mexico (quite recently*), most LEO's of my acquaintance were for it, which surprised opponents. The cops' reasoning was simple: they preferred knowing that people with carry permits had passed at least some minimal qualifications, which included safety classes and range time, not being a recently released mental patient, and not being under a restraining order for domestic violence. Yes, the restrictions could have been tighter, but they were better than no restrictions at all.
*NM has always been historically an Open Carry state, with few restrictions or regulation. Concealed sparked a vigorous debate, and the law in its current form wasn't passed until 2003.

Leigh Lundin said...

David, that’s a powerful article.

My father taught me how to shoot, a guy who didn’t have patience with shotguns, which he said were intended for people who didn’t know how to shoot. I may have earned a merit badge in marksmanship; I can’t recall, only that our scoutmasters also saw that we learned shooting and safety.

Then I met a guy who scared me. He was intelligent, but he exhibited an intensity about guns, an obsession that bordered on the Beatles’ song, Happiness is a Warm Gun “When I hold you in my arms (oh, yeah), and I feel my finger on your trigger…” Despite his good looks and obvious smarts, something was patently wrong with him. Girls shied away from him; so did guys for that matter. He had taken that old TV cowboy movie trope to heart, that his guns were an extension of him.

Since then I’ve met a couple of others who concerned me. One would have caused Tim McVeigh to hide under a church alter and suck his thumb.

David, I hadn’t known how the NRA had morphed from a hobbyist organization to the industry’s lobbyist, and I appreciated hearing it.