As tragedy after tragedy rolls across our screens and through our lives, breaking hearts and destroying lives, we are seemingly paralyzed by politics, unable to do anything to change our path. As on so many issues, many of us talk past each other and refuse to acknowledge any validity in differing views. We refuse to acknowledge uncomfortable truths because they might undermine our arguments and refuse to budge an inch because we fear “slippery slopes”.
I think we have had enough of that, and need to come together seriously and talk about common sense things that can be done to lessen the danger posed to us all. This will require opponents of guns to give up on the fantasy that America will be prepared to ban guns any time in the conceivable future, not matter how good the arguments for it may seem. It will also require gun advocates to give up on the fantasy that there can and should be no limitations on their right to bear arms.
For context, I grew up in a hunting family and began hunting with my father and brothers (hunting was just a male thing in our family) as soon as I was legally able. We always had rifles and shotguns for hunting in the house, and my father, a former farm boy who had grown up hunting himself, and a Korean War veteran, taught us how to use them and respect them. I still remember the day when I first began hunting. A young boy in our group forgot to put the safety on his rifle before we entered the woods. His father made him sit alone in the car the entire day while we hunted as punishment. I remember looking back at him crying in the back seat of the car as we walked away. His father never looked back. That’s how seriously we took safety. I haven’t hunted in many years and don’t have any guns in my house currently, but technically I guess I still own the guns I hunted with when I was younger, an ancient single shot .410 shotgun and a Winchester .30-30 lever action rifle. I’ve been thinking lately of reclaiming them from my brother because some of my friends go shooting regularly and it would be fun to join them.
I have no fear or awe of guns. I also served a diplomatic tour in Afghanistan at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar, where I regularly had to climb over someone’s M-4 just to sit down in the DFAC (mess hall). I shot the M-4 and other weapons occasionally on the gun range, and although the State Department did not want its diplomats carrying guns in a war zone (unlike Vietnam), I had an arrangement with my military counterpart that if the shit ever hit the fan when we were out on a mission, he’d hand me his side arm to cover him and protect myself. Thankfully, it never did.
My whole life I’ve been comfortable with the idea of guns as weapons of war and tools for hunting. I’ve never really been into sport shooting, but have friends who are, and I’m comfortable with that, as well. I have never really felt the need to have or carry a gun for self-protection, even when I lived in what were considered dangerous areas rather than the uber-safe suburbs I live in now. I consider the fears of many who do to be exaggerated, but I respect their opinion and do my best to understand.
There are many legitimate uses for guns, and the vast majority of those who own them are law-abiding and reasonably responsible with them. That said, the carnage wreaked by the minority who are not is devastating to us as a country. Not just in terms of the numbers of people slain (or who commit suicide with a gun, as my brother-in-law did last year), although that is high, but in the psychological damage it does to us as a people, causing us to fear each other and changing our behavior to account for real and imagined risks.
We need to acknowledge that guns are just tools, not inherently evil in and of themselves. However, we also must acknowledge that they are extremely dangerous tools, and should be treated and regulated as such, much as we regulate the use of other dangerous tools, like heavy machinery and vehicles. Our national fascination with them makes the United States a much more dangerous place. Political scientists like to talk about the social contract between citizens and their government as being on a spectrum between freedom and security. In this case, our social contract, like it or not, has us trading physical safety and security for the freedom to bear arms. That doesn’t mean we can do nothing to lessen the carnage, however.
We need to come to consensus on what limitations and regulation of guns makes sense and will pass the constitutional test of an extremely conservative Supreme Court. We cannot allow extremists and vested interests to prevent that consensus. It’s too important.
Here are some measures that I think make sense. None of them would prevent any mentally stable, non-criminal adult from owning any gun they want. However, over time, I believe they could reduce significantly the number of needless deaths and injuries from those guns.
- All new guns should be licensed. Guns already owned should be grandfathered, as I want no part of trying to force current gun owners to license their guns. That said, every time a gun passes hands, any new owner must license it. Failure to do so should be a misdemeanor, punishable by law, and if said unlicensed gun is used in the commission of a crime, the owner could also be exposed to possible civil damages. A clean bill of mental health and lack of a significant criminal record should be a requirement for new gun ownership.
- There should be more advanced licenses, with stricter requirements, to own more than two or three guns, or to own more advanced weapons, ammunition and modifications, such as military-style rifles, high capacity magazines, silencers, modifications designed to make a weapon fire faster, armor piercing bullets, or weapons with extraordinary range, penetration or destructive power (more than your ordinary hunting rifle, shotgun or handgun loaded with standard ammo, in other words).
- All new gun owners should be required to take gun safety and marksmanship classes before taking possession of the gun. I see too many people walking around, read too many tragic stories, and see too many videos of guns being unsafely carried, handled and stored. If you want to own these dangerous tools, you need to know how to use them, care for them and store them properly.
- There should be a new and significant tax on firearms, ammunition and associated items, to defray the medical and other costs that inevitably arise from our decision to be a well-armed populace. With freedom comes responsibility.