A man learns about gun safety from his girlfriend, who introduced him to guns.
Mass shootings have received much attention in the news in recent years, and for good reason. According to databases maintained by the Mass Shooting Tracker, there were 330 mass shootings (a shooting in which at least four people are killed or wounded) in the U.S. in 2015, 280 in 2014, and 254 in 2013.
Thus it might come as a surprise that gun violence has declined in the U.S. over the previous two decades. The number of gun homicides annually has declined by almost half since 1993, even as civilian firearms per capita doubled from 1968 to 2009. The discrepancy between conspicuous news coverage of mass shootings and the overall decline in gun violence helps explain a 2013 Pew Research report that a majority of Americans believe that the gun crime rate is higher today than it was in 1993.
One thing that is certain though is that much attention is devoted to the problem of gun violence. Even if gun violence is on the decline (though a majority of the decline occurred in the 1990s), it should nevertheless be uncontroversial to aver that we should strive for zero tolerance of gun violence.
Less certain, and more controversial, is how to go about trying to minimize, if not eliminate, gun violence. This is in part because the gun issue touches on several topics, often sensitive, on which people in a diverse society can have reasonable differences of opinion: the meaning of the Second Amendment; what constitutes effective gun-control legislation; socioeconomic and demographic explanations for the decline in gun violence; whether guns are effective in self-defense; and the ethics of using guns for the sport of hunting. The gun debate can be like the abortion debate. It’s hard to find agreement, or even some common ground.
I would venture to say, however, that there is one issue on which all sides can agree: the importance of safety.
- How to safely handle guns.
- How to safely secure guns.
- How to safely transport guns.
But the most important maxim of gun safety should be:
All guns are loaded. Always.
That was the crucial message an NRA (National Rifle Association) certified instructor conveyed while teaching a gun safety class I recently attended in West Virginia. It’s also a message my girlfriend Kara emphasized from the moment she introduced me to guns, and reiterated again about a week before we took the class, this time with admonishment when I inadvertently pointed a gun at her while she was cleaning her closet in the home we share. She showed me an old .22 Derringer she had hidden in her closet. Her deceased great aunt bequeathed it to her. She let me hold it. It was so small I could palm it with my hand and wrap my fingers almost entirely around it. I took it and examined it. As I did so, I did not notice how I was pointing it in several different directions. Then I handed it back to her. It was not loaded. My finger was not on the trigger. The gun lay flat in my palm.
But the barrel was pointed at her.
‘Jesus wept!’ She cried. ‘That’s ####ed up!’
‘What?’ I asked defensively.
‘You need more practice with guns,’ she said matter-of-factly. ‘Don’t ever point a gun at me like that!’
The gun was unloaded and it was so small it looked like a toy. It was easy to be callous and forget the most basic of all lessons, a lesson she had been trying to teach me since she first introduced me to guns about a year ago:
All guns are loaded. Always.
So now I was in a gun safety class in West Virginia (I live in Virginia, but classes in the area of Virginia where I live were booked up for months). In February, Kara and I were in a gun shop in West Virginia taking a look at the selection of guns. While there, we learned from the gunsmith that there would be a class on gun safety conducted at the shop in a month’s time. We decided to sign up and attend.
West Virginia is where Kara was born and raised. Periodically we visit her family, and whenever we visit, we usually go to the range. She had been going to the range since her father introduced her to guns when she was eight years old. When we first started dating, she wanted to share the experience with me.
The first time I went to the range—the first time I ever pulled a trigger—I was wary, even though I benefitted from the guidance of both Kara and her dad. I thought about how anyone in the range could simply point the gun at me, pull the trigger, and kill me. I was also in awe. I had never handled a gun before. If I made a mistake, it might be me doing the killing.
After five or ten minutes, I was amazed that I felt so much at ease. It was almost all men at the range—mostly stolid and mainly bearded, but some gregarious and some clean cut—donning ear plugs and glasses, blasting away at their targets, or otherwise meticulously loading magazines or storing away their guns before leaving. They all went about their business perfunctorily: entering, loading, shooting, packing up, and leaving.
It was all so commonplace!
I also saw two girls around the age of ten shooting a rifle, under the supervision of a man who seemed to be their father or uncle (he turned out to be a family friend). He was a convivial fellow, sharing with pride a visual of the target the girls had shot up. ‘I’ve got some dangerous girls,’ he boasted facetiously, showing us a target in which bullets had punctured the bull’s-eye in the middle.
He also talked to us about the kinds of guns he likes to shoot and discussed his experience teaching people how to shoot. Since we were a couple, he also handed us a business card because he had a part-time hobby/business in photography (in case one day we decided to get married!). Meanwhile, he watched closely over the two girls, paying careful attention to their technique. The girls were attentive and respectful, but also seemed as happy as if they were at Chuck E Cheese. It was fun for them.
Finally it was my turn. I listened carefully as Kara and her father instructed me on how to stand, how to hold, how to aim, and how to pull the trigger. It was more complicated, and more difficult, than I had anticipated. Not rocket science. But there was much to learn. How to breath, how to pull the trigger at a slow steady pace and avoid jerking at it with your trigger finger, how not to aim at the center of the target but just below it.
What surprised me the most is that I really liked it.
- Holding a gun.
- Pointing it.
- Aiming it.
- Hitting a target.
I also suddenly became enamored of these pieces of metal as instruments of self-defense. There was a sense of empowerment in holding a gun that was invigorating. At the same time, it was unnerving. The sense of empowerment can easily become reckless. Guns are powerful, destructive devices. One can reasonably argue (as many have) that the possession of a gun, and the intention of its use for self-defense, can aggravate rather than ameliorate a situation in which guns are used to defend against an assault. A person being robbed who pulls out a gun can scare a gun-wielding thief into pulling a trigger when he (or she) has every intention of not doing so (using the gun only as a threat to ‘convince’ you to hand over your valuables).
Moreover, a person being assaulted who pulls out a gun on his or her assailant may be well-trained or poorly-trained, and depending on (or perhaps in spite of) the degree of training can introduce more randomness into an already volatile situation. Even so, gun owners intent on self-defense are not agreeable to letting an assailant have his (or her) way without a fight.
Whatever the case may be, guns are dangerous devices fraught with risk.
It is a serious responsibility to carry and employ a gun for the purpose of self-defense. I hoped to never be presented with a situation calling for the use of a gun, but having gripped a gun for the first time, I suddenly wanted to know how to use a gun to defend myself if a mortal threat ever presented itself. Yet, there is no sure thing in such situations; make one mistake and you are a tragic victim (or perpetrator) instead of a newsworthy hero.
For similar reasons, Kara insisted I needed to keep practicing how to handle and shoot a gun. Thus it is a rare trip to West Virginia in which we do not visit the range. Not just to get comfortable with how to load, shoot, and handle guns, but to put me in the presence of guns frequently enough to drill in my head the most basic of safety lessons that all responsible gun owners should know second nature:
All guns are loaded. Always.
As a corollary, you should never put your finger on the trigger until you are ready to shoot. During one trip to the range, Kara arranged for her phone to take a photo of us in which I held the gun. I was not pointing it at anyone, but neither was I pointing it down range. Moreover, my finger was on the trigger. When I posted it on Facebook, a friend conversant with guns exclaimed: ‘Jon, if a range officer saw you with your finger on the trigger like that, he would kick you out!’ He was right.
As much as I was beginning to appreciate the responsibility of owning a gun in the abstract, I was untrained. I was prone to making dangerous mistakes.
Hence, the need to drill.
Though reprimanded by Kara (and my friend on Facebook) when I got callous, even if inadvertently, I was undeterred. My enthusiasm for guns was now unquenchable, and I owed it all to Kara, from the first time I watched in awe as she disassembled a magazine from a pistol as we prepared to leave for a trip to West Virginia.
She was happy to see that I did not shy away from an activity she grew up learning from her dad. She was adamant though that I learn how to handle a gun properly. She also thought it was a good idea to get comfortable with one gun in particular. Part of gun safety is being comfortable with the gun you use. That’s one reason we were at the gun shop looking at guns in the first place. But before she allowed me to go ahead and purchase my own gun, Kara insisted I take a gun safety class.
So there we were in West Virginia, hearing an NRA-certified instructor repeat over and over:
All guns are loaded. Always.
The class was held in a room behind the gun shop. There were two other couples. Everyone was engaged. There was much interaction between instructor and students. There was an overall feeling of camaraderie and enthusiasm for guns.
But most important, which escaped no one in the room, were the lessons to be learned. Never put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot. Never point the gun at anything you don’t plan to shoot. Always know what you’re shooting at and what’s beyond. Read and understand the owner’s manual of the gun you buy. In addition to safety precautions, I learned a lot of things about guns I never knew before. For years, I wondered what the caliber of a gun signifies. Now I know. I also gained familiarity with terms like magazine, primer, rim fire, center fire, and the difference between a cartridge and a bullet.
The most important lesson?
All guns are loaded. Always.
That basic message was stated so repeatedly it was like a slogan that circled around the room and kept swatting my head until it bored open a hole and made a home there. Now it nests. Every time I see a gun, the slogan wakes me up like an alarm clock. And yet, at the end of the day, after class had ended, I was discussing the class with the gun store owner, who decided to test me by suddenly handing me a gun with the gun pointed at him. A moment of cognitive dissonance ensued. I knew he had been around guns all his life, so he knew what he was doing, right? And yet, I had just spent eight hours learning that I should treat all guns as loaded. I hesitated, then sheepishly remarked that I probably shouldn’t take a gun from him that was pointing straight at him. That’s right, he said. I had passed the test.
I now have my gun safety certificate and am ready to apply for a concealed carry permit (though Kara won’t let me carry until she thinks I’ve had enough practice, which could be a while). Meanwhile, I continue to go to the range to practice. On the day after class, Kara and I went to the range. I shot about twenty-five rounds. The revolver I shot was a five-shot, so I loaded and unloaded five times. The first few loads, my shots were scattered all around the target. On the last five shots, Kara told me to breathe and pull more slowly on the trigger. ‘Don’t jerk at it,’ she said. I carefully loaded the chambers and clicked the cylinder into place. I dropped the eyeglasses to the bridge of my nose. Gripped the gun as I took my Weaver stance. Took a deep breath. Aimed just below the middle of the target. Then squeezed the trigger. Slow and steady, allowing, as Kara said, ‘to be surprised when the shot goes off.’
- I unloaded my five shots.
- Three went straight through the bull’s-eye.
- Kara smiled proudly and congratulated me.
- She taught me well.
- http://www.shootingtracker.com/Main_Page. There are discrepancies in the number of mass shootings reported by various news and data outlets. A story by PBS News Hours, citing data from Mass Shooting Tracker, reports 372 mass shootings in 2015; see: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2015-the-year-of-mass-shootings/. After the San Bernardino shooting, a story by NPR in early December 2015, citing an article in the Washington Post on the same day, reported that the San Bernardino shooting was the 355th mass shooting of 2015; see: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/12/03/458321777/a-tally-of-mass-shootings-in-the-u-s, and https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/02/the-san-bernardino-mass-shooting-is-the-second-today-and-the-355th-this-year/.
According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there were 18,253 gun homicides in 1993, 11,101 in 2011; see: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/fv9311pr.cfm. A study by the Pew Research Center reports that the number of gun homicides per 100,000 people was 7 in 1993, 3.6 in 2010; see: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/. See also: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/05/07/181998015/rate-of-u-s-gun-violence-has-fallen-since-1993-study-says. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, homicides caused by firearms declined from 18,253 in 1993 to 11,493 in 2009. Moreover, “Per capita, the civilian gun stock has roughly doubled since 1968, from one gun per every two persons to one gun per person.” See data cited in a Congressional Research Service report on gun control; see: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL32842.pdf. Moreover, a CNN story reports that overall homicide rates (guns are used in seven in ten homicides) have significantly declined over the last fifty years. See: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/04/us/gun-violence-graphics/
http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2013/05/07/gun-homicide-rate-down-49-since-1993-peak-public-unaware/. See also: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2013/05/07/181998015/rate-of-u-s-gun-violence-has-fallen-since-1993-study-says
“For both fatal and nonfatal firearm victimizations, the majority of the decline occurred during the 10-year period from 1993 to 2002.” See: http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/press/fv9311pr.cfm
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