One man from an anti-gun culture comes to embrace firearms and the responsibility and freedom they embody.
Author’s note: I completed this essay about a week before the shooting in Aurora, Colorado. It is not my intention to use the incident as a platform for these thoughts, but if ever this kind of discussion was timely, it is now.
Until I was twenty years old, I had never fired any kind of firearm. At summer camp, I may have shot BB guns, but that, and the occasional water pistol or Laser Tag gun, was my entire experience with anything approaching a firearm until college.
On a trip to a college friend’s house, I shot a revolver with his grandfather. So green was I around guns, I didn’t think to protect my ears, which rang for a week after only a few shots. A year later, I tried firing a rifle. For about another eighteen years, I did not pick up any kind of firearm.
At thirty-eight, I decided to become more serious about gun education and ownership. What changed?
I was not mugged or assaulted. I don’t live in a high crime area. There was no traumatic event that sent me running to the gun store. To fully explain my decision to become a gun owner, I have to take a step back first.
I wasn’t raised in an anti-gun culture (unless you count the entire state of Massachusetts as anti-gun, which you might), but I wasn’t exactly raised in a pro-gun culture either. My father wasn’t against firearms, but I don’t think he ever saw the need for them and succumbed, as did I for a long time, to anti-gun hysteria. Walk or drive by Fenway Park, for instance, and you will see a giant billboard touting the horrors of guns—it’s been there for years. To paraphrase, “guns kill children every thirty seconds.” That’s pretty scary (and some would say misleading) and enough for most parents to calculate that it is better not to have a gun in the house than to have one.
No parent wants to come home to the ultimate horror: a child somehow gets his or her hands on a weapon and an accident ensues. Similarly, no one wants to be the victim of a home invasion that could have been thwarted by having a firearm handy. In the case of my father, I surmise, the former scenario won out as he weighed the choices, and when you live in an area where violent crime is low the choice against a gun becomes easier.
Other factors were geography and culture. Jews from New England are more likely to be associated with the Ivy League or law firms than with firearms ownership, and, in Massachusetts, owning a hand gun might earn you more sneers than congratulations or thoughtful remarks. Whatever the reasons, I knew next to nothing about firearms for most of my adult life nor did I feel the need to be protected by one.
Undoubtedly, it was having a family and children that caused me to rethink gun ownership. And, somewhat ironically, moving out of the city to suburbia made gun ownership seem more appealing.
When I was first married, I lived in a condominium building in Brookline, Massachusetts. Brookline is a safe city, but having many neighbors and knowing police are just a stone’s throw away made having a gun seem unnecessary. Moving to the suburbs of Boston and a house, even though in a good neighborhood with other homes close by, caused me to feel more isolated than I had before. In addition, with a wife and two young children, there was suddenly more to protect than just myself.
We had an alarm installed, but last summer a hurricane knocked the power out for a few days. The house and everyone in it was vulnerable, at least it seemed so with police occupied elsewhere. The storm and increasing incidences of wanton violence—even though far away—caused me to feel I should tip the balance of my and my family’s safety away from the police department and more into my own hands. After all, anyone with knowledge of crime and criminal statistics will tell you: the police can’t prevent crime. They can thwart it and discourage it, but more often than not, they arrive after the crime has been committed.
There are reasons other than personal safety—perhaps even greater—that justify gun ownership, in my opinion. There is moral principle. We live, increasingly, whether you approve of it or not, in a country that is moving toward government control. Unless Obamacare is reversed next year, for the first time in our nation’s history we will have our health care decisions resting in the hands of the government. It is an undeniable fact that we, as Americans, are becoming more regulated, more overseen, and more dependent on our government. Should we put our own safety in the hands of a distant bureaucrat as well? Should we allow our legislators to tell us we are too simple to own and handle firearms ourselves?
It’s not my intention to ignite a gun control debate in this essay. Briefly however, I am a conservative thinker and have profound respect for the second amendment. Again and again, the second amendment has been interpreted by courts to mean an individual has the right to possess firearms while the ‘collective’ argument has never gained any real traction. The Supreme Court has ruled against most gun bans, and in the places where they are enacted violent crime is not contained. Oftentimes, the opposite happens: when guns are banned, crime goes up. See the excellent arguments of John Lott in this regard (More Guns, Less Crime).
The legal debate notwithstanding, my aversion to gun control proponents comes not only from their hysteria and misleading and incorrect information, but also from the idea that my individual liberty and my ability to make choices for the protection of myself and my family should be in someone else’s hands.
After all, I live Massachusetts, quite close to towns where the American Revolution began. Because men—individuals—could bear arms, they were able to take a stand against an abusive power. How far we have fallen when some say we no longer need or should avail ourselves of this basic right—that we should trust the authorities to protect us and keep us human?
This is, when you cut through all the statistics and the rhetoric, what the debate is really about: gun control proponents, being mainly statist, wish to control people, and if you take away gun rights you can more easily control people. Without pause, I can see this will be dismissed as so much right-wing paranoia, but I’ll put my fellow man’s ability to safely use firearms up against removing that ability entirely any day. Education and the metrics of gun safety have been increasing in the positive direction for years. No serious gun ownership proponent is arguing for the Wild West, despite the efforts of some to characterize the NRA, et al. this way. Rather, the argument boils down to a moral one: in America, individual liberty is paramount (or should be) and the choice to own a firearm is part and parcel of those liberties. Take away this right and you take away liberty. Take away liberty and you take away the individual. Take away the individual and you no longer have or will continue to have an exceptional nation.
Do we live under imminent threat of invasion? Do I see gun ownership as the line in the stand between my freedom and a knock late at night from an emissary of a burgeoning police-state? No, of course not. But in a small way, I feel I’m doing a civic duty by exercising my right to “keep and bear arms,” just like those Minutemen from so long ago. The British may no longer be coming, but a criminal who knows a home or a community is well armed will keep moving when faced with that reality. I respect and admire the police, but they can’t be everywhere at all times, and as I wrote before, if you don’t take responsibility for yourself and your family, who will? Government may be there, but it does not care.
In a very practical sense, I am getting older. At 39, there is a new ache and pain every day. Some days I don’t feel strong, but a gun is the ultimate equalizer. It puts a 98-pound weakling on the same plane as a 300-pound aggressor. I sincerely doubt I’ll ever have need to use a hand gun, but as the saying goes “better to have a gun and never need it than be in need of one and not able to get it.” As I feel less certain about my body and its strength, I take comfort to know that a hand gun holds at bay the ravages of age and levels the playing field in a potential physical confrontation.
I would never consider myself a gear head, but it has been interesting and edifying to learn about the mechanics of handguns. In much the same way a hobbyist might get into model trains or coins, guns are interesting devices. Learning about the parts of a gun, how it actually works, and the myriad styles and sizes has been tremendously fun. This does not include ammunition, which in and of itself is fun to learn about and experiment with.
Beginning with my first class on gun safety through the steps taken to get my LTC (License to Carry) through instruction on how to load, shoot, and understand range etiquette to my trips to shoot by myself, everyone I have met has been competent, cautious, and knowledgeable. It belies the stereotype of the rube, the survivalist, and the cowboy, who gun control advocates would have us believe is the typical firearms owner.
There are so many things to consider when getting a firearm that it can be daunting. Do you go with a pistol or a revolver? Single action, double action, or double action only? A safety. A decocker. Gun weight and size. Shot capacity. Ammunition caliber. Carry versus home defense. How to transport and carry a weapon. How to clean and store it, and, when stored, to have it ‘hot’ (loaded and ready to go) or unloaded and/or trigger-locked.
And then there is the actual shooting. Squirting a water pistol might seem easy, but accurately putting a round on target is challenging. Anyone who likes competition and precision will find shooting an enjoyable pursuit. On a baseball diamond, from the pitching mound to home plate is sixty feet. Cut that in half, thirty feet, and it’s still difficult to hit a target with gun shots consistently (assuming you are not using a laser). And that’s in a range setting, where the target is still, lighting conditions are optimal, and there is no stress that an actual confrontation would undoubtedly produce.
Even after I thought I had a basic handle on many of these aspects, upon my first trip to the range with my own hand gun I found I had not oiled the weapon in the best way and the ammunition I had chosen was not as heavy as it should be to produce reliable fire. With gun ownership, you never stop learning, which is one thing I will impart to my sons—and one thing I fear the most.
My children are not nearly old enough to know what a gun is or what it does, and they do not know I keep one in the house. But a day will come when they will know and want to learn for themselves—or at least be curious about it.
By never having a gun, I think this is a moment or a conversation my father never needed to worry about having. Unlike the birds and the bees talk, you don’t have to have the ‘gun talk’ with your kids if you don’t want to.
Buying a gun is not the end game. When you bring it home or if you carry, it opens up an entirely new set of scenarios. I recall a friend, some time ago, upon becoming a doctor saying she was now morally and professionally bound to act if someone took sick in her presence: at a party, for instance. She appreciated that her entree into the medical world conferred upon her duties and obligations she may never have considered before.
With a firearm, you have to be much more careful. If I am accosted, do I draw? It is illegal to fire a warning shot in Massachusetts, and it is neither advisable nor easy to “shoot to wound.” The general rule is, if you are going to shoot, shoot to kill. If you only wound, the attacker could still get at you and use your gun on you. How much do you resist and how far do you retreat before you draw? Though the facts about the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case are still not entirely known, these questions all came into play in that tragedy.
If you see someone you don’t know getting beat up, can you intervene with your gun? In your own home, can and should you fire on someone if they don’t pose an imminent threat on you or a member of your family? Drawing your weapon could anger someone more or evoke a challenge from them, the opposite reaction that you hoped to produce.
A recent video that went viral shows a senior citizen in Florida disrupting an armed robbery in a store by shooting at the assailants. In Massachusetts, it would not be surprising to learn the innocent bystander who drew his weapon would be charged by the district attorney. In Florida, not so, but it demonstrates how aware of your local and state laws you must be and that you should put in much thought about situations where you can and cannot—should and should not—use your weapon.
Having a chat with your children about what firearms are and how they work is just one element in a complex and oftentimes overwhelming set of rules, laws, and obligations. And when you do have that chat with your kids, you have to hope they will listen and be as responsible as you wish them to be. There’s a reason the story of the forbidden fruit is such a powerful one, and no matter how much you stress to your children the nature of a deadly weapon, the possibility exists they could get to it and accidentally or intentionally fire.
As the preceding thoughts indicate, purchasing a firearm is not a decision I arrived at easily or quickly. Despite the inherent risks in possessing a gun, I believe I am safer, smarter, and more responsible than I was before owning a firearm.
This essay is not meant to encourage or discourage anyone else from owning a gun, but if you are considering getting a firearm, know there are others out there who have wrestled with many of the same questions you might have—and have emerged as better people and citizens because of the process.
Image credit: M Glasgow/Flickr