I can remember having toy guns, and playing war from almost the time I could walk. I saved up my allowance for the Johnny Seven One-Man Army, which actually fired plastic grenades and plastic bullets.
It was Christmas when I had just turned 8 that I got my first BB-gun. My older brother showed me how it worked (my Dad's vision was too poor to be able to handle such a task) and promised to beat my ass (and possibly shove said weapon into the same location) if he caught me using it unsafely. At age ten I had saved up enough money to visit the local Western Auto and "trade up" to a better model. I carried it down the street of Waynesboro, Virginia, past bunches of adults who didn't give it a second glance, because it was carried correctly with the muzzle down. My parents were not required to be there for me to make the purchase.
I learned to shoot with real bullets at age 11 with the Boy Scouts. Our Assistant Scoutmaster brought a couple of .22 rifles to the meeting one week and took us out, two or three at a time, to learn how the use the rifle on targets set up in a ravine in a field. I remember distinctly that there was no parental permission sought, nor would it have occurred to anyone that it needed to be. As the singer said, "It was a different world."
In High School in Vocational Agriculture classes we took Gun Safety along with Welding, Electricity, Carpentry, etc. etc. It was expected; there were no permission slips. I went to a school that gave took Opening Day as a district-wide holiday, and if you missed any of the rest of that week you just had to show the principal your hunting license or a photo of your kill. In my senior year we did different modules (six weeks per rotation), and I took an advanced course in Gun Mechanics. We took apart, re-assembled, test-fire, and tweaked revolvers, semi-automatic pistols, and several long guns. I remember getting a B in the module because I was not real good at getting all the tiny little springs back into place just right on some of the assemblies.
A note here: my school district was rural, and it was often violent. There were fights in school, and regular brawls behind Hardee's after hotly contested football or basketball games. What I remember is that there were almost always gun racks in the back of the trucks (and we knew there were pistols in the glove boxes), but no matter how much alcohol or weed was consumed (we were not that rural), that's where they stayed. I have seen a teenager beaten bloody get back into his truck cursing his assailants and drive off, never thinking once about grabbing the 30.06 out of the back window.
Serious shooting started in college, when I fell in with a bunch of guys who would today be classified as "gun nuts." And I guess they were. One of them had a gunsmith's license and could make all sorts of interesting modifications to virtually any piece you owned. Our college (a small liberal arts college) had a shooting range and really minimal rules about where the firearms could be stored (we had secured lockers in one dormitory; weapons could be taken back to your room for cleaning but not kept there over night).
Strange and unhealthy things did happen from time to time. One guy got hold of a conversion kit and spent six hours of delicate work trying to change his semi-automatic AR-15 into a fully automatic weapon by filing down the sear. What he actually managed to do was ruin the sear and convert it into a single-shot weapon that you had pull back the charging handle every time you fired. Another member of our loose fraternity of interest once bought a new rifle in a nearby city and stopped his car on the way home beside a local farm and shot a cow to see how much penetration he could get with the new weapon. We did have a really scary time one year when a Lebanese student approached us with a scheme to have us buy weapons in bulk so that he could send them home to help arm the Druse militias. We never did find out if he was for real. We didn't really want to.
(Oh, and in a masterpiece of institutional planning, our college planners routed the cross-country course immediately behind the berm that constituted our target backstop. There was that day when we almost offed the whole Cross-country team. . . .)
I also attended my first gun shows in college. I hit a few more in the service, and I was quite an oddball there as a student. I had hair down to my ass in the middle of a sea of crewcuts. Despite that, I never felt unsafe, and no one was ever impolite or threatening to me.
I spent twenty-plus years in the US Army, active and National Guard. During that time I have fired, assembled, disassembled, played wargames with, and cleaned (often with illegal carburetor fluid) the M-16, M-14, M-262, M-60, .50 cal, SAW, .45 cal pistol, .9mm pistol, Sten Gun, AK-47 (Russian original, Chinese, Egyptian, and Hungarian knock-offs), FN FALs, Uzis, TOWs, Dragons, LAWs, M-79s, hand grenades, various shotguns, light mortars, and a lot of other really interesting ordnance. I stayed away from field artillery. AK-47s were highly overrated.
I saw just about every stupid thing you can imagine done with a firearm, especially when I ran live fire ranges, which is something I did quite frequently during the 1980s and 1990s. I saw one young man shoot himself in the foot. I was the medic on the scene. Later, when I worked in the ER at the base hospital I got to help sew up gunshot wounds and (on two occasions) zip the carcasses of soldiers who had committed suicide via firearm into body bags. I remember serving in Germany at a time when you checked every vehicle for bombs every time you were away from it for more than five minutes. It would be very familiar territory to a lot of younger guys and gals today.
It is truly a different world now. My wife doesn't like firearms, and while I might still fire occasionally upon invitation at a range, the guns are not really part of my life any more. My kids are not really interested in much of anything past paintball. Since you now need a permission slip for your child to watch a movie at school, I doubt I've missed any gun safety classes. If anything, they are being propagandized very heavily that guns are evil.
I write this to establish some bona fides. I do have people whom I consider friends that most of the commentators I have seen writing in the last week would call delusional, or paranoid, or unfit to bear arms. Two of them are nationally recognizable authors of best-selling science or historical fiction novels. One of them runs a major regional charity organization. Several are retired public school teachers, and one is a kindergarten teacher who was runner-up as teacher of the year in her state a couple cycles ago. (I really hope none of them read this blog. They will be pissed.)
But most of them are just people trying to get by--more rural than urban, more tending toward lower middle class than upper. Some of them are preppers. Some of them are university professors. Some of them are farmers. A few of them are politically and socially such neanderthals that their knuckles drag the ground when they walk.
And they don't scare me. A friend told me she was intimidated if she went to a public meeting where people were openly carrying weapons, that she wouldn't speak, wouldn't argue with them. That she wouldn't let her kids stay over at a house if she knew there were firearms there, no matter how safe, no matter how stored. I have a difficult time understanding this fear. I know that will sound utterly bizarre to some of you, especially in the wake of all the shootings recently, but I really don't get it. I get being scared in downtown Chicago, or Philly, or DC at night. I get being scared if you live in the southwest along the infiltration routes from the Rio Grande and there are gunfights in your backyard. But somebody open carrying to a meeting? Not scary stuff.
Maybe because I'm comfortable with guns personally (without worshipping them), that I know what they can do, how they work. But I more tend to think it is because I see the people with those guns as people, not some abstract category of "gun nut" or "Doomsday prepper" that you might watch on National Geographic. This is probably related to my own general tendency to be OK with those Americans that most everybody else thinks of as "the Fringe" in one way or another.
Part of that is what made me into a Libertarian. Beyond your circumscribed, buttoned-down world there is a rich American panoply of just plain weirdness that I am desperately hoping is never homogenized out of our culture. (That's irony for you, we are so concerned with diversity as narrowly defined by ethnicity that we usually don't engage seriously with diversity of lifestyles. I mean serious diversity of lifestyles.)
And part of that makes me tie the whole issue of guns to . . . you know . . . freedom.
Oh, yes, at the very end I've got to go there. It is about freedom. Over at Delawareliberal cassandra has asked a question that she says she cannot get any takers for:
The people who lost their children, and the children themselves had the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I need a good explanation as to why the freedom to own high capacity magazines trumps the victims of these massacre’s rights. Seriously. I ask this same question over and over and over and to date no one has ever even addressed it, much less acknowledged it. And starting with fear or tyranny means you haven’t properly understood the question.OK, I'll give it a shot. (Ouch.)
Paul Krugman (of all the people for me to be referencing) has more than once remarked that in large, complex economies, behaviors that are rational for individuals (saving, avoiding debt, putting off major purchases) are not similarly rational for governments. That principle applies here. Do you recall the anti-Muslim backlash (that has never gone away) after 9/11? The calls to put people into camps? The willingness to do anything, even to accept the shredding of our basic constitutional rights, in order to feel safe again? Calmer voices said, wait, remember that it is not ALL Muslims, only a microscopic fraction of American Muslims (who are themselves a microscopic fraction of the total population).
But there were also bad actors, truly evil Muslims who wanted to blow up shit and kill our children.
And the trick was to balance the dynamic between risk to the public against the intention to have a free society. We did not do very well. We asked the men in suits to protect us, and look what they did.
cassandra wants me to balance those 27 lives against the right to own 30-round magazines, because her definition of a "civilized society" is one in which what my friend Dana Garrett calls "maximizing public safety" is a far more important goal than maximizing individual freedom--so much more important that public safety will almost always win out.
And yet . . . I think it is the wrong question.
99.999% of the people who own 30-round magazines will never fire a shot in anger at anybody.
But we live in a country of what, 320 million people? That means, inevitably, that about 32,000 people across this country are a risk for going explosively nuts. That's a lot of people, and no matter what preventative laws you pass you will never manage to keep the tools of destruction out of their hands, not without a prohibitive cost to personal freedom. Because in America we have this funny notion that you shouldn't be, as a general principle, restricted based on what you might do in the future instead of what you have already done. We make exceptions (at least in theory) for the mentally ill, or the chemically impaired, or the people with abundant histories of doing those kinds of bad things. But by and large we have accepted the idea that taking rights and privileges away from people who have not abused them is not a good thing.
Oh, and we play the game of balancing children's lives against the expense or inconvenience of safeguarding them all the time. Look at the way we set speed limits, and don't enforce the limits we set. We've got plenty of great statistical data that says how many children's lives we'd save every year with a national speed limit (strictly enforced) of 55 mph. We accept the fact as a public health decision that mandating universal vaccinations will save millions over a given time period, but will also kill a few hundred kids who otherwise would not have died. School districts (not just in Delaware) make decisions every day to spend the money on these kids and not those kids. And no matter how effective a given program might be, there is always the opportunity cost to those who didn't get the resources. Sometimes that cost is catastrophic.
cassandra could, with some justice, accuse me of a false equivalency here (she likes to do that). But the greater point is that all societies routinely make decisions that shift risks from one group to another, even if that other group is composed of children.
Perhaps more to the point, referring back to my Krugman reference, we have somehow granted to the government the power (not the right!) to do awful things that would be considered as morally reprehensible as slaughtering school children if individuals did them. Operators of the drones that kill people in Pakistan refer to the civilians (including at least 69 children between 2008-2012) as "bug splat," and both political parties play the "terrorist paranoia" card every single day. We cannot cut back the "defense" budget because otherwise the bad people out there will come get us and kill our children and rape our dogs.
How do you have a government constantly give out a paranoia-filled message that we need to be armed to the teeth because "they" are coming to get us someday, and then be shocked (shocked, I tell you!) that some Americans think they need to be armed to the teeth because "they" are coming to get us someday?
How do you ignore the fact that the politicians and corporations who benefit from massive defense overspending are the same politicians and corporations who benefit from selling guns and ammo and magazines to our own citizens?
We're just the domestic market for American arm sales. Now you know how the rest of the world feels.
But I have strayed--back to cassandra's direct question: I won't miss twenty or thirty round magazines, but everybody who owns guns knows that there is no intention to stop with that, as evidenced by your very own co-blogger today.