Tag Archives: guns

Our Most Costly War Is One We Won’t Even Acknowledge

Image-1I ran across the above graphic on Twitter, and I thought its point was quite powerful. It’s based on a New York Times column by Nicholas Kristof that was written after the slaying of two journalists in Virginia back in 2015 and was verified on Politifact.

What it says to me is that without knowing it, we’ve been engaged in a very real war right here on American soil — a more costly one than any of the others we’ve ever fought. We freak out over terrorism — which is indeed a real and frightening threat — but perhaps we ought to be devoting more resources to combating routine gun violence (which is a bigger problem precisely because it has become “routine”).

The question, of course, is what to do about it. Some simple regulations might help. Kristof writes:

Gun proponents often say things to me like: What about cars? They kill, too, but we don’t try to ban them!

Cars are actually the best example of the public health approach that we should apply to guns. Over the decades, we have systematically taken steps to make cars safer: We adopted seatbelts and airbags, limited licenses for teenage drivers, cracked down on drunken driving and established roundabouts and better crosswalks, auto safety inspections and rules about texting while driving.

And then there are people who assert that we’d be safer if more people carried guns (an idea that conjures an image of the Wild West in my mind). To them, I want to ask: If that were true, then shouldn’t it be the case that in places where more people carry concealed handguns, the percentage of self-defense shootings ought to be higher than in other places? And shouldn’t it be possible to show that the percentage of overall shootings that are justified acts of self-defense increases when conceal-carry laws are enacted and more people begin to carry guns? For that matter, shouldn’t we hear about self-defense shootings much more often than we do?

Maybe the logic behind the above questions is flawed. But even if that’s the case, I’m sure they could be modified into a logically valid form. And it should be easy to do some research and find the answers. With a little research, it really is possible to figure out once and for all what kinds of action need to be taken in order to reduce gun violence. Right?

Oh, yeah. Congress has banned research on gun violence. And it’s the NRA that lobbied for the ban. Which is funny, because the NRA states with great confidence that more guns are better, and more guns make us safer. But there’s something funny going on here, because if that were true, the research would bear it out.

What is the NRA afraid of? They should be encouraging such investigations if they are so confident that guns make America a better place. Until they do so, they might as well just admit what they clearly know to be true: Common sense gun regulations and/or fewer guns would result in less gun violence, making America much safer.

In the meantime, we’re losing a war.

Please go here and sign the petition to end the ban on gun violence research.

To carry, or not to carry? That is the question.

concealedGun

(Continued from “My First Trip to a Shooting Range.”)

Two weeks later, my wife and I attended the concealed handgun course. Over twenty people had signed up for it, so the instructor held it in a motel conference room rather than in his home. The course was made slightly more interesting for us than it might otherwise have been by the fact that we were sitting next to a very spunky woman named Honor.

The class proved to be more political than I would have liked. At the very beginning, the instructor exhorted us all to join the NRA, saying that the NRA was “the only organization standing up for our rights and keeping Obama from instituting a tyrannical regime that would take away everybody’s guns.” He passed around a stack of membership applications, and I was very conscious of other people’s eyes on me when I passed the whole stack along without taking one.

The course consisted for the most part of PowerPoint presentations about gun laws and gun safety. For example, we learned what buildings you’re not allowed to carry a gun in (even if you have your license) and in what situations you have a legal right to use lethal force (i.e., shoot someone to death). And we watched videos of people accidentally shooting themselves (or getting shot by a child).

The most exciting part, of course, was the trip to the shooting range. Everyone was required to achieve a minimum score (by getting a certain number of shots within a certain distance of the bull’s eye), but I noticed that the instructor didn’t bother to actually add up anyone’s score. At the end of it all, I had shot a grand total of 100 rounds from a 9 mm handgun in my life. (In addition to that, I have fired a shotgun exactly once.)

We returned to the hotel to hear a presentation from an insurance agent who was also a Vietnam veteran. His company represents people who have brandished their guns or shot people (legally or not) and are being sued or charged with a crime. Finally, we took the written test, which was about 50 questions, most of which were true-or-false. At one point a student raised his hand during the test to ask a question.

“Is this a trick question?” he asked, pointing to a particular question on the test.

“There are no trick questions,” the instructor said. Then he read the question aloud for the whole class. “True or false: ‘An effective way to keep your gun out of the hands of children is to hide it in your house.’ What do you say, class?”

“False!” the whole class yelled.

A short time later, we each graded the paper of the person sitting next to us. Nobody failed, of course. Then we filled out the forms that would have to be submitted to the state with a fee to apply for our actual licenses. And that was it. My wife and I were officially qualified to carry guns around.

Now for some reflection.

I have to admit that the whole experience did make me into a temporary enthusiast. Shooting a gun was fun. I went home and watched YouTube videos about gun safety and gun handling. I read articles on the debate about whether it’s better to own a gun or not to own a gun.

A lot of the stuff out there is like this video, which takes an insulting tone and assumes incorrectly that gun control advocates would rather be armed with a phone than a gun if someone were to break into their homes to murder their families. (Note to the maker of the video: You’ve missed the point of gun control, which is to create a safer society by making it harder for bad guys to get their hands on guns.) Fortunately, there are other, more articulate gun advocates like this guy, who draws on some powerful personal experiences to argue in favor of gun ownership. I can imagine having a pleasant and enlightening conversation with him even if we end up agreeing to disagree.

The best-reasoned argument in favor of gun ownership that I found came from an unexpected source: Sam Harris, who is normally regarded as quite liberal. In his blog post titled “The Riddle of the Gun,” Harris offers good insight from the gun advocates’ perspective, and I think people on both sides of the issue would do well to understand his arguments. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think the nature of his discussion is productive.

Harris points out (quite correctly) that the oft-quoted statistics about the degree to which keeping a gun in your home increases your risk of becoming a victim of gun violence include cases of mental illness, drug abuse, spousal abuse, etc., and therefore cannot be meaningfully applied to a typical well-educated, mentally and socially healthy adult (such as Harris himself). Evidently, Harris is suggesting that prospective gun owners should be assessed by a reliable external agent and declared mentally and socially fit before they can buy a gun — i.e., we need stricter background checks that include a psychiatric evaluation. (One obvious problem, of course, is that people who are mentally stable to begin with can develop psychiatric issues later on. And then what? Whom do you send in to take away their guns?)

Harris also suggests that guns ultimately make the world a better place. This sentiment is reminiscent of the words of Winston Churchill: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I am deeply skeptical of this assertion and would be interested to read a more thorough argument. I myself find it hard to imagine that there was much rejoicing in heaven on the day that guns were invented. (In all seriousness, given that there is such a strong correlation between gun advocacy and conservative Christianity, I do wonder how most Christians imagine that God and all of his angels responded to the invention of the gun. Was there a chorus of hallelujahs?)

The point on which I agree most with Harris is that there are two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives here. On the one hand, it is undeniable that (all other things being equal) our murder rate would be much lower if there were fewer guns in America. On the other hand, given that guns are all around us, it is reasonable to argue that it’s a good idea for mentally stable adults to assume the slightly higher risk of keeping a gun in their home in order to have a greater chance of successfully defending their families against a violent attack, should such an attack occur.

Sam Harris is an interesting case because he is an advocate of gun ownership while also being an advocate of gun control. He believes that well-trained, responsible, mentally and socially healthy adults are making a wise decision when they choose to own a gun. And at the same time, he believes that effective measures need to be taken to make it very difficult for the wrong people to get their hands on guns. I wish more advocates of gun ownership thought this way.

That’s all well and good for the question of whether one should own a gun. But what about carrying a concealed gun?

Overall, what makes me uneasy about the concealed handgun culture is that it fosters a mindset wherein we are constantly thinking about the possibility of attack and of having to use a gun to defend ourselves with lethal force. Moreover, it is easy to find oneself fantasizing about stopping a shooter at a school, movie theater, or church. (Don’t believe me? Just browse YouTube videos about guns, alertness, and self-defense.)

It is certainly possible that such a mindset could save your life — and the lives of many others — in the unlikely event that you actually are attacked; but on the whole, I find this mindset extremely troubling. Why? Having such a mindset at all times can make you imagine threats where there are none; and I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone to be going about in a heightened state of alertness while carrying a gun. It is impossible to say for sure, but I would not be surprised if such a mindset were not ultimately behind George Zimmerman’s actions on the night that Trayvon Martin was killed. Zimmerman saw something that he perceived as a threat, and he tried to be a hero for his neighborhood — with terrible consequences.

Incidentally, I found Michel Martin’s essay (on Tell Me Moreto be the most profound and productive reaction to the whole Zimmerman affair. Please go listen to it. Don’t just read it; it’s much more powerful when you hear it. Here are some of the most poignant words from her essay:

Think about the conversation we’d be having now if, instead of thinking, “These [punks] always get away,” a certain neighborhood watchman had stayed in his car with his gun tucked in his waistband, and asked a teenager visiting an unfamiliar subdivision, “Are you OK? Can I help?” Then he might have learned that a 17-year-old was trying to find his way back to his little brother, armed with skittles and iced tea. Instead of, well, you know the rest.

There is some logic behind the idea that would-be robbers might be deterred from committing crimes by the possibility that their potential victims could be carrying a gun. On the other hand, an awareness of that possibility seems to me more likely to make said criminals more careful and perhaps more violent when approaching their victims, in order to deny the victims any opportunity to use whatever weapons they might have. In any case, laws that enable the masses to go around carrying concealed guns appear to me to undo two hundred years of progress that we’ve made since the times of the Wild West, when men carried guns everywhere and you could get away with shooting someone as long as the other guy was the first to draw.

Let me close by saying that although I enjoyed my trips to the shooting range, I’m still not a fan of guns — particularly concealed handguns. When faced with the question of whether to carry or not to carry, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves: WWJCD? That’s right: “What would Johnny Cash do?” To find the answer, go and listen to his song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”

My First Trip to a Shooting Range

shootingRange

My wife likes guns. She is by no means an expert, but she has fond memories of taking target practice with an assault rifle during her “military training” back in China, where all college students are required to undergo some basic training during the first few weeks of school. And when I say “basic,” I mean basic. Students are not allowed to load the weapons themselves; rather, an instructor loads the rifle and hands it over for the student to shoot at the target.

In any case, my wife recently saw an advertisement for a Concealed Carry License (CCL) course and told me that she wanted to take it. Now, I’m not a fan of handguns — in fact, to be honest, I have always been rather afraid of them since they have the power to deliver death instantly and irrevocably with the mere touch of a finger — but I said to my wife, “If you really want to do this, I’ll go with you.” So she signed us up. As it turned out, we first had to take a “Handguns for Beginners” course, so we signed up for that as well.

I looked forward to the courses with a combination of nervousness and excitement. I was interested. In particular, there was one thing about handguns that I had always wanted to learn: how to remove a round from the chamber without firing it (and without chambering another round). This is something that might sound easy and obvious to people who are familiar with guns, but this story about a police officer who killed himself after demonstrating incorrectly how to do it suggests otherwise.

The day of the beginner’s class arrived, and we drove to the instructor’s house to begin our training. He’s an interesting character who clearly loves guns. He grew up shooting from a very young age, he competes in speed shooting competitions, he makes his own cartridges (i.e., he assembles the cartridges from bullets, casings, gun powder, and primer), and he teaches handgun courses out of his own house. You really can’t get any more enthusiastic than that.

“A gun is just a tool, like a computer,” he began. Then he paused, and said, “Well, let’s not compare guns to computers.”

He seemed to be recalling a past discussion that didn’t go so well. Perhaps someone had pointed out to him, as my wife pointed out to me, that you can give a computer to a child without worrying that the child will kill someone with it, but you can’t really do that with a gun. My suggestion to gun advocates who wish to make this sort of analogy would be to compare guns to cars. Like guns, cars can be used for good purposes, and they also give the user the power to kill people with great ease. (Unlike guns, however, cars were not designed primarily for the purpose of destroying human life. Yes, I know that there are guns designed specifically for sporting purposes, but we must admit that historically, the motivation behind the invention and improvement of guns has been for the purpose of killing humans — whether in offense or defense.)

Tangentially, I would like to point out that new drivers require a significant amount of training before they can operate a car safely. Every car user must have a government-issued license, and every car must be registered with the government. Furthermore, both license and registration must be renewed periodically, and every driver is also required to have insurance. I don’t hear people complain very often about these restrictions on drivers’ rights, yet for some reason, the idea of applying similar regulations to guns is anathema to many gun advocates.

Anyway, we completed the basic safety and handling portion of the lesson, and then it was time to go to the range and actually shoot a gun. The range was just a few blocks from the instructor’s house. We got there, signed a waiver stating that we would be responsible for our own deaths, rented a 9 mm Sig Sauer, bought two boxes of fifty rounds, and went through the door that led to the shooting area. My wife took her turn first.

Good GOD, that gun was loud! It didn’t help that the floor, walls, and ceiling were concrete. The report of every shot reverberated through the range and seemed to rattle my inner organs. I could not suppress an involuntary jump every time a shot was fired. How do people get used to that? I wondered.

Then it was my turn. The instructor set up the target and guided me through the process of loading the gun. And then he had me shoot: Stand squarely. Grip the gun in both hands. Aim. Breathe out. Pull the trigger. BOOM!

To fire a gun is to hold an explosion in your hands. It’s a powerful event that gives you a powerful feeling. It can be addictive.

I had soon fired all of the rounds in the magazine and had to reload. The instructor moved the target out farther, and I continued shooting and reloading. I was hitting the target dead on, and the instructor became excited and started giving me more complicated instructions.

“Triple tap!” he shouted.

I fired three times.

“Triple tap followed by a double tap!”

Three shots, and then two shots.

“Yes!” the instructor yelled. “Keep going!”

Only, I had gone through my fifty rounds already. He and I both looked with disappointment at the empty ammo box. The lesson was over.

“That can’t have been your first time shooting,” the instructor said as he retrieved the target for me. Those words made me feel good. They made me want to come back and shoot some more.

Me, firing a gun, with the instructor looking on. My wife managed to catch the muzzle flash in the picture.

Me, firing a gun, with the instructor looking on. My wife managed to catch the muzzle flash in the picture.

When we went back to the front desk to return the gun, there was a monkey sitting on the manager’s shoulder. And no, this is not some bungled idiom or metaphor. There was an actual monkey there, and I was just as surprised to see it then as you are to see me write about it now in this post about guns.

“What’s with the monkey?” I asked.

“It’s our mascot,” the guy replied.

My wife leaned over the counter to look at the monkey. It reached out, grabbed her hair, and pulled. It took her a minute to extract her hair from its grip. I looked at a gun that was sitting on the counter, then at the gun holstered at the manager’s hip, and then back at the monkey that was crawling around and grabbing at things with unbridled curiosity. Surely, if a gun range is to have a mascot, it should be an animal without hands and without a tendency to pick things up and play with them — a fish, for example, would be more suitable, I think.

The monkey at the gun range. Notice the gun on the counter in the background.

The monkey at the gun range. Notice the gun on the counter in the background (bottom left).

As we walked back to the parking lot with the instructor, he told us that we were much better than the couple he had taught the day before. He really seemed enthusiastic about teaching students who showed an affinity for shooting, and his enthusiasm rubbed off on us.

“See you in two weeks for the CCL class,” he said.

(To be continued . . . )