I was fascinated by this piece in the Wall Street Journal about the human beings who comprise the so-called "gun culture" in the United States. It's written by Dan Baum, a self-described "weirdo hybrid: a lifelong gun guy who is also a lifelong liberal Democrat. I often feel like the child of a bitter divorce who has allegiance to both parents."
Baum, intrigued by the silence of fellow gun-owners who do not feel themselves accurately represented by the NRA, took to the road to talk to gun guys (and presumably gals as well, although he does not mention them). He got himself a concealed-carry permit, "flash[ed] it like a Masonic pin, and gun guys poured out their stories."
He describes the physical attraction of the object: guns are often the product of expert craftsmanship and can thus be "richly satisfying" to handle. (That registered with me. This might seem a ridiculous analogy, but I'm a serious knitter, and there is simply nothing to compare to a complicated object that has been meticulously constructed by human hands.) Baum talks with gun guys about "the Zen pleasure of marksmanship," noting that "even less serious shooting is a hoot...Choose the most antigun peacenik you know, let her shoot a Tommy gun at a stick of dynamite, then ask if it was fun."
Gun guys extol the way their weapons connect them to the past ("Men lovingly discussed the industrial-era designs of their 1896 Argentine Maxims and 1916 Vickers") and laud the discipline and responsibility imposed on one through ownership of a gun. They take a "patriotic pride in the unique trust that America places in its people", and feel bolstered by what Baum calls "their proximity to the Grim Reaper." ""I am master of this death-dealing device, and you are not," as he phrases their attitude. "I am prepared for the kind of situation you can't even bring yourself to think about."
Baum learned -- I doubt this was much of a surprise -- that gun guys are deeply insulted by gun control advocates who know nothing about carrying a gun but presume to pass judgment on other Americans' fitness to do so. That sense of insult has the potential to translate into a potent political force:
From Arizona to Michigan, I found America full of working people who won't listen to Democrats about anything because of the party's identification with gun control. A parks-and-recreation worker in Wisconsin told me he was offended by the Democrats' view "that guns are for the unwashed, the yokels." It's hard to think of a better organizing tool for the right than the left's tribal antipathy to guns.
But Baum posits that gun guys need to get beyond nursing their grievance against blanket condemnation. They have to step up and acknowledge the role they must play in averting the catastrophe of more Sandy Hooks. And he argues that while gun guys recoil from government interference, government need not be involved in the solution at all:
As individuals, the majority of gun guys are achingly responsible with their guns. As a community, though, they are lethal—so focused on criminals and government as the villains that they have failed to examine how they themselves might help to reduce the number of gun fatalities.
The wrongest of wrong hands for guns aren't necessarily those of criminals but of curious children and depressed teenagers. Accidental child death is one of the few gun statistics that has grown worse since 1999. Teenage gun suicide is a lot lower than it was in 1999, but it's still heartbreakingly high. Almost half the teenagers who kill themselves do it with a gun...
Where are those children and teenagers getting the guns? Not from gun stores, thanks to age minimums. Not from gun shows, either, unless they're getting an adult to buy them. And not from some murky "illegal gun market." They're getting them, by and large, from adults who leave them around, where immature hands can find them.
As well as criminal hands. Baum reports that about half a million guns are stolen each year from the households of law-abiding gun owners -- owners who are notoriously averse to reporting such thefts.
So what to do? Baum argues that the NRA errs by insisting on a monolithic gun-owners' bloc, which in effect conflates the responsible and the irresponsible. In his view, gun owners must draw a clear distinction between the two, rather than linking arms in the name of resistance to government interference. If responsible gun owners attach more of a social stigma to irresponsibility with firearms, Baum says, the problem of unsecured guns will be diminished without any restrictive laws required:
To the legislatures of 27 states and the District of Columbia, the solution to both problems seems obvious: Require guns to be locked up, trigger-locked, stored separately from their ammunition, or some combination of the three. A lot of gun guys hate these laws. They argue that a gun separated from its ammunition, disabled or locked away is useless in an emergency.
Not true. I keep my handgun loaded in the bedroom, in a metal safe the size of a toaster that pops open the second I punch in a three-digit code. I bought it on eBay for $25. The gun is secure but instantly available—to me only. Many gun guys use such safes. They just don't want to be told to use them.
Neither do they want to be ordered to report a stolen gun to the police. Lots of gun guys consider it tyranny to have to tell the police anything about their guns, and they have kept most jurisdictions from passing stolen-gun laws. Only seven states and the District of Columbia make reporting a stolen gun mandatory.
But if we gun guys are the paragons of civic virtue that we claim to be, why do we have to be ordered to lock up our guns or report a gun theft? Wouldn't a responsible citizen do that anyway?
We gun guys are operating under a double standard. We want to be left alone to buy, use and carry guns because, we say, we understand firearms better than any bureaucrat. But at the same time, enough of us behave so carelessly that thousands of people are needlessly killed, injured or victimized every year by guns left lying around.
Is a gun guy who keeps his guns properly secured responsible for some knucklehead who doesn't? If the NRA is consistent in its logic, the answer is yes. Solidarity is a constant theme of the NRA, which exhorts its members to lobby and vote in support of the wider community of gun owners.
But that is where the NRA's vision of service to the community ends. For the NRA to suggest that law-abiding gun owners are responsible in any way for gun violence would shatter the notion that only criminals are to blame. So while the NRA trains people in gun safety and publishes books about gun care, it avoids drawing a connection between the carelessness of law-abiding gun owners and America's still-high rate of needless gun death.
What could the NRA and the community of responsible gun owners do to reduce gun deaths without government intervention? They could make unsafe gun behavior socially unacceptable, just as it has become unthinkable, among most Americans, to smoke inside another person's house or to make lascivious comments about underage girls.
Some are trying. Robert Farago, who writes a popular gun blog called The Truth About Guns, runs a regular feature called "Irresponsible Gun Owner of the Day"—often a YouTube video of young men acting stupidly or a news item about a needless tragedy. After Arizona instituted "constitutional carry"—allowing any adult to carry a concealed gun with no training or permit—a group called TrainMeAZ.com organized to urge citizens to get trained and to help them find trainers.
But these are lonely voices. The big dog, the NRA, has for decades run a monthly feature in its magazines called "The Armed Citizen," about people successfully defending themselves with firearms. Were it to call its members to a higher standard of responsibility with a complementary column called, say, "The Armed Bonehead," it would reach millions more people than either Mr. Farago or TrainMeAZ.
What say you, Ricochet gun guys and gals?