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I’ll admit this much up front: I’m not a gun person. I’ve tried to like guns. Some of my favorite people are gun nuts, so I’ve been treated to long disquisitions on the virtues of different kinds and calibers and sat through long debates on the merits of the Glock this and the Winchester that.
I attend firearms training with new recruits to our agency and fire a few rounds with a 9mm SIG Sauer and a patrol assault rifle (AR-15). As long as I’ve got my tongue poking out of the corner of my mouth, I can put a hurtin’ on a paper bowling pin at three yards (CQB). I really enjoyed watching the recruits learning, and love watching the instructors who are so expert at something that (having tried it) I know is difficult.
I liked stripping and cleaning the guns afterward, like the smell of gun oil, but the shooting itself? I’m sorry: it’s loud and dangerous — and so far — at least, just not my thing.
You know what is my thing? Knitting. My yarn homies and I talk about knitting needles and gauges and debate cashmere vs. alpaca happily for hours while we stitch away… and I’ve tried to get some of my law enforcement officer buddies interested (“It’s meditative! It reduces blood pressure!”) but so far no takers. So fine: I knit, they shoot, everybody’s happy. What’s the problem?
Here was the problem as Officer Pepsi saw it: The Liberals wanted to take away his guns.
I met Officer Pepsi (not his real name) in a bar in Boston, and we got into a conversation about guns in America.
“Liberals like you just don’t like guns. You don’t understand guns, and you sneer at gun nuts like me.”
Here was the problem as I saw it: holes in people. I see more of them than I want to. I see actual holes in the heads and bodies of teens and tweens and mothers and fathers and children, and I envision holes in Officer Pepsi and my other, beloved brothers and sisters in law enforcement.
“I have no problem whatsoever with you having a gun,” I told him. “I want you to have a gun. But it is too easy for a crazy person to get a gun and kill innocent people with it. It is too easy for a crazy person to get a gun, point a gun and make a hole in you.”
“Well, okay,” said Officer Pepsi. “But if you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have them…”
I’ve never seen a hole in a person that was put there by an outlaw. Let me repeat: I’ve seen a lot of gunshot wounds in 14 years, even though I live in a relatively peaceful state. I have never seen one that was inflicted by a criminal, if by “criminal” we mean someone who has committed and been convicted of a prior crime.
If your definition doesn’t include conviction, well then sure: the guy who murdered his whole family one morning with a shotgun became, in that moment, a criminal but by then it was a little late to refuse to sell him the gun.
In virtually all the cases I see — the suicides, homicides, infanticides — the weapon involved was purchased legally. Occasionally, it turns out that the shooter borrowed the gun from someone else, maybe without that person’s explicit permission, so there might technically be a “theft” involved, though not one that would have been reported as such had no murder been committed.
Adam Lanza “borrowed” a gun from his mother, for instance, but this is an act that we can only define as “theft” because he used it to kill her, before proceeding to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and opening fire on little kids.
“Adam Lanza was nuts,” Officer Pepsi points out.
Definitely. And on those occasions in which someone has pointed a gun at one of my guys and threatened to kill him, it hasn’t been a “criminal,” but someone with severe mental health issues.
“There are laws to prevent mentally ill people from buying guns,” Officer Pepsi points out.
No. There are laws to prevent people who have been adjudicated as mentally ill from buying guns. I have lots of mentally-ill friends and relatives including a few who have been hospitalized for psychosis, but they all retain the legal right to purchase a firearm because they — like the vast majority of patients — consent to treatment.
Let’s say that, tomorrow morning I awaken with some condition — paranoid schizophrenia, a glioblastoma — that causes the voices in my head to advocate mass murder. I’ve got no criminal record, no court-ordered hospitalizations. I could go to my local gun store and buy a gun and ammo and be blasting away from the church tower by lunchtime (although unless my targets looked like bowling pins and were no more than nine feet away, I would not be able to actually hit them).
Let’s say my local gun dealer was particularly conscientious and discerning. “Jeez. Kate is acting strange. I’d better not sell her a firearm.”
What would I do then? “Buy an illegal gun?” suggested Officer Pepsi.
Okay, actual criminals — gang-bangers and mafiosi — will continue to have access to guns no matter what the laws say, because their criminal activities put them in touch with the black market where guns, drugs, stolen goods, and other contraband are traded. But I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to find an illegal gun. I’m not a criminal, just a crazy person.
As are the majority — by far — of the shooters I see.
“I don’t want guns to be outlawed,” Officer Pepsi insists. “I want to be able to keep and bear arms, and I have the right to do so under the 2nd Amendment.”
“Well,” I said. “How about we go with Originalism on this? Every American Citizen can freely keep and bear arms… provided the arms are those that would have been available to the Founding Fathers. If Thomas Jefferson could keep and bear it, you can too. Muzzle loaders, a saber, an iron cannon in your front yard…”
“You’re a liberal and you want to take away my guns,” Officer Pepsi said. “Would you like another beer?”
“Sure.” I said. “But let me get this round.”
I’m not allowed to have a .50 caliber mounted on the top of my Subaru for personal protection while I’m driving around the neighborhood. I’m not allowed to salt my front lawn with Bouncing Bettys. Why does the Second Amendment not guarantee me the right to keep and bear my own personal nuke? I asked Officer Pepsi when I got back to our table with the drinks.
“Well, because that’s not reasonable…”
“Ahah! So the debate isn’t about absolutes: arms/no arms? It’s about reasonable limitations. It’s deciding what’s the 2nd Amendment equivalent of shouting fire in a crowded movie theater?”
“Rights always have to get balanced against the burden that the exercise of those rights impose on others.”
“And to me, twenty dead kids at Newtown, and forty-seven police officers shot and killed in 2014 is too great a burden.”
“But I want to keep my guns,” said Officer Pepsi. “And I have a right to keep them.”
“Yes! And I want you to keep your guns, too! You know why? You’re trained.”
As a police officer for the City of Boston, Officer Pepsi is a very different case from the guy who wanders into a gun store on some macho whim. Does that guy know what he’s doing? Has he been trained by qualified instructors, has he done Simunition training, shoot-don’t-shoot, does he have non-lethal tools he can use before escalating to deadly force? No? Then he’s just a yahoo wannabe, and a menace.
“He still has the right to buy a gun,” said Officer Pepsi.
Fine. But no fantasies, here: Officer Pepsi is not safer and his job is not made easier by Citizen Yahoo’s guns. My children are not safer because Yahoo is pseudo-patrolling the neighborhood and Yahoo’s own children are not safer with his gun in their home. In fact, statistically speaking, his children are a lot less safe with the gun in their home… but I’m not just talking statistics.
I’ve seen the holes. So has Officer Pepsi.
“Here’s the solution as I see it,” I said. “Gun owners should be trained, licensed and insured.”
Guns could be grouped into classes — Class A, Class B, Class C — and a gun owner would be thoroughly trained in the safe handling and use of any class of firearm he or she wishes to purchase. When purchasing a firearm, the customer will show the dealer his or her license and proof of insurance. As with auto insurance, the insurance policy can be comprehensive, covering damage, destruction and theft, but liability insurance would be mandatory. This would serve to provide compensation to victims and survivors in the event that injuries or deaths are inflicted upon the innocent through the use of the firearm by the owner or by others.
“Who will do the training, licensing and insuring?” Officer Pepsi inquired skeptically.
I shrugged. “The state?”
Officer Pepsi recoiled. “No!”
“Absolutely not! The government can’t … oh wait a sec. I’ve got it. The NRA.”
“The National Rifle Association?”
He explained: the NRA already has the expertise, the training programs and the proven capability for creating a data base. More importantly, the organization already commands the trust of gun owners. “Let the NRA do the training and licensing.”
“Fine,” I said promptly. “Agreed. But don’t forget the insurance piece.”
“But what’s the point of the insurance piece?” Officer Pepsi asked. “Other than to compensate victims?”
“Because once you get the actuaries in on the act, they’ll take care of the big safety issues.” I said. “Insurers won’t want to be on the hook for those unfortunate bullet holes.”
Take Adam Lanza’s mother. Let’s say she wants to buy an Bushmaster XM-15 because she’s a gun nut. Her son is a plain old nut, but they’ve been doing some mother-son bonding over lethal weapons. So she goes to her insurance agent to enquire about a policy.
“Have you had the NRA training for this weapon?” the agent will inquire. “Do you have a gun safe? Who has access to that safe? Do you have any young people living in your home? A twenty year old son… really? I see… And he has mental health issues, and you’ve taught him how to shoot ? Okayyyy…” (Sound of typing) “I should have an estimate for you in just…. a…. sec…”
Had she been faced with an insurance premium that makes the GNP of Denmark look like chump change, Adam Lanza’s mother might have re-think her parenting style, or at least spend the money she was going to use for the Bushmaster on a really good safe for the guns she already has.
And Adam — thwarted by the combination his mother refuses to give him — will wander down to the local WalMart to purchase an alternative, only to find that they won’t sell him a Bushmaster without a Class C license and proof of insurance…
“I’ve got it,” Officer Pepsi interrupted. “The NRA could create a stand-alone, for-profit insurance company and sell gun-owners the necessary insurance. “
“And cops like you can ask a gun owner to show a license and proof of insurance when its necessary. Or get a subpoena for specific records from the NRA, the way you subpoena records from Verizon when you need them…”
“But the state doesn’t issue the license, and the state doesn’t keep the records.”
But might Adam Lanza — foiled in the attempt to legally acquire a gun — seek entrance into whatever passes for the criminal underworld of Newtown, Connecticut? Or drive to Hartford and make inquiries among the more obvious corner drug dealers as to whether they knew of someone willing to sell a skinny, crazy white boy a gun?
Sure. Could happen. But it would be more difficult. It doesn’t seem a bad idea for there to be a few more obstacles — or any obstacles at all, for that matter — between the Adam Lanzas of this world, and defenseless kindergarteners. Or between the suicidal teen, the four year old playing cowboy or the rummaging burglar… and that loaded gun in Dad’s bedside table…
Of course, at the same time this plan would put a few tiresome obstacles in the way of the ordinary, law-abiding gun-lovers like Officer Pepsi.
But if gun owners in America could retain the right to keep and bear arms, yet be trained, licensed and insured… and if all three of these requirements would be met through a trusted, non-governmental entity with proven expertise in the field… like the NRA… well, it took us an hour and four glasses of beer, but in the end Officer Pepsi and I agreed that we could live with that.
“So,” I said. “Would you like me to teach you to knit?”