How the other half thinks

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Everyone should have to spend time in a room full of people who take, as an article of faith, a position opposite to that which you have taken as an article of faith all your life. In this case, the article of faith is gun control, and the room full of people was the basement of a church where the hunter safety class I attended was held.

Massachusetts law requires that, before you are permitted to buy a gun or possess one on public property, you must have a firearms permit. In order to get the permit, you have to take the hunter safety class.

The class runs some eighteen hours over several days, and covers all the topics you’d expect – firearm safety, gun laws, hunting basics – as well as some you wouldn’t. I enjoyed the module on orienteering, which had us navigating around the church graveyard with a compass.

All the instructors are volunteers, recruited from the community. They’re generally from the ranks of state and local agencies involved in environmental protection or law enforcement, but there are others as well. One such was a retired Air Force rifleman with extensive experience teaching firearm safety.

Bob’s module on the safe handling of guns ran four hours. He spent the first three handing a wide variety of guns around the class, explaining how they work and how to use them and store them properly. Then, with an hour to go, he put the guns away and set up an easel with a pad of flipcharts on it. Because Kevin had already taken the class, I knew what was coming.

“How many people here are members of the National Rifle Association?” he asked. About three-quarters of the people in the room raised their hands. He asked about other gun-rights organizations and expressed satisfaction about the high level of participation.

Then he moved on to the other end of the spectrum. “Are there any lawyers here?”

No hands went up.

“Any reporters?”

Again, no hands.

“Good.” He flipped to the first chart, which had the text of the Second Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

He glossed over that troublesome first part and then launched into an hour-long screed on Americans’ inviolable right to own guns. He quoted Aristotle. He quoted Charlton Heston. He made the case that firearm ownership is the only hedge we have against tyranny. He even raised the specter of communism, establishing himself as the last man standing in opposition to the Red Menace.

He had choice words for Obama, for liberals, and for PETA. The gun control lobby was peopled by people who don’t understand the fragile nature of democracy, and who clearly can’t read. What part of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” do they not understand?

Kevin warned me that I’d have to keep my mouth shut during this presentation, but that wasn’t a problem. Engaging zealots is generally counterproductive, and it isn’t even fun. Besides, here’s a guy who has spent a lifetime developing a skill, and from whom I learned a lot. I honor his service to our country and I appreciate the time he spends teaching the class. As a firearms expert, he’s clearly formidable. To take issue with his constitutional scholarship seemed beside the point.

Although the maddeningly enigmatic Second Amendment is the rallying cry of the pro-gun contingent, I haven’t found a single solitary soul who believes that the right of the people to keep and bear arms should literally not be infringed. Even people who think Americans ought to be able to keep and bear assault weapons draw the line somewhere. Rocket launcher? Nuclear warhead?

Likewise, I don’t know anyone who favors an absolute ban on all firearms (at least, I don’t think I do – I haven’t polled my entire acquaintance). Bob’s tree-hugging, PETA-joining, Constitution-flouting antis don’t resemble the gun-control advocates I know. They’re just Bob’s straw men, set up so he can rail against the lunatic left, all the while breathing life into the stereotype of the lunatic right.

In my experience, most gun-control discussions don’t involve lunatics on either end. It’s never All Guns vs. No Guns. It’s about the degree of infringement on the right to bear them.

The article of faith for me is that more infringement is better. I think guns and firearms licenses should be difficult to get, which is why I didn’t mind schlepping to Dennis for five evening classes. I think all guns should be registered, and some kinds of guns should be flat-out banned. Handguns are the type used in the vast majority of gun crimes (the DOJ says upwards of eighty percent), and I think there’s a strong practical case (although a shaky constitutional one) to be made that they should be the exclusive province of law enforcement and the military.

But you don’t have to be a lunatic to take it as an article of faith that less infringement is better. The class was certainly a less-infringement crowd, but not everyone bought into Bob’s presentation, which happened to be given on the same night as the State of the Union. The next day, the guy sitting next to me, a funny, good-natured firefighter from Yarmouth, told me he ran a tape of Obama’s speech in a continuous loop for 24 hours as a kind of detox.

No matter what the tree-hugging, PETA-joining, Constitution-flouting anti-gun nuts tell you, the NRA isn’t populated exclusively by lawyer-hating, Heston-quoting, communist-fearing pro-gun nuts.

Most people in the class seemed to have grown up in a gun culture, enjoyed hunting, and took firearms ownership seriously There was the one teenager who smirked a lot and doodled “Kill! Kill!” on his class notes (yikes!), but almost everyone else in the room seemed to pay attention, to ask sensible questions, and to be committed to handling firearms safely and responsibly.

I ate donuts with them on the breaks. I made jokes with them during the boring parts. They weren’t the stuff that straw men are made of.

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Comments

  1. I too got my US hunting license in Mass, and was grateful for the thorough lessons on gun safety and handling. We didn’t get the extra lesson on the 2nd amendment though. There must be some leeway when teaching the course.

    We did get a talk from a Mass state policeman who said that if you have to shoot someone in your home, be sure to shoot them in the front and tell the police that “I was afraid for my life”. Handy tip, but a bit scary to contemplate.

    I’m sure you gleaned useful info if you do decide to use guns and hunt. And it’s yet another skill for you. And you had a chance to practice your “not engaging zealots in a fruitless argument” skills. There should be a scout badge for that.

    We have strict gun laws in the UK. No handguns are allowed. Period. But gangs in inner cities seem to get hold of handguns anyway. Our shooting deaths are less, but being stabbed or beaten to death is still common. As you said, neither ‘all guns’ nor ‘no guns’ is the answer to the problem.

  2. Gun control is just that- gun ‘control’- it’s not gun elimination. I think the infringement should be as you said- just enough to make it difficult to get one.

    Where I think gun control advocates and NRA members could make a difference is to stop fighting about it and come to consensus on what should be banned from individual ownership: assault rifles, bazookas, rocket launchers, nuclear warheads, etc. Then they should make the gun control laws be the same in every state of the union. Recently, it was reported on the evening news that the guy who took out a couple of guards at the pentagon purchased his gun in Nevada, rather than in his home state which has stricter gun laws. So gun control has to be the same everywhere.

    And I agree with Jen about your scout badge.

  3. Beth Marcus says:

    funny..my husband just got his gun license too..took a class in dennis…not sure he got the civic lesson..I’ll have to ask…he got a gun from my brother..whose wife doesn’t really want him to have one..its a hunting gun..and while I’m not a huge fan of guns..how can you not be ok with your hubby wanting to hunt??…so he does…and then my son got a bb gun as a gift from a friend for his 11th bday..I was not happy.. not happy at all. but I keep trying to find a balance…guns for the right reasons..guns for the wrong reasons..its a fine line…and their boys…and they LOVE the concept of guns…which adds to my challenge and dislike of guns..I think there are a few of us struggling with it..

    I really enjoy your blog.. your posts and your experience. Thank you.
    b

  4. Jen — The US must look like the wild wild West to countries that have strict gun laws. And while there’s certainly some truth to the bumper-sticker adage that “if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns,” I think we’d still be safer overall if we banned handguns here. The big problem would be collecting all the ones that are already out there. Thanks for the scout badge! I’ll wear it proudly, between my “chicken coop building” and “lobster pot pulling” badges.

    Paula — Just today, on the front page of the New York Times, there’s a story on how states are trying to wrest more control away from the federal government, so I suspect it’s going to get even harder to try and get all the states in line to infringe the right to bear arms in exactly the same way. But you’re right, of course.

    Beth — I do think it’s mostly women who have a visceral level of discomfort with guns. Men (and boys) seem to take to them much more naturally. The only reason I’m doing this is that I’m committed to procuring as much of my own food as I can, and one deer would keep us in meat for a year or more. If I’m not against hunting, I can’t be against introducing kids to the activity, but I understand — and share — a distaste at seeing a boy with a gun. (Thanks for the kind words …)

  5. It is a boy thing, a lot of the time. In our house, toy guns were not allowed. My boys played guns with their fingers and with sticks…they will just do it. Fortunately, they stuck to fingers and never expressed a desire to hunt, so I never had to address the issue. I’ve never hunted, but I sure do appreciate the venison I sometimes get from my neighbor, who does.

  6. Trilobyte says:

    Hour-long screed? I would have walked out, asked for my money back and filed a complaint.

    I own guns and really dislike the colonization of gun ownership by right-wing idiots.

  7. Susan — It is a boy thing. I love the experiments where they give boys a stick and they turn it into a gun, and they give girls a stick and they turn it into a broom. I’m a believer in the power of genes.

    Trilobyte — That may be what I should have done. I did take the instructor aside and tell him that I thought Bob’s time would have been better spent sticking to the subject on the syllabus, but that’s a very mild protest. I think part of the reason I’m treading lightly is that I’m new to guns and gun culture, and it seems precipitate to make a fuss right out of the gate. Had I been a long-time hunter, I might have felt more comfortable taking your tack.

  8. Trilobyte says:

    (FYI, I’m strictly a target shooter, not a hunter. I have zero interest in cleaning a deer!)

    The key to me is just that it’s rude and it’s a waste of everyone’s time. Especially for a class that you’re paying for and giving up free time for.

  9. David Redfern says:

    Great post, I’m a Scot exiled in England (a fate worse than death) an ex Policeman as well (no I never wore a pointy helmet, they don’t exist in Scotland!) and we have strict gun laws by your standards.

    My uninformed opinion on US gun ownership is that encouraging it by your constitution, although in context correct, has been hijacked by the extreme fringe, and I hesitate to use the term ‘right wing’ because there are more decent far right people than those ‘totin’ weapons for ‘personal protection’ and to bolster their ego’s.

    A hand gun is useful for nothing more than killing another human being, I defy any average shot to hit a moving target with one far less a rabbit; killing a deer with a handgun is simply a ludicrous concept. An automatic, or semi automatic weapon is similarly ill apportioned, use that on either a rabbit or a deer and you won’t have to mince (I think you guys grind rather than mince) the meat, you will simply have to remove the lead, with the added risk of poisoning yourself when you consume it.

    Bona fide hunting weapons, shotguns and single action bolt operated rifles, properly licensed and controlled are entirely reasonable propositions and seem to be in keeping with your constitution. Indeed, in the UK our laws allow these weapons; hand guns have been severely restricted (they were only allowed for collections, target shooting etc.) since the tragedy of Dunblane in 1996 when Thomas Hamilton walked into a school classroom and used hand guns to murdered 16 primary school children and their teacher. I know this isn’t news in the US, there have been far to many of these incidents but in Britain where not even Policemen routinely carry sidearms this was as memorable as Kennedy’s assassination.

    Unfortunately due to a variety of reasons, notably drugs and gang culture, a government who whilst introducing an over politically correct nanny state emasculated the Police Force by swamping them with paperwork and imposed a ridiculous hands off policy with offenders, we now suffer feral youths sporting hand guns as a badge of honour in our inner city’s. The Police are virtually powerless to search suspects no matter how much evidence they have so these gangsters believe themselves immune to prosecution, and they largely are.

    The proposition of ‘fight fire with fire’ is never more starkly highlighted as when firearms are accepted as weapons of self protection, they are in fact instruments of provocation.

    Finally, just to illustrate the mentality of many hand gun owners, we in Great Britain have a candidate for the Darwin Awards: The owner of an illegally held, loaded Beretta hand gun wanted to photograph his son holding the gun to his [son’s] own head; yep, predictably the gun discharged and he shot himself at which point the father fled. Fortunately the son survived.