Wednesday, April 07, 2010

on guns, shooters, and my attitudes

last week i shot a gun for the first time, and i liked it.

the me of up to a couple of years ago would be absolutely disgusted to look into the future to see that i would ever do such a thing, much less enjoy it. i have no regrets about it. however, it has taken a long process of me forming, assessing, and reassessing my views on guns in order for me to get there.

i didn't grow up around guns. at all. they weren't in my house. they weren't in my relatives' houses, at least to my knowledge...except for one, i think, and when i heard that he kept a gun in his house i was scandalized. i didn't understand why people would want to keep a scary thing that could kill you at the pull of a trigger anywhere near home. even if they claimed it would protect them from home invaders...the home invaders had guns too, and the chance that you got your gun out to shoot them before they shot you still wasn't worth all of the risk of actually having that ticking time bomb in your house.

there was also the issue of concealed carry. north carolina, where i grew up, passed concealed carry in 1995. i was in middle school, and i was scared out of my wits. i couldn't believe that the state was actually going to make it legal for people to hide guns under their coats and carry them around in public. i remember walking around for a time after they passed that law, looking around and wondering how many of the people i encountered on the street were carrying a gun, and ready to blow my head off at the drop of a hat, if they wanted. it was scary.

guns were for criminals. guns were for militia-types. guns were for bad people, violent people. they weren't for decent, peaceful folks like me and my friends.

i still felt this way in college. in fact, i spent the summer of 2002 in washington, dc, working at the brady center to prevent gun violence. i remember being frustrated that their policies didn't go far enough toward banning the scourge of firearms from our society, that they were not going far enough to get guns out of the hands of everyone but the military and the well-regulated militia, which in my eyes was the national guard--because there was nothing well-regulated about letting every tom, dick, and harry keep a firearm in their house. i tried to be okay with their claims that long guns were somehow less threatening than handguns, and that using guns for hunting or target sport was somehow different than using them for crime, or keeping them around the house as some kind of misguided personal protection plan. however, i didn't see the difference--guns were guns, and they were all a menace to society.

i did realise that i was still very unfamiliar with guns. for a long time, i saw my inexperience with them as a virtue--i felt like i knew intellectually what they were, knew intellectually what they could do, and was a better person for being as far away from them as i possibly could. however, on two occasions in those younger years, i had the chance to touch a firearm. neither experience left a good memory. they weren't bad in the sense that i, or anyone i knew personally, got shot; they were bad in that they pushed far beyond what i was comfortable with at the time, and thus left a sour taste in my mouth.

the first time i ever touched a firearm was the summer i worked at the brady center. they [quite rightly, in my case!] assumed that most of their interns had never been to a gun show before. so, there was a tradition of taking the interns out to a gun show sometime over the summer, so we could gain some firsthand experience with the "gun culture." we dressed our inconspicuous best, all of us in jeans and [slogan-free, of course] t-shirts, and made our way to maryland for the show. i wandered around, agog at how many firearms were for sale in the convention centre.

at one of the booths, i saw a sig sauer pistol that i recognised as being the one in a series of crime books that i really enjoyed, so i asked the man behind the table to let me hold it. he obliged. the vendor told me that the best thing about the gun was that it didn't have a safety on it, and the guy standing next to me affirmed that those safeties were nothing but trouble. i was frightened that the gun didn't have a crucial accident-prevention feature, disgusted that these crazy people thought this was a good feature...and i could not hand the gun back to the vendor quickly enough.

the first time i actually shot anything more powerful than a super soaker was a few years later, sometime between college and law school. i was with my boyfriend at the time, visiting his family; his father was an avid shooter. i commented that i had never shot a gun before, and soon i was in the back yard, plinking at a pop can with a bb gun. nothing catastrophic happened...some of the bbs i shot hit the can, and some landed harmlessly in the grass. still, it was beyond anything i was comfortable with at the time. i felt dirty after i did it...like i had somehow betrayed my beliefs, or betrayed my distaste for violence, by shooting a gun. i tried justifying it to myself that it was just a bb gun and not a "real" gun, but such claims rang hollow in my mind. i was disappointed in myself for giving in, and really only found discomfort in having shot the bb gun.

the first cracks in my outlook started to surface several years ago, and were purely a pragmatic matter. they came when i still lacked any real familiarity with guns or shooters. it sucks that these instruments of death and destruction are so ubiquitous, i reasoned, but is there any way we can get rid of them? i grudgingly arrived at the conclusion that getting rid of guns in america was never going to happen. i didn't have to own them, shoot them, or ever touch them again. i still thought that firearms enthusiasts...the criminals, the militia types, the guys at the gun show who fawned over the fact that the pistol didn't have a safety...were not the kind of people with whom i wanted to associate. i didn't have to like guns or their owners. but as a practical matter, a gun ban was politically not going to succeed--and even if it did, the people who really, really wanted to use them for nefarious purposes would get their hands on them on the black market. they'd never disappear, just like alcohol never actually disappeared during prohibition. it would be a waste of energy to do anything but make sure legal gun acquisition channels were limited to people who haven't proven themselves irresponsible with them, and severely punish people who have proven themselves irresponsible with guns but are later caught with them anyway.

it wasn't until far more recently, basically the last year or so, that i felt any real change in my views. as with many occasions when long-held, politically-rooted ideas radically change, it only happened when something happened on a personal level. in this case, it happened when i met a few people through the hacker community, people who i really like and respect, and found out that they were also gun owners, avid shooters, even in some cases concealed weapons permit holders. i couldn't reconcile the image in my head of gun owners as somehow ultraviolent or bad people with the reality of these friends of mine. i asked questions and listened to them talk about their experiences with guns, and thought a lot about what they said. if my assumption that there was something inherently bad about people who owned guns and liked to shoot was correct, then my feeling that these people i had gotten to know were good and worth becoming friends with couldn't be right. however, if my feeling that these were good people was correct, and my sense that they were being sincere when discussing using guns responsibly and safely had any solid foundation, then i needed to take a good, hard look at my prejudice against shooters.

this led to a fundamental shift in how i viewed guns. instead of being these inherently awful things that have no redeeming social value, i started to compare them to computers, knives, power tools, lock picks, or any of a million other things. in the wrong hands, any of those things can do bad, even life-ruining, things. however, enjoying shooting no more makes a person disposed to wanton violence than enjoying lockpicking makes one disposed to burglary. having a concealed weapons permit doesn't make a person disposed to shoot random people on the street. there are always going to be people who get any kind of tool in their hands and use them irresponsibly, recklessly, or harmfully. that said, there are also people who will explore their capabilities responsibly and safely.

even after coming to this conclusion that it was unreasonable to hold the actions of the irresponsible or malicious shooters against all shooters, i was unsure if i wanted to try it. i was curious, but i came up with so many reasons in my head why it would not be a good idea for me to shoot a real gun. in my head, i cited the bad experience at the gun show. i cited the unpleasant experience of shooting that bb gun half a decade ago, i wasn't sure if it would be a good idea. i cited the fact that i'm generally klutzy. but, any of the reasons i could give myself not to try shooting rang hollow, and i knew the real cause of my reluctance--i was holding on to that one last thread of thinking that shooting somehow makes a person bad. and, i knew that my assumptions about people who shoot guns were only busted when i began to be exposed to people who actually shot them. so, there was really only one way to reasonably evaluate what effect that shooting would have on me: try shooting a gun. i didn't know if i'd enjoy it or not, but i knew it was something i wanted to try at least once.

and so, last week, i went shooting for the first time. i was up in detroit visiting niteshad, and he took me to the range for my first time. he was a very good and patient teacher, and even before we went to the range he discussed safety rules with me, showed me what i would be shooting, and showed me the mechanisms inside a gun [since i had never seen the inside of one before]. all of that beforehand made the actual trip to the range far less daunting than it would have been otherwise; i felt like i had a good idea of what i was getting into.

it turns out that i really, really enjoyed shooting. it put me in a completely different state of mind than i thought it would. i expected i'd be in some really primal state of mind when i was shooting, but that's the farthest thing from the truth. instead, i was in this state of hyper-concentration, the likes of which i don't think i've ever felt before. i had this extremely powerful thing in my hand, and i knew things could go terribly wrong if i did not meticulously follow every rule of operating it correctly. on top of that, when everything was loaded and checked and i was actually trying to aim at the target, i was sharply focused on what was around me and in front of me, in sighting exactly where i wanted that bullet to go.

i was expecting to be terrible at it. anything that involves physical prowess or coordination, i suck at...it's one of the general rules of my life. but, it turns out i actually did pretty well at shooting. not every shot was a bulls-eye, of course, but i shot some nice, tight groups, and everything landed fairly near the centre of the target. i was going to be perfectly happy if most of my shots actually hit the paper, but i far surpassed any expectations for how well it was going to go. it was refreshing--i concentrate, i focus deeply on making sure to do everything right, and things work out the way i want them to. i expected shooting to bring with it an overarching feeling of a loss of control, since i was handling this machine to which i had always ascribed these violent powers greater than myself. however, i instead felt a profound feeling of being in control, since the safety of the situation and the accuracy of my shots were my responsibility.

do i still think there need to be certain forms of gun control? of course. that hasn't changed completely. i still favour background checks before you buy a gun, and i'm still not in favour of the gun show exception. i still favour stiffer penalties for violent felons--as in, if you've proven yourself irresponsible with guns or weapons before, you lose your right to legally have them. i still find it inexcusable to keep unlocked guns around children, or people otherwise unable to appreciate the lethal potential of a firearm (people who are drunk, high, et cetera), and there needs to be legal liability in those situations. as a matter of constitutional interpretation, given that i generally go for a living-document interpretation more than an originalist take, i'm not crazy about the idea that we're still bound to see the "well-regulated militia" as the same thing as it was in the 1790s.

that being said, giving shooting a fair chance has shown me that i was wrong in my blanket assumptions about people who shoot guns. some people inevitably use guns irresponsibly, and some people inevitably use them to act out or satisfy some desire to be violent. but, that's true for some people--it's not true for everyone. there are a lot of people out there that use them safely and responsibly, and are mindful about what can happen if safety rules aren't meticulously followed. i'm really grateful to the friends of mine with whom i've discussed guns as of late, both for helping dispel my assumptions and for bearing with me as i muddle through all my thoughts and beliefs about guns.

at this point, i'm still not sure whether i'll ever own a firearm or not...but i do know that i have a lot more respect for guns and shooters than i once did, and that i'm looking forward to going to the range again soon.

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