The Firebrand Moderate: Thoughts from a Gun Owner
Many gun owners are among the 75 percent of Americans who want stricter gun laws. They recoil from the NRA’s political messaging.
[Notes as of 8/5/19: Since I wrote this essay more than a year ago, America has had many more mass shootings, by far the worst of which have been carried out by shooters using AR-15-style rifles. I’ve left my original thoughts below, because I still believe that it might be possible for today’s deeply divided lawmakers to compromise on legislation that would allow people still to own weapons that fire NATO rifle ammunition, if there were also requirements for thorough background checks, strict training and licensing, and bans on high-capacity magazines, bump stocks, and other accessories whose only purpose is to increase the deadliness of already highly lethal weapons. But I also have to point out that the particular appeal of AR-15s to terrorists and murderers is extremely well-established; it is an attachment having to do with psychological issues that magazine limits and fine-tuned logic cannot approach. So preference of one gun style over another is not irrelevant, even if two guns of different outward styles perform identically. There are far too many people who buy AR-15s for the wrong reasons. For the public good, these weapons should not be in the hands of civilians.]
Our chronic national disease of gun violence flares up most agonizingly in school shootings, but the bleeding goes on every day. From the NRA and the far right comes the knee-jerk reaction that virtually any effort to establish restrictions on guns, ammunition, or gun owners and buyers is a direct assault on the Second Amendment and their wandering concept of freedom. From the other side come accusations and demands that show condescension toward gun-owners as a group, as if they were all the same, and that betray a lack of understanding of guns themselves, which can lead to demands being illogical, aggravating to reasonable gun owners, and ultimately self-defeating.
This is not to say that non-gun people need to become well-versed in the technical details of firearms in order to make valid points about them; in fact the NRA and their acolytes often bully detractors with jargon and technical tangents that amount to nothing more than verbal chaff thrown out to stymie and mock their opponents. But there are a few details about guns that are important to know, especially when it comes to the “assault rifle” debate. The details are widely available, but different approaches can make sense to different people, so it’s worth another try if it will help solidify the effort to reduce the level and consequences of gun violence in America without in any meaningful way abridging anyone’s rights.
Here’s a setup, which might be an apologia or an establishment of bona fides, depending on your point of view: I’ve been a gun owner for 50 years, since I was a kid. I’m reasonably familiar with rifles, shotguns, and handguns. I’m licensed to carry a handgun in my home state, although I have no reason to and would hesitate to do so for any number of reasons, not least of which is that a gun in the room is a big presence, whether other people know it’s there or not. It becomes, for some people, the central presence. It refocuses everything.
My father, who was a hunter, and my stepfather, who was an Army captain with a sharpshooter rating in World War II, as well as older family friends, taught me to shoot when I was young, and I’ve shot at targets and clay pigeons on and off ever since. I don’t hunt because I get no enjoyment out of killing things, except maybe mosquitoes and horseflies. I like venison (we all have our hypocritical cliffs) and if I had to hunt to feed my family, I would, with no qualms.
I keep guns for target practice, and I practice at targets for three reasons: First, it’s fun and interesting. Second, if I ever need to hunt for food, I would like to be effective at it. Third, if some sort of zombie apocalypse required me to resist a mortal threat, I’d like to be effective at that, too.
I don’t believe that federal troops, or the National Guard, or the FBI, or local and state police are out to get us, or will swoop down on us at the command of some evil despot or regime bent on taking our rights and enslaving us. These are not monolithic, faceless organizations; they are made up of our sons and daughters and our neighbors’ sons and daughters.
The Second Amendment was written at a time when the founders did fear such possibilities, but the despots they feared would likely have been foreign, or foreign-sent and controlled, and the militias were intended to be military units that could be mustered for the common defense. The idea that the founders were also hedging against the rise of a despotic domestic regime may also be valid, but that threat was a lot more vivid in the days of a brand-new, unsteady, vulnerable government than it is today.
We now have a completely professional military (again, made up of our own sons and daughters) fully capable of defending the country. We also have a steady, established government with plenty of checks and balances, strained though they may be at the moment. So we don’t need militias made up of private citizens. It is accepted and realistic to own weapons for hunting and self-defense, but we now have weaponry widely available that provides individual firepower and accuracy many, many times greater than what was available in the late 1700s. Outside of military needs it’s an unreasonable amount of individual firepower.
Meanwhile, hunters and responsible gun-owners aside, America is home to an increasingly dangerous and irresponsible population of gun-boosters, encouraged by the NRA, whose political and social manifesto is hidebound, ludicrous, and increasingly paranoid. Any responsible American not in the thrall of conspiracy theories knows it should be quite a bit more difficult to buy a gun than it is today. There are simply too many bullets flying around, the great majority of them fired by people who should never have gotten hold of a firearm. Fully 75 percent of American voters today are in favor of stricter gun laws, but too many of their representatives are being paid off by the NRA, and the NRA’s position starts and ends with an absolute refusal to budge.
Too often, those who favor stricter gun laws set themselves up for ridicule. People who know something about guns understandably don’t like to be browbeaten by people who don’t know much about them, even if those people have a point.
For example, when people call for a ban on “assault rifles,” they’re talking about AR-15 style semi-automatic rifles that look and perform exactly the same as their military counterparts, except that they can’t fire on full automatic. However, there’s no fundamental difference between an AR-15-style rifle with a 30-round magazine and, for example, a Ruger Mini 14 5.56 with a 30-round magazine. Both are semi-automatic, both can be fired as fast as the trigger can be pulled (or faster if fitted with a bump stock), and they both fire military-spec ammunition. (Some versions of both types of rifle can also or alternatively fire similar “sporting” ammunition, the Remington .223 round.) Both can be fitted with scopes and other add-ons to enhance accuracy. Although military rifles can fire on full automatic, in combat they rarely are used that way; semi-automatic fire is far more accurate and saves ammunition.
Here’s a YouTube video featuring a wooden-stock Ruger Mini 14 rifle chambered to fire the 5.56 mm NATO military round (one of several ammunition sizes common to small arms carried by the armed forces of NATO nations). The practical section of the video starts at about 1:20. Watch the owner insert a 10-round magazine (the maximum number of rounds legal in his locality), fire off the rounds, then insert a second magazine and fire another 10 rounds at a much faster rate. Now imagine such a weapon being used to murder a classroom full of first-graders. Finally, imagine the same rifle fitted with a 30- or 40-round magazine, so that there would be no time needed to stop shooting and reload.
The differences between an AR-15 and the Ruger Mini 14 mainly have to do with style; the AR-15 style is military-looking; the Ruger style is more traditional. The main thing to focus on is that they both fire a high-velocity military round — a relatively small, sharp-pointed projectile with a lot of gunpowder behind it to give it range and penetrating ability. The small overall size of the combined bullet and cartridge means that a lot of rounds can be stacked in magazines and carried by the shooter. There are plenty of other powerful rifle bullets like the traditional .30–06 and the 7.62mm/.308 Winchester, but they’re bulkier to carry, and more importantly the rifles they’re fired from haven’t been promoted as heavily in recent years as AR-15-style rifles, which are now the weapons of choice for law-abiding people who admire their design (as models of efficiency or for more compensatory reasons) and for mass murderers. It’s neither here nor there from a practical point of view, but AR-15 rifles are generally marketed as must-have weaponry for the truly bad-assed. And of course anyone who buys an extra-lethal firearm with the hope of appearing to be a bad-ass is a fool, quite possibly a dangerous fool.
As bad as the wounds are from handguns, shotguns, or less powerful rifles, those inflicted by AR-15 rounds are on another level of brutality. And if they miss their target they’re likely to travel fast and far and hit other things or people by accident. They pass easily through interior walls, sheet metal, most doors, and other things that people might think would provide them cover. (For this reason, weapons that fire such high-velocity, high-penetration ammunition make poor choices for home defense.)
Bring Back 10-Round Magazine Limits on Long Guns
If many of us had our wish, any weapon that fires high-powered military rounds should be restricted to a firing range, not allowed in homes. I’m afraid, however, that the horse is out of the barn. There are many, many rifles in circulation that fire military-spec ammo, never mind the style, and not many of them are going to be handed over, no matter what type of buy-back is offered. A call to “ban all assault rifles” would only reach a fraction of the weapons capable of doing the damage that assault-style rifles can do. It would be similar to a call to ban red Ford Mustangs but not yellow Ford Mustangs.
Someday we may be able to agree on a restriction of all such weapons to firing ranges. Until then, however, it’s still reasonable to speak, in the middle ground, about limiting the capacity of magazines, as we have done before.
The 1993 Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited high-capacity magazines, was allowed to expire in 2004, and since then high-capacity magazines have flooded the market (along with heinous add-ons like bump stocks). Even though they’re still illegal in some states, 30-round and 40-round magazines are common. There are even 100-round drum magazines that can be fitted to AR-15 style rifles. James Eagan Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 70 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012 used a drum magazine, but it jammed after firing 65 rounds, at which point he continued firing with a shotgun and a handgun. It’s worth noting that one of the 5.56-mm rounds from Holmes’ rifle in Aurora went through a wall and wounded three people in the next theater.
Again look at that Ruger Mini 14 video. The few seconds it takes the shooter to reload can mean the difference between life and death. Those few seconds can — potentially — give people a chance to flee or defend themselves. With a 40-round or 100-round magazine there’s a much reduced chance of escape or defense.
Bill Ruger, who was president of the company that makes that rifle, sent a letter to Congress in 1989, saying this:
“The best way to address the firepower concern is therefore not to try to outlaw or license many millions of older and perfectly legitimate firearms (which would be a licensing effort of staggering proportions) but to prohibit the possession of high capacity magazines. By a simple, complete and unequivocal ban on large capacity magazines, all the difficulty of defining ‘assault rifle’ and ‘semi-automatic rifles’ is eliminated. The large capacity magazine itself, separate or attached to the firearm, becomes the prohibited item. A single amendment to Federal firearms laws could effectively implement these objectives.”
The 1993 Federal Assault Weapons Ban incorporated Ruger’s advice. Again, that ban was allowed to expire 2004, due to the ferocious lobbying power of the NRA. Did the ban work? Pro-gun and anti-gun groups are still arguing about it. Here’s an analysis by FactCheck.org that shows how each side cherry-picks from the available follow-up studies.
If nothing else, we need to bring back a ban on high-capacity magazines for long guns. It’s true that a magazine limit will not stop gun violence. It will not stop all criminals from getting their hands on the deadliest equipment available and using it. But it will stop some, it will slow down many others, and it will save lives, maybe your children’s and mine. The argument that no law will stop gun crime and therefore would be useless to enact has always been absurdly hollow. No law is 100-percent effective; that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have laws. Imperfection and small steps are valid. Any civilian weapon with a 30-round magazine is a case-study in overkill. If you can’t hit your target with 10 rounds, you shouldn’t own a rifle.
We’re still left with the problem of millions of other weapons that criminals can use, including semi-automatic handguns that hold magazines of more than 10 rounds. We should be able to restrict those magazines, too, if we develop some momentum in the right direction. For now the only consolation is that handguns are less accurate and powerful, and therefore somewhat less lethal in mass-shooting situations than long guns firing NATO ammunition.
It Should Be Harder to Get a Gun License than a Driver’s License
Opponents of stricter guns law are fond of saying that guns don’t kill people, people kill people. They extend the argument to other objects. “If you’re going to make it harder to buy a gun, why don’t you make it harder to buy a baseball bat, or an ax, or a car? They can be used to kill people, too.” These arguments are tediously shallow. It’s obvious that guns are inanimate objects that won’t hurt anyone when they’re left in a locked box or a store’s display case. However, unlike bats, axes, cars, or hard-baked loaves of bread, guns are tools made specifically to kill, and kill at a distance to reduce the chance of harm to the user. Whether they’re on the hip, or drawn, or pointed, they pose a threat; they ramp up tension, they increase the potential for danger within their radius. And when conditions are volatile, they are too often brought into use, and people get hurt or killed. So let’s please say that guns don’t kill people, but they are ready-made accomplices with a knack for finding trouble.
Cars and trucks can be and are used as weapons, yet it’s much more difficult to get permission to own and operate a motor vehicle, which is made for transport, than it is to get permission to own and operate a gun, which is made for killing. It should be the other way around. (This is not to say that licensing for drivers should be relaxed — it should be stricter, too.)
Anyone who wants to buy, own, or fire any gun should be required to go through rigorous study and training in gun mechanics, operation, and safety. There should be written and practical tests, and those who fail should be failed, not winked at, handed a certificate, and sold a gun. Maybe this is where the NRA could return to its roots and act more on the side of safety than of sales.
There should be be universal background checks, above and beyond FixNICS, for any gun purchaser. There should probably also be Red Flag laws, which may be effective at quickly averting gun violence at a local level. Private gun sales should be brokered through federally-registered gun stores, with purchasers put through that same battery of tests, and there should be a mandatory waiting period for transfer of the weapon — a minimum of 48 hours after completion of background checks and proof of training. Yes, it’s slightly inconvenient, but it greatly reduces the potential for crimes of passion. It’s for the public good. If you’re in that much of a hurry to get a gun, why?
The chronic disease of gun violence is killing our people and causing deep national anguish and bitterness. It may not be possible to completely cure the disease all at once, but these are a few simple steps than can be taken immediately to prevent and reduce its ravages. This process can’t be allowed to belong to the NRA and its political flunkies, and it can’t belong to whose outrage about guns will fall on deaf ears until they have a better understanding of the nature and complexity of the whole issue and can approach it in a practical way. The annoyance that magazine restrictions and stricter training and licensing laws might cause the gun industry and some law-abiding gun-owners would be welcomed by many other gun owners and most of the rest of the public. And annoyance is better than grief ~