Sometimes they are beautiful objects. The craftsmanship of a Purdey over and under is easily on par with that of a vintage sports car. The sci-fi sensibility of an FN P90 is just jaw-droppingly cool. Even the spare lines of a Glock hold a purposeful energy. There's a deliberate lack of ornamentation. It is as clean as a racing bike and as functional as a pocket watch. Appreciating the skill and purpose woven into these creations of steel, brass and sandalwood doesn't require you to be a misanthrope.
I own a few guns. There's a tiny .25 revolver left to me in the will of a maiden aunt who, so far as I can tell, never removed it from the box she used to bring it home. There's a Colt Navy large enough, heavy enough, and ancient enough to please Roland Deschain. I also have a slender .22 rifle that cost somewhere under $50 in my youth and a trio of shotguns including a model 1898 Marlin that belonged to my grandfather. The broken stock of that last item is literally held together by bailing wire and the deeply blued barrel has dispatched so many squirrels, rabbits and possums over the years that the end of it has thinned to fretwork. This too is a beautiful thing; a working tool, still ready to do the task it was designed for a century after it was made and more than 30 years after the man who handed it to me left this life.
These items have a purpose. I don't think I've harmed a furry critter in several years, but I have sighted down on rabbits, no matter how cute, and knocked quail out of an autumn sky. I have even shot a deer with a rifled slug fired from that old shotgun on a terrifically cold winter morning. Once. It's been a long time, but one of these days, I may take up these old objects and shamble off to lean up against an oak where the squirrels are chattering. Maybe when I have a grandson of my own to take along. I expect my grandfather's gun will be ready when I am.
There's another purpose to these objects, of course. Any one of these guns, even the toy-sized little pistol and my boyhood tin can plinker, would easily serve to kill a human being. I have, thank God, been given the good luck to never have to sight down the barrel toward another person in fear or anger, and the good sense to never do so on a whim. I would very much like to believe that situation will not change. Still, the potential for destruction of life is there—just as it is there with every knife in the kitchen and every car in the driveway.
These, after all, are only objects, and no matter how trite it seems they really don't kill people. What they do is make it easier to kill people. And much, much easier to kill people in numbers.
Numbers like the 12 who died when James Eagan Holmes opened fire in Colorado last week. Numbers like the five who died when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire at Gabby Gifford's "Congress on your corner" event. Numbers like the 23 who died when George Hennard opened fire in a Luby's Restaurant in Killeen, Texas.
Events like these generate understandable grief, considerable shock and immediate outrage. They also bring on outrageous comments from the organization that represents the greatest threat to gun ownership in the United States, the National Rifle Association.
(Continue reading below the fold.)
There was a time when the NRA was the voice of the hunter, the collector and gun owners in general. That's no longer true, and it hasn't been true for a long time. Instead the NRA is a conspiracy factory producing a constant stream of lies, damned lies, and blood-soaked hatred. It doesn't fight against threats to gun owners, it invents them. By ginning up an anti-gun boogeyman composed of one part full-on black helicopter UN lunacy, one part United States equals Germany circa 1933 analogies, and one part that-black-man-wants-to-take-your-guns-and-give-them-to-brown-people, the NRA has waged a campaign of fear against nonexistent persecution. It's an extraordinarily successful campaign, one by which gun manufacturers have completely avoided any hint of an economic downturn and coasted to record sales on a tidal wave of paranoia. The NRA has become one long, strange commercial for gun makers and sellers that operates counter to the good of gun owners in almost every way.
Thanks to the NRA, the American people have a hard time even conceiving of such a thing as a "responsible gun owner." How could they, when everything they see of the people who are supposedly their spokesmen reveals frothing paranoids only interested in declaring that you better buy more bullets, buy more guns, buy, buy, buy before the evil gub'mint takes it all away? For the NRA, it's not just that lack of evidence isn't evidence of lack. For them fact that there's no effort in the administration or in congress to limit access to guns is proof that there is—a super secret, double pinky swear threat that can only be stopped by your pals at the NRA. And buying more guns.
Both the AR-15 and the 100-round ammo drum that Holmes carried into that darkened theater have enjoyed record popularity over the last three years, not because of any need, but specifically because the NRA has promoted them as items soon to be forever banned by some ultimately tricksy double-cross by an anti-gun president. So buy now. Heck, better get two. Act fast and you can get a special deal. Missouri State Representative John McCaherty is auctioning off an AR-15, just like the one Holmes carried. This thoughtful item provided to the congressman as a gift from the National Rifle Association.
With each tragedy like Aurora, the NRA warns that in the wake of such events, gun ownership could be threatened. They sometimes even pause in thier attacks on the president and the Democratic Party to warn about politicization. History shows that they are right. Gun laws have been affected by mass killings. When George Hennard smashed his pickup through the window of a Texas cafeteria he stepped out with two semi-automatic pistols and several spare clips. He walked over the broken glass firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. He chased down and killed 23 people, wounding 20 others before shooting himself. It was the highest death toll of any such incident in the United States and you better believe political action came swiftly. In response to this event, the Texas legislature made it much easier for anyone to get a concealed carry permit for handguns.
I don't blame the events in Aurora on the NRA. I do blame them both for standing in the way of reasonable people taking reasonable action, and for painting gun issues in such stark terms that the public can feel with some vindication that the average gun owner is not much saner than Holmes or Loughner. I blame them for making the serious discussion of gun regulations such a taboo that the only time it's mentioned is in the wake of tragedy.
The world is not made of only slippery slopes. Every traffic law is not sparked by a cadre of radical pedestrians out to put Americans afoot. In the same way, every gun law is not a first step toward leaving a disarmed public cowering before a tyrannical government. If gun owners continue to pretend that the NRA is serving their interests, rather than those of dealers and manufacturers who use fear to fuel sales, we will wake up one morning to discover that we are completely shut out from the national conversation. Deservedly so.
After all guns are only objects, not sacred objects. That old Marlin is just a thing that belonged to my grandfather, a lot less important than the lessons he taught me. Maybe some restrictions on the availability or capabilities of gun or accessories can reduce the odds of another Aurora or Columbine or Killean. Maybe not. But the conversation is going to happen, and if gun owners want to be part of it, they need to step away from the crazies.