Several years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were mugged on the street by an assailant with a gun one block away from a local police station and two blocks away from my home. Despite having only $10 to give him, he graciously opted not to shoot us with the black 9mm he was brandishing in our faces. He was never caught. Conceal-and-carry proponents would have you believe that a secreted snubnose would have changed that outcome. That blithe action-movie attitude ignores the fact that I'd have spent the rest of my life haunted by the memory of the stranger I'd killed over $10. (Then again, Bernhard Goetz, who shot four muggers on the New York subway, was immortalized in a variety of hip-hop songs, so there might have been the rap game to look forward to.)
Whenever America experiences a gun massacre, the media wrings its hands and calls for modest restrictions on firearms. The NRA hits a defensive crouch. And hordes of Second Amendment absolutists emerge from the blogosphere with the certainty of zealots in the desert and the shaky knowledge of junior high kids in a summer civics class.
But the sad fact is that American society can no longer handle the responsibility of private gun ownership. We've lost whatever internal gyroscopes enabled us to monitor ourselves and our conduct. We need stronger legal controls on gun ownership, including not only background checks but mental fitness exams and mandatory training. There should be at least as much required to own a gun as there is to obtain a driver's license. Instead, even people on the government's terrorist watch list are legally able to purchase firearms.
There are obvious reasons that firearms in the hands of civilians make less and less sense: denser populations; higher powered weaponry; ever-looser regulation that prevents weapons from being effectively tracked from owner to owner, better enabling sales to criminals. But just as important is the dissolution of the social mores that once corralled the behavior of civilian gun-owners: the knowledge of one's neighbors; a sense of participation in a community; respect for others, even if their political views didn't align with your own.
Even my dad, of the fallout shelter and the loaded pistol under the bed ruffle, would've viewed someone who owned a semi-automatic assault rifle as dangerously antisocial. You don't shoot paper targets or hunt with an AK-47 or AR-15 with a drum magazine. There's simply no appropriate place for that kind of firepower in civilian society and no justifiable reason for owning such a device.
We're living in the time of conceal-and-carry permits, of "stand your ground" laws that put the onus on the dead, not the shooters, to justify their intentions. The NRA has called for guns to be allowed in bars, in churches, in schools. Such proposals would create a paranoid, jumpy free-for-all far deadlier than anything in the Wild West.
My father often flew into a fury at home, but I remember him losing it badly in public only once. He carried a blackjack in the car, nestled in the hollow behind the gearshift -- it was a thick leather strip with a heavy weight sewn into one end. I'd play with it when we were driving, slapping it against my palm until it hurt, usually about two or three strikes.
One day, my dad got angry at the driver behind us, yelling out the window at top-volume. The light was green when we suddenly came to a stop in the left-hand turn lane. My dad grabbed the blackjack and swooped out of the car. I was afraid to look back, keeping my gaze fixed on the dust motes on the dashboard. As far as I know, he had no physical contact with the person in the car behind us. He came back and slammed the door, glaring into the rearview mirror as the traffic light went through another cycle. Then we drove off.
Would he have behaved the same way in Florida in 2012? Might the man in the car behind us have "stood his ground" and shot my dad dead in the street? It's impossible to know.
We see gun violence - Columbine, gang shootings, this Holmes guy in a movie theatre -- and we buy the rhetoric that we need to defend ourselves - with more guns, of course. We stock up on ammo, get the conceal-and-carry permit, and we complete the process of fulfilling our fears (not our hopes). In other words, we become part of the problem. And now we're standing, guns drawn at ourselves, poised in a standoff that is all too American.
My father died in 1997, and I think of the guns he passed on to me as family heirlooms. Yet I feel a pang when I imagine what guns might do to my own children, what movie they might be watching when a troubled loner descends on them. Two years before I was born, my dad's first wife drove out to a prairie and took her own life with one of his revolvers. In his private moments, I wonder if my father thought about the way the pieces fit together.