Liberals With Guns

Most of us know Horde centurion Erik Vanderhoff for his enthusiasm for guns. His feelings regarding guns are not very common around these parts. Which is why I wanted to hear more from him. Below are some of his thoughts. The hope is that a productive conversation will follow. 

I suppose, first off, I should point out that "gun nut" is a bit of a pejorative. And, despite some claims to the contrary, I have a pretty minor case of the obsessive-compulsive collecting that gun addiction can spark; but addiction it is - once you become serious about guns and shooting, you do start to think a lot about them. I don't know of any major research into the phenomenon, but my clinical training leads me to think that the adrenaline and the focus required in shooting, even just at a simple range, are physiologically and psychologically powerful forces. I've never been one for yoga or meditation, but I imagine the mindset required similar to going to the range: Shooting a gun requires intense focus on your task for safety's sake, and shooting well requires the imposition of calm over both body and mind. I am, oddly enough, never more at mental peace than when I go to the range. 

In discussing gun ownership with my family, some friends, and many the Internet liberal, I often get the urge to be defensive, as though I need to justify my hobby to them, lest I be dismissed as a lunatic. Your average liberals, for all our vaunted curiosity and stereo-typical claim to ownership of "reality-based" thinking, don't really know all that much about guns or gun ownership. This makes for a real problem in crafting effective laws for firearm regulation and for selling those laws to the people whose exercise of rights and property they will affect. Occasionally such laws actually end up being accepted and successful; for example, the California "drop-safety" law has made handguns much safer should you drop a loaded one. But they can also work counter-intuitively: California, again, with its "magazine disconnect" law added moving parts to semi-automatic handguns so that a loaded chamber could not fire with the magazine removed. The addition of this part makes the gun more prone to jamming and misfire, and thus less safe.

The bottom line, for me, is that guns are fun. Yes, there's a thrill to the bang, to the power you know you're holding in your hand even when it's just using my little Ruger Mark III 22/45 .22-caliber rimfire ("Just makes a small hole!" as Robin Williams once said). But for me, the most fun is the painstaking care you have to take - I don't usually function in my day-to-day life with the kind of precision a gun requires - and that utter focus the act of shooting requires. Learning how different types of guns function, how different calibers interact with weight, size, barrel-length, and so on to become different functioning wholes and how small movements of the body radically effect their precision and function... Amazing. Do you or a friend collect cars or motorcycles? Or even computers or stereos? It's the same deal. You want to buy the latest GeForce visual card or Suzuki SV650, I drool over a custom Nighthawk TRP 1911 in .45 ACP.

I had a very interesting conversation with my wife's father this Christmas over guns; he has ever been very supportive of my interest in shooting, and himself owns several firearms. I learned, for the first time, that he used to have an older sister. They were visiting his uncle, who accidentally dropped a loaded revolver while moving it from his underwear drawer. The revolver went off, the bullet passed through the wall of the bedroom into the living room, and killed my father-in-law's sister, instantly. She was nine. Despite a very personal connection to gun violence and death, my father-in-law has never stopped owning guns; what he has been is incredibly committed to safety, keeping them locked in safes and teaching his children from a very early age to respect the danger they pose.

There is no denying the seriousness of owning a gun over any other sports addiction that requires you to spend insane amounts of money and time in participating, like say golf. Guns are tools, yes, as many gun advocates state repeatedly, but they are tools primarily of killing, even when, as with myself, they are used for sport. While I have a serious philosophical and physical commitment to self-defense as the bedrock for all of the political and social rights we assert, when it comes to guns the reality of having small children makes using guns for defense more theoretical than practical in my life. Now that my son is of the "What's this thing I'm not supposed to touch?" phase of development, the guns remain disassembled, individually locked in their cases, and no ammunition is kept in the home. I've done the math, looked at the crime statistics in my city and my neighborhood, and know that they do not justify the slightest chance that my young children will find a loaded gun and be able to get into where it is stored for access. Neither of them will become a statistic because of my erroneous calculations.

2012 was a particularly bad year in the United States for mass shootings, hosting the most deaths from such events since 1982. This has led to a wholly appropriate public outcry against politics as normal with respect to the Second Amendment, pitting, on its face, ideologically-rigid gun owners against an unarmed and fearful majority clamoring for relief from what is seen as the constant threat of a fusillade of bullets. Faced with a gun culture awash in the mythology of lone gunmen warring against a vicious and capricious world on one extreme with the loathing and distrust of my political peers, I find myself - a California liberal with a fondness for firearms - in the uncomfortable position of being distrusted by both sides of the gun control debate, viewed as a quisling by gun rights advocates and as party to a foreign culture to the gun control advocates. Where I would hope people such as myself could be the connections that allow for increased, pragmatic regulation of firearms that respects their history and part in American culture, I find instead only distrust from all sides. It is my hope that fear and hostility can give way when confronted with mutual respect and information.

The simple fact of the matter is that while per household ownership of firearms is declining in the United States, the overall number of firearms owned - ranging from antique and replica flintlocks to custom handguns and assault rifles and everything in between -- is at an all-time high. I would argue that the former figure renders the latter one less meaningful; the popular .89 (1) guns per capita figure is more histrionic than actually clarifying: What types of firearms? In what concentrations? Where? By whom? A big number is just a big number without breaking it down into useful chunks.

The number of individuals licensed for concealed carry of a handgun is estimated to be at an all-time high of over 8 million people nationwide (2). 

And yet, despite these figures, overall and firearm crimes are at a twenty-year low. Between 2005 and 2011, firearm murders dropped from 10,150 to 8,583 according to the FBI. Only one in every 33,000 firearms is used in a firearm murder in 2011; this means .00317% -- 3.17 per 100,000 - was used to intentionally kill someone. It is equally undeniable, with an estimation of 270 million firearms in the country, that this ratio still represents a lot of deaths from one source: guns. While media focus inevitably centers on high profile, high drama mass shootings, it typically fails to note that most such shootings - and most firearm deaths in the country, especially murders - result from handguns, not assault rifles. Indeed, in 2011, firearm murders by rifles - semi-automatic assault rifles or otherwise - accounted for only 2.5% of the total number of such deaths; this is in keeping with the historical tally. (3,4)

Since 1980, the United States has not had more than 125 deaths per year in mass shootings - though it has never had few than 50 - and never more than 25 mass shootings per year. There have been fewer mass shootings from 2000 through 2012 than in the 1990s. (5) The numbers clearly indicate that while there is no triviality to needing to address mass shootings and the use of assault rifles, doing so will only affect the margins of firearms deaths in this country. This is one reason why so many gun owners act with fear and suspicion of proposed regulations on their rifles. (I, for one, am just as fascinated as any red-blooded American man by the "tacti-cool" weaponry available, but feel no need to own one and see no compelling reason to, not being a fan of the maximalist "I need to resist military tyranny" interpretation of the Second Amendment.)

Most mass shootings have involved the use of handguns instead of assault rifles; 49% of all murders in 2011 were with handguns, making them the most commonly used weapon for murder, followed in distant second by knives. They are also commonly used in suicides. Whereas the United States is found to be no more violent or suicidal than any other nation when you look at the numbers (6), what we are is awash in handguns and, when we decide to get mad at someone else or ourselves, a distressing propensity in using them to often fatal results. This says nothing about accidental discharges (which are far more likely to be at the hands of and inflicted upon adults than children). 

None of these figures are meant to diminish the important need of reducing them, but to offer perspective. This is a problem that gun owners need to be honest about. It requires the kind of courage to confront a problem that concealed carry advocates hope they possess in their ability to calmly and decisively confront personal harm. However, it is likewise important that gun control advocates understand the scale of what they are discussing: 32,999 firearms will not be used in a murder for every one that is. Gun control advocates rightly see far too many deaths by firearm. Gun rights advocates rightly see that for every criminal, suicidal, or negligent user, there are thousands who are not.

It is important for both sides to see the other for who they are: Real people, with real, relevant, and above all legitimate concerns. Calling one side tiny-dicked brutes with masturbatory fetishes for penis substitutes and the other national socialist tyrants begging to kneel under the jackboots of government dogs doesn't get us anywhere. There are good, solid, possible regulations to implement or strengthen that do not mark the first step on the slope to universal confiscation. Both sides need to understand that Jeffrey Goldberg was right (7): There are too many guns and no will to confiscate them all. And confiscation of all guns - or at least all handguns - is the only maximally effective way of seriously reducing deaths by firearm. 

Part of the problem is that for its entire history, the United States has tried to have it both ways on the competing legal interpretations of the Second Amendment: Is it a collective right, as stated by the Supreme Court of Arkansas back in the 1840s, thus making it subject to close regulation by the state? Or is it an individual right, as stated by the Supreme Court of Kentucky back in the 1820s, meaning that whether carrying openly or concealed, the individual's right to bear arms was universal and absolute? In the Heller decision of 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States tried to split the difference, asserting the Second Amendment as an individual right - something President Obama did as well in his press conference regarding gun control - while still leaving states the ability to craft regulations that do not impinge on that right. (8) This is, historically, how the Second Amendment was practiced as the country expanded: With the rule of law a tenuous thing, the individual need for a firearm was not questioned; but, at the same time, municipalities practiced strict regulations. The famous Western lawman Wyatt Earp, for example, made his reputation in enforcing bans against carrying guns within town limits. 

As the nature of American settlement has changed, living in physically closer environments brings their own challenges to firearms regulation. Sixty-seven percent of gun murders, according to Richard Florida at The Atlantic's "Cities" site, occur in metropolitan centers (9). The police are far more able to respond quickly to crime, but until Tom Cruise invents precognition, there is no way for them to actively prevent crimes; policing remains primarily reactive, rather than proactive, and thus cannot protect the citizenry in the moment of risk. Different concentrations of people, in different cultures, have varying degrees of commitment to armed self-defense or to community protection from firearms. 

Federal law is a broad brush most often used to set minimum standards; that is how it should be used for firearms regulation. There are some things that the Federal government can, and should, do, that will protect communities better while still respecting individual gun rights: Closing the gun show loophole and mandating all sales use someone with a Federal Firearms License who conducts a background check (such as California does); requiring all states to comply with submitting records to federal databases for those checks; requiring sellers in separate states to comply with firearms limits within the buyers' state of residence; limiting magazine capacities; enhancing punishments for criminal and negligent usage of firearms; and so on. Some of these require legislation and some can be done with changes to policies and priorities at the state and federal level. All still respect the rights of gun owners to collect firearms and enjoy their hobby while improving public safety, and that, I think, is where gun control and gun rights advocates can make agreement.