As a kid, I loved shooting a rifle with my uncle, out back at my grandmother’s farmhouse. My dad and I would go out with Uncle Bill, in his ubiquitous plaid flannel and hunting cap, and my cousin. We’d set a tin can on a stump. Uncle Bill would show me, holding the rifle firm into the crook of his shoulder and aiming at the can. He mumbled a bit around the cigarette that hung out of the corner of his mouth in those years, before he got scared enough to quit. He explained the basic safety rules for rifles along with how to pull the trigger. He was intimidating: even taller than my dad, big and strong from his work building houses, his expression always slightly askew from a work site accident that ended with a nail through his eye. His deep, gravelly voice held great authority, and he was serious about doing this safely. You can’t mess around with guns, he’d say. And then he’d give me my chance.
I’d pull the gun deep into my left shoulder, aim carefully, and pull. I was a good shot. I remember the smooth warmth of the empty cartridges, the sharp smell left in the air, and my dad’s gleeful, sort-of-surprised laughter when we inspected the holes in the tin can.
Until a few weeks ago, I had not thought about those out-back shooting sessions for a long time. They seemed like part of a romantic narrative about family farms and city cousins, and the time-travel sensation of visiting my grandmother’s house with its wood stove and from-the-Old-World inhabitants. I had never connected rifle practice with Uncle Bill to debates about gun regulation.
My usual instinct on gun control comes from a different place. I grew up a middle-class coastal suburbanite, with a typical liberal attitude toward guns. “Why on earth would we let people just wander around with guns? I’m sure it’s a fun hobby. But so are, say, fireworks, and we don’t let people do that wherever they want!” To me, it is a public health issue, and clearly the public’s health would be much better served if guns were banned.
I have always been reflexively unsympathetic to the gun lobby. Constitutional arguments against gun control always struck me as farfetched and self-serving. I have long been aware that the right to bear arms is written into the Constitution. As an historian, I know that weapon ownership was protected in the Constitution because the founders of the United States could easily imagine the need for armed rebellion in service of civil freedoms and democracy. In their world, citizens owned more-or-less the same weapons as soldiers. A president who threatened to establish a monarchy could be overthrown by a mass of ordinary citizens recognizing the threat and taking up the arms that rested in their own closets and cabinets as hunting tools. But today, our government has weapons that far outgun anything an ordinary citizen can keep in her house. While I do know a few people who defend gun ownership on constitutional grounds because they actually picture a potential need for armed rebellion against the United States government, I don’t think they are typical of gun advocates.
No, ordinary gun advocates come to the debate from a different place. What is that place? How can a suburban liberal like me understand it? Given recent events, and the insanely frustrating intractability of gun control debates, I decided recently that I needed to honestly try to understand. So I turned to my childhood memories, and my Uncle Bill.
I recalled what it felt like to shoot a gun. Not just the heavy barrel and the fierce kickback, but the emotional experience. I felt strong, and powerful. Perhaps especially as a girl from the suburbs, I also felt like a genuine badass. I didn’t just hold a gun, I hit that can: boom boom boom. More importantly, I felt that I had been trusted with a great responsibility. A gun is really dangerous. But my uncle and my dad trusted me to understand the rules and handle the gun properly anyway.
I think it was important to my Uncle Bill to be treated as a capable citizen, trusted to handle a gun. He also enjoyed hunting, and would not have wanted to lose a favorite hobby. But I don’t think the hobby was really the point, and I don’t think it is for most gun owners. The interest in guns is not arbitrary. It is not, as I had initially thought, that gun owners’ hobby just happens to involve a dangerous device, and they are using a frivolous Constitutional argument to protect it. Gun ownership means a lot more. The dangerousness of the device is intrinsic to its symbolic value: trust can only be expressed by putting something valuable at stake. Being trusted by the government with the lives of other citizens, and the right to make life-and-death decisions on behalf of themselves and their families, is important to many people.
So now what? Now that I have more sympathy for the sentiment behind gun ownership, can I see a new route toward resolution? Perhaps. I at least can see how we might better speak to each other across the gun-control divide.
Fellow gun control advocates: we need to see how our public-health-based arguments can seem condescending. We need to recognize the ways in which gun ownership represents and instantiates responsible citizenship for many people. We need to respectfully ask gun owners to make a genuine sacrifice in giving up their guns, not sneer at them for resisting us.
Gun-ownership advocates: I respect your desire for meaningful responsibility. I appreciate that you take your citizenship seriously. I hope you will consider forgoing guns in favor of other, even more crucial modes of life-and-death responsibility as citizens in our republic. Most towns in America have volunteer fire departments, ambulances, and other first responders. I trust them, and so do millions of other Americans. They are often understaffed. Please consider giving up your guns and volunteering to accept this and other grave civic responsibilities. I will put my life and my family’s lives in your hands. You will set a powerful model of citizenship, one which I believe we can agree upon. If we all earnestly take responsibility when others’ lives are at stake, we will live in a much better world.