Sunday, January 6, 2013

Firearms, Gun Control, and the Second Amendment

My first real job out of college was for a homeless shelter for teens in Houston, Texas. At that point in time my professional ambition was to plan fancy fundraising events for the most deserving of charities. I worked there just short of one year before I moved back to my home state of Virginia. It was then and there that I got a job interview through a recruiter with "one of the oldest and biggest non-profits" in the U.S. I was shocked to find out that non-profit was the National Rifle Association. The job description sounded good, the company's location was ideal, and I had nothing against the NRA, so I went to the interview.

I wasn't a fit for the position in their charitable wing, but was referred upstairs to a different "event planning" position. I got the job- a trade show and special events planning position in the membership division. It was a fateful turn in my career path- one that would almost always include guns. 

At the time I was hired I had never held a real gun before. I had held a few BB guns, and shot them at tin cans on a fence in a field in Mississippi. But I had never seen a gun range, let alone fired a real weapon. I was a Republican with a Southern upbringing, and that was enough to convince me (and the people that hired me) that I was in favor of the Second Amendment. But to be honest, I had never really thought much about it.

I didn't work at the NRA for long before someone took me down to the range, enrolled me in the range and firearms safety class, put a .22 pistol in my hand, and taught me how to shoot. "Punching holes in paper." It didn't take long for me to discover two things- I was a natural shot, and I really liked when things go bang.

I've never had an inclination to go hunting, nor do I expect I ever will. (Although I wouldn't mind removing one or two raccoons from the population behind my house.) But the range has always held a certain appeal for me. It takes skill, discipline, and focus to get a bull's eye. Just like an NBA player isn't guaranteed every free throw, or Tiger Woods a hole in one, shooting at a target doesn't always mean a perfect shot.

I left the NRA after a while and moved on to other (event planning) jobs, just to end up working at Beretta USA a few years later. Beretta is one of the largest firearms manufacturers in the world. I worked in the law enforcement and defense division, where we sold large numbers of firearms and parts to police and military.

While I worked at both organizations I dreaded telling new acquaintances, or even strangers, where I worked. Rarely was my employer's name met with neutrality; it was always met with a heavily biased response, whether positive or negative. I was called a "babykiller" more times than I can count. If the new person was pro-firearms, I was almost always asked what kind of guns I owned. Or I was subjected to the person's testimony of the Second Amendment, and a list of their favorite weapons.

The truth is I've never owned a firearm of my own. (I'm a serious sleepwalker and I've never felt it was a good idea to have a gun in my home as a result.) I'd usually laugh it off and say something like, "I'm between guns right now." It spared me from having to explain myself further.

I've never shot at a living being, whether it be human or animal. Nor would or could I ever. The thought is repulsive to me (right up until a raccoon or possum has created a large mess in my driveway, at which times I have second thoughts).

I can "speak gun" with the best of them. I'm very well-versed in the Second Amendment (and most other amendments as well). I understand the arguments both for and against private citizen owned firearms.

In all the time I have spent employed by the firearms industry, I have never really been convinced that I am pro-gun. How could I not have second thoughts? The world is a very scary place, and firearms contribute to, and make real, that fear.

I was hired at the NRA a few months after the Columbine tragedy. I live in Southern Virginia, just a short drive away from the Virginia Tech shootings. I understand and feel the gravity of the potential harm of mis-used firearm. I always have. I always will.

As part of my job requirements at the NRA I had to attend the Annual Meeting and Exhibits. (My job was exhibits coordinator. When I was later employed at Beretta I would have to attend this same event as an exhibitor several times.) Every attendee at this huge event is a firearms enthusiast. I met thousands of people from every possible walk of life, but there is only one person I met that I remember clearly. He walked up to me with a clipboard and a wooden box the size of a shoebox. The box had a padlock on it. I could tell from the shape and size that it was most likely not a gun box, but I was prepared to be wrong. (In most states "open carry" is legal, and at NRA events, it is common for attendees to be wearing a few firearms.)

The man launched into a well-rehearsed speech about how in his home state firearms must be locked up, background checks were required, and it was all in the name of crime prevention. He handed me his worn clipboard and showed me numbers- lots of numbers- about the number of crimes committed with a firearm. He then showed me the number of crimes committed with a knife. And then the number of crimes committed with a firearm that led to the firearm being discharged, and the number of crimes with a knife that led to death or injury.

The numbers were shocking. Knives were used far more often- and almost always led to injury! And then the man showed me another set of numbers- blunt objects and crimes. He even had a number for how many hammers were used in domestic violence. That was the number that floored me, and yet it made sense. Hammers were used in a very high number of domestic violence acts, and almost always resulted in injury, and sometimes, death. (Note- this number would/could be easily skewed though. Chances are strong that if a hammer was used in an argument, but no injury occurred, a call may not have been made to the police.)

The man then unlocked his wooden box and showed me a hammer with blood on it.  The hammer had been used to kill a member of his family. He asked me if hammers and knives are so dangerous, why is it we only talk about firearms? And why aren't there laws demanding that hammers or knives be locked up inside homes? Why can you buy a hammer anywhere without a background check?

The experience has stayed with me well over ten years.  It didn't teach me that firearms are not deadly or dangerous. But it stuck with me that it isn't the gun that makes a crime deadly- it is the intent of the person who wants to do harm.
Have the numbers that man showed me changed over the past decade? Are guns more popular or dangerous now? Or are they more sensationalized?
I don't trust news sources to give me accurate data regarding crimes and guns. So I went to the FBI website on Crimes in the U.S. directly to get my information.


8,583 murders involved a firearm. 
4,081 murders occurred without a firearm.

One third of murders do not involve firearms. 

Yes, firearms are deadly, and firearms can be involved in bad situations. But these numbers tell me intent matters more than the object used to kill. 

What about robberies and other crimes involving weapons?

SOURCE: FBI, Robbery

Strong-arming is used more in robberies than firearms are!

And what about Aggravated Assault?

Again we see that intent matters more than the weapon available. But this number is organically skewed. Assaults with a firearms easily turn into murders, so the assault number may appear lower because the presence of the weapon results in a different category.  But again we see that intent matters.  "Other weapons" and "personal weapons" imply unpremeditated crimes. 

All of these numbers tell me that crimes would occur without firearms.

When I look at tragedies such as the Newtown, CT shooting, and think about the horrible choices that led to the event, my heart gets confused. Legally purchased, legal firearms were used in a horrific act. The shooter's mother, the owner of the firearms, did everything right. She trained herself and her son at the range. She had her firearms locked up. But that didn't stop someone with the intent to kill. 

Would outlawing firearms have prevented the shooting? Yes, and no. It could have prevented the shooting, but it may not have done anything to prevent the deaths. Intent matters more than the weapons available. Look deeper at the movie theater massacre last summer, or Columbine, and you will see that the killers also had bombs ready to use. If a gun had not worked out, bombs would have been deployed. 

Stopping guns won't stop crimes. It will just change the types of crimes committed.  The movie theater killer (I won't use his name here) spent weeks and months plotting his crimes. If guns had not been available to him, he would have just resorted to using something else (and he did- remember his home was set to blow up). The Connecticut killer was a genius. Again, if he had not found firearms, he could have found something else. 

The guns aren't the problem. The people are. Always have been, always will be.

If you think I am am about to conclude with the popular pro-gun catch phrases, "guns don't kill people, people kill people," or "gun control means using both hands," you are wrong. 

Both the killers in Connecticut and Colorado obtained access to firearms legally. Waiting periods, fingerprinting, and background checks were pointless.  We do need to make it harder to obtain firearms- a lot harder. If you are innocent and just want another firearm for recreational purposes, what is the harm in being asked to jump through a few more hoops out of respect for the safety of others? If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. But there are people out there who intend to do harm, and they must be prevented. So let's make it more difficult for those people to get their hands on firearms. 

Another argument from firearms enthusiasts is that most firearms used in a crime were not obtained legally.  I don't have an answer for this problem. I don't want to see all firearms melted down and made illegal. It is implausible and never going to happen, so I don't waste my time contemplating it. The only partial solution I see to this part of the problem is to encourage better security of firearms. I will not and do not believe in legislating behavior in private homes. We can only encourage people to lock up their firearms. But there is almost no way to enforce it. 

But more than anything, we need to find ways not to defend ourselves against crimes, but to prevent them. Mental health care is sorely needed. Both Colorado and Connecticut could have been prevented if their families had been able to get the men mental health care before it was too late. Tragedies of this magnitude are thankfully rare and sporadic. I am more worried about the daily crimes that are committed. These need to be prevented before another 12,664 murders occur in 2013. We need to change our culture. We need to prevent drug use and abuse that leads to violent crimes. We need to stop thinking that we "deserve" something and therefore are justified in using force to obtain it. We need stronger punishments to deter crimes from happening. We need more alternatives for the hopeless and helpless. We need to stop blaming one tool and start blaming the culture and people that allowed such crimes to occur.

I believe in the Constitution. I will defend it till the day I day. But I am sick and tired of the people who live and die by their biased view of the Second Amendment.
"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."
Too many gun rights defendants claim that they "need" or "must have" their guns to defend themselves against the government.

Let's be honest here.  Firearms will not "defend" you against the government. They are not necessary to the security of a free state anymore. If you are truly concerned that the government is going to turn against its people (highly unlikely in a democratic republic with a highly evolved system of checks and balances and a free press), you can always leave. If and when the government takes away the ability of its people to leave the country, I will change my point of view on this issue.

But the truth is, wars aren't even fought with firearms anymore. They are fought in the air, online, and with chemicals. We don't dig foxholes and shoot at the bad guys anymore. If you want to be armed to defend a free state, go out and vote, voice your opinion, and get involved in local politics. That is how you secure a free state- by strengthening your community.

As for the "right... shall not be infringed." I have no problem with people having firearms. I've explained that I like shooting too. But why does anyone need an AR-15 in their personal collection? Yes, they are fun. Yes, they go bang. But what purpose does it serve?

I'm not calling for more laws to infringe upon the right to bear arms. I'm calling on gun owners to self-police. If gun owners didn't create a demand for weapons like the AR-15, the manufacturers wouldn't make them. And the fewer available on the market, the fewer that will get into the hands of the wrong people. If you love your firearms, and you keep a picture of Charlton Heston on your fireplace, then be smart about it. SELF-POLICE. Help keep firearms out of the hands of the wrong people. Sell and buy them legally. Support waiting periods. Support restrictions that will protect the public. If you have nothing to hide and no reason to worry, then why not submit to a waiting period and background check that will stop "the bad guys?"

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