The tragedy of Las Vegas prompted me to reflect on gun violence, and my personal history.
A Christmas Story
It all began innocently enough. In the late 1950s, I received the Christmas gift that every boy dreamt of in that far-off Age of Innocence: a BB gun. For those who have watched “A Christmas Story” starring Darren McGavin, the plot was about the same: my nagging, followed by a mother’s protestations, followed by a father reluctantly caving in.
The BB gun “wars” that inevitably ensued had one strict rule: no shots above the belt. Despite this, a local boy lost an eye, an event that led to a parent-enforced cessation of hostilities. We also had rock wars back then, but that’s another story.
My next immersion into American gun culture occurred with my enlistment in the Marine Corps in 1958, when I became proficient shooting the M-1 rifle, BAR, 45-cal pistol, and 38-cal revolver. Because I became an airborne radio operator and thus was an air-crew member, the revolver was my assigned weapon, although I still had to qualify with the M-1 every year (as the Corps declares, “every Marine is a rifleman”).
The calendar kept me out of Vietnam, and my only brush with mortality occurred when an aircraft I was crewing, an upgraded C-47, crashed in Texas, but we all walked away with only minor bruises. After four years, I left the Corps and mothballed my dress blues.
Once my sons entered their early teens, I would retrieve my old BB gun from its hiding place and take it with us on camping trips. I would typically hang an empty soda can on a string and attach it to a low branch; we would take turns plinking away until we cut the can in half.
Over the ensuing years, I acquired a 22-rifle and handgun, which I would occasionally take to a local firing range, but I quickly became bored with that diversion. I never had the desire to hunt, although I had friends who urged me to join them.
Reading the Minds of the Founding Fathers
We can never know exactly what James Madison had in mind other than the fact that he drew on the English Bill of Rights when he wrote the Second Amendment. He certainly didn’t have automatic weapons and 30-round magazines in mind. In the 18th century, guns were muzzle-loaders capable of perhaps one to three rounds per minute. The Amendment was essentially written to authorize an armed citizen militia and to enable hunting with muskets.
The U.S. and Britain took completely different paths regarding gun ownership, despite having comparable bases in common and statutory law. Those diverging paths have certainly yielded starkly different results: in England and Wales, with their strict controls, gun homicides occur at the rate of one per million people; that rate is roughly 30 times higher in the U.S.
It is estimated that there is one gun for every person in the U.S., or 320+ million in total. You have to wonder if the Founding Fathers had this proliferation in mind, which has gone far beyond any concept of a citizen militia, when they passed the Second Amendment on to the states for ratification.
The NRA Gun Lobby
In the U.S., the “right to bear arms” remained a background issue, that is until manufacturers realized that gun sales had great money-making potential. By manufacturers teaming up with the National Rifle Association (NRA), the NRA morphed into what has essentially become a Washington lobby for gun manufacturers, whereas it had formerly been one primarily for gun owners, hunters, and marksmen.
In fact, the NRA was once a proponent of gun control and universal background checks until 1977. The NRA’s shift from a mainstream, apolitical marksmanship association to its current form happened literally overnight. Hardline gun advocates, upset by the NRA’s past endorsement of gun restrictions, ousted the full leadership of the organization.
Of the $54 million poured into political purses by the NRA in 2016, almost 90 percent went to the Republican Party. For this reason, few conservative legislators are willing to voice support for even the most sensible of measures: e.g., reasonable background checks for one. President Trump even removed restrictions on sales to the mentally ill recently. The NRA even blocked funding for a CDC study to examine gun violence and its affect on the nation’s health.
Along with hiding behind a much-distorted interpretation of the Second Amendment, the NRA directly and indirectly stokes the fear among gun owners that background checks, gun registries, and weapon studies are preconditions for ”taking your guns away.” Nonsense, yes, but an effective strategy.
The U.S. post-Las Vegas
Various polls indicate that up to 80 percent of the general public support stricter gun controls, expanded background checks in particular. Against this assessment stands the NRA, which represents the most powerful special interest group in Washington, boasting a 5-million-person membership that increases with every mass shooting.
Opposition to the NRA’s Washington influence consists of a few organizations with limited funds with which to buy legislative clout. The voice of the general public means little in the long term if history is any guide.
But if ever there were a moment for legislative action, this is it. Or will we only hear more examples of vocal pablum in the form of “prayers for the victims and their loved ones” that always seem to flow from the mouths of our elected officials, always with furrowed brows. We shall see.