In the months following the tragic shooting in Miami, Ordinary Times hosted several discussions on the Second Amendment and gun control policy.1 This essay is not an attempt to add to that discussion, or to set out my interpretation of the scope and limits of constitutional rights. Indeed, I was hesitant to submit it given that the policy questions have already been debated to death. Notwithstanding, I’ve noticed that a consistent flash-point, both here and when I’ve discussed the matter with people I know, is whether or not anyone needs a firearm, and in particular why any individual might chose to own an “assault weapon.” I don’t love that term, but don’t mind using it for purposes of this essay.
A little over three years ago I purchased a semi-automatic center fire rifle with a detachable magazine, a weapon which included within the federal assault weapons ban, and is now prohibited in my home state (previously owned rifles were “grandfathered” in). In the spirit of mutual understanding and good faith debate, I thought it might be helpful if I told the story of how I came to own this particular firearm, and why I keep it.
I did not grow up in a household with guns. In fact my mother abhors them. My initial exposures to firearms were through my uncle, who remains an avid collector and hobbyist, and my grandfather who had a passion for hunting, fishing, camping, and all types of outdoor activities. Starting around the age of eleven, trips to the shooting range became occasional parts of visits or camping trips with my extended family. This is where I developed basic competency with all types of firearms, and learned proper handling ethics and etiquette.
Though I enjoyed these excursions, I did not buy a firearm until long after I legally could. Technically I had inherited a few shotguns and hunting rifles from my grandfather when he died, but they remained in storage. I always thought I might buy a firearm for recreational purposes one day, but it seemed like a foolish idea when living in college apartments and houses with multiple roommates. I didn’t have full control over the space, and though I always trusted the people I lived with, it wasn’t unusual to come home to find people I hadn’t met before on the premises. My lifestyle at the time was just not consistent with the level of care I felt was necessary to prevent a theft or an accident.
I didn’t start seriously entertaining the idea of purchasing a firearm until I was living in a more stable situation after completing law school. A friend had returned from the military, and invited me to the range with him, rekindling my interest in target shooting and other outdoor activities. Even then I never felt like buying a gun was a top priority. There was always something else to spend my money on (not least massive student loan payments). It was about this time that the Sandy Hook shooting occurred. Though gun control legislation failed at the federal level, it quickly became clear that Maryland would pass new restrictions of some kind. Ultimately the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 became law.
I started getting calls from my uncle, suggesting that if I was going to buy something I should do so before the new laws went into effect so as to avoid the additional hurdles. Initially I was hesitant. Though I was comfortable around firearms, I had never been responsible for ownership and all that goes along with it. While still torn about whether to make the official transition to gun owner, I began writing my state representatives about the proposed bills that were starting to take shape. E-mailing state legislators is a habit I picked up in law school after writing a law journal style paper on police militarization. A bill to monitor SWAT team deployment was proposed after a high-profile botched raid in 2008. Once I realized that, unlike federal representatives, state reps write back, I began weighing in with them on any given issue that interested me. The proposed gun control laws were no different.
The responses I received from my state Delegates and Senator were disappointing. I was hoping for clarity on how they thought the measures in the proposed legislation (in particular the “assault weapon” ban and limiting magazine size) would decrease firearm related homicides in the state. Instead of facts and details, I got vague generalities about values, safety, and the needs of law enforcement. Maybe coming of age politically during the Bush years made me cynical, but it seemed obvious to me that they weren’t really concerned with balancing rights and tailoring policy to a desired end. Though their intentions may have been good, the practical effect (in addition to building Martin O’Malley’s resume for his presidential campaign) would be more arbitrary submission to the authority of the state. It would create more reasons for law enforcement to put people in prison who had done nothing wrong, all without making a meaningful dent in gun violence in those communities most impacted. As an act of dissent towards this type of politics, I purchased a rifle that would soon be banned.
Though I now own this weapon, I have made a conscious effort not to fetishize it. I’ve become proficient with it on the range (as well as a bit of a hobbyist), and keep it safely stored at all times. I do not desire to ever find myself in a confrontation involving firearms. I’m not afraid of crime or my neighbors, and I have no interest in using firearms to intimidate fellow citizens. What I am generally worried about is the cavalier attitude about legislation touching on constitutional rights that my representatives expressed. For me, keeping the rifle is my little picket sign protesting against politicians that appeal to concerns about safety in order to chip away at individual autonomy without even trying to grapple with causation or unintended consequences.
When I read posts like Adrian’s, I ponder what would have to change for me to cease my protest. Maybe if we reined in the SWAT teams, or the police stopped doing things like this, it wouldn’t feel as necessary. Even better would be if I felt I could trust that appeals to safety and security were made in good faith, and wouldn’t inevitably be used as an excuse to enable mass incarceration, surveillance, and attacks on a confident and free polity. Unfortunately, absent very unlikely changes in how our politics and government operate, I’m not sure that I’ll ever feel comfortable discarding my metaphorical picket sign.
I want to reiterate that I do not expect this essay to change anyone’s views on policy related to firearms, or the Second Amendment, and I’ve deliberately tried to steer clear of those issues. My hope is only that it can serve to show why someone (an Obama voter even!) might see value in possessing a firearm of the type in question. I’ve said before that I believe the gun debate (much like the abortion debate) is so intractable because each side feels it can’t trust the other. If this post can improve upon that dynamic, even if only in this little corner of the internet, it will have served its purpose.
Image by gunman47
- BL: In fact, starting in January of 2013, we hosted a firearms symposium prompted by (if I recall correctly) the mass shooting of at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and there is a more-or-less running discussion on Guns in America for a long time here, with intense flare-ups of posts and exchanges in the wakes of other prominent mass shootings, most prominently including the murders at a church in Charleston and a nightclub in Orlando.