Ruminations on firearms, rights, training, and culture

There’s been another highly-publicized and highly-political bit of firearms violence in the news this week. As always when this happens, I find myself approaching the issue from a couple of different angles at once.

I partially agree with my friend Larry Correia, in that I think a lot of anti-gun legislation is a feelings-based exercise. Not a rational thing, per se. We seek to restrict firearms because of how we feel about them and because of how it makes us feel to know they’re out there and because we feel better if we think someone is “doing something about the problem,” even if what’s being done is neither necessary nor effective from a statistical standpoint.

But, is the alternative to do nothing? Take no action? Simply accept that gun violence is part of the cost of “doing business” as Americans?

I grew up around guns, so guns never bothered me. But a lot of people didn’t and don’t grow up around guns. And there a lot of people who believe guns are simply too dangerous for civilian ownership and use. The natural instinct of the gun-fearer is to restrict or ban — where and when and how we as private citizens are allowed to purchase, carry, and use guns. Because guns are “scary” and people simply won’t tolerate scary.

I am not a “banner,” and I never have been.

I look at guns the way I look at a circular saw. Useful. But also potentially very harmful or even lethal if handled stupidly. Otherwise, no more or less dangerous than any other power tool.

And of course nobody makes you take or pass state exams to use a circular saw — though I betcha maiming from circular saws is 100 to 1 more frequent than maiming or killing from gun accidents.

I think the big difference is that guns are symbolic. They are written into the blood of the American people at a cultural level.

On the one end of the spectrum, firearms represent liberty: the power to defy with force any form of oppression. On the other end they represent random terror: the unconscionable thought that some stranger could “cap” us at any moment (ergo, highly-publicized spree shootings) and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Spree killers don’t use circular saws. They don’t even use chainsaws, despite what the movies might have us think. They use firearms. In nearly every case. Any spree killer you’ve heard or read about in the last 40 years has used pistols, shotguns, rifles, etc.

And because we can’t read minds and identify the spree killers before they kill, we (collectively) tell ourselves that spree killers won’t be as dangerous to us if we take away their tools of choice.

Now, I personally don’t think that makes any logical sense, historically. Banning firearms won’t prevent their import, manufacture, or sale any more than banning booze in the 1920s prevented its import, manufacture, or sale. We’ll merely criminalize law-abiders while doing little or nothing to hamper the law-breakers. And we’ll turn gun manufacture and black market sales into a booming criminal enterprise. Just like the current ban has done to marijuana.

But the emotional argument is that since guns are scary and used in spree killings, if we get rid of guns we’ll be safe from scary spree killings.

A similar emotional argument can be made against cars. I was in a serious car wreck last week. I didn’t get hurt, thankfully. But if we banned cars, thousands upon thousands of Americans’ lives would be saved every year.

But cars aren’t scary. Cars are awesome. Everybody has them. They make life possible for most of us who don’t live in urban metro areas. Hence we tolerate random car-on-car mayhem more easily, because we look at the car and we see immediate practical benefit. Not so for firearms. At least not so for those with little or no experience with firearms.

Like I said earlier, I grew up around guns, so guns don’t frighten me. Nor do gun owners. Out here in Utah everyone has guns, and most everyone can trace his or her knowledge about firearms usage and safety to family: uncles, brothers, fathers, cousins, even moms and sisters. Virtually everyone learns (or has learned) from an early age how to shoot, and how to handle a gun.

I remember very clearly when I was in Webelos (scouting) they took us to a thing in the Uinta mountains called Camp Tracy, where (in the mid-1980s) there was a former USMC drill instructor running the .22 rifle range. He put the fear of God into us boys about proper firearms handling and discipline. I remember very clearly how the DI nearly made some kid piss himself when that dummy cracked off a round by monkeying with his rifle in the middle of the DI’s intro PMI routine.

That particular individual was stupid with a gun once, and it didn’t hurt anyone — thankfully. I would bet money on his never, ever having been that stupid with a gun again. Because the DI looked and sounded like he was gonna eat the kid for lunch. It was R. Lee Ermey time.

If everyone who wanted to own or operate a pistol or rifle got that kind of basic-level-very-young-fear-of-God training and discipline, I’d not bat an eyelash at the no-training-required-to-buy-guns mentality. But because not everyone gets this kind of from-the-roots training and instruction, I can see where some of the worry (by people who fear gun accidents and random gun violence) comes from.

Not agree with it at all levels — I just think I get where it comes from.

And just because I was raised in a culture that understands, respects, and owns guns, not everybody has that same luxury.

Would it be the end of freedom and the American civilization for us to require that people who have never handled a rifle nor pistol before, be required to get the kind of rudimentary training and indoctrination that many of us who did grow up with guns, take for granted?

I think that’s what I am putting on the table.

But . . . I also see how the language ” — shall not be infringed — ” can be taken quite literally, and how a government capable of denying its citizens their right of firearms ownership (for any reason) is also potentially the same government capable of denying its citizens all their other rights too.

In many places like New York City we’ve already seen the (more or less) suspension of the 2nd Amendment. Which is one reason I am glad I live in a state where such restrictions have not come to pass. I don’t see that New York’s policies have done much more than punish the law-abiding, while doing little or nothing to curb crime or gun violence. Just like in the UK, where similar restrictions have seen a corresponding rise in home burglaries and crime.

Of course, New York City’s culture is about as different from Utah’s culture as one can get in the United States. Especially if we’re discussing urbanized up-scale New Yorkers vs. rural, farming-community Utahn’s. Might as well be Venusians vs. Plutonians.

So maybe my real beef is: how do you infuse a culture which is ignorant of or averse to gun knowledge, with gun knowledge? Or do you even try? Is it worth it to allow a certain percentage of gun accidents and gun crimes, because the alternative — restrictions, licenses, permits, bans — is too antithetical to the United States Constitution, and our founding liberties as a free people?

If I must pick, I side with liberty. Firearms ownership.

But then I look at my driver’s license, and I think about how few people complain that we have to go through that particular rigamaroll. And if we did require similar licensure and training to obtain and operate a firearm, after an initial period of moaning and groaning from staunch 2nd Amendment activists, wouldn’t things just settle out — and life would go on more or less without significant problems for current or would-be gun owners? I can think of all kinds of things the state makes me prove I am qualified to do. Like a food handlers permit. I had to go get one of those before I could work at McDonalds when I was 16. Why would shooting guns be any different?

Yes, I am a science fiction writer. You might say I get paid to think about this stuff. I am not trying to piss people off. I am trying to consider the angles and ramifications. Looking at it both ways. Seeing it from both the POV of the firearms activists and the firearms restrictionists.

Again, if forced to pick a side, I have to pick unrestricted. I believe the U.S. Founders were far smarter and more wise than many modern Americans realize. I think they were canny and inspired and if they say firearms ownership and operation shall not be infringed, I want to trust their judgment.

All the same, I am not sure the Founders ever imagined spree shootings in movie theaters or high schools.

Plus, I can’t own “military grade” weaponry despite the fact that I am in the military and have had experience and training operating weapons like the M249, the M240B, and even the M2 heavy machine gun. None of these are available in the local sporting goods store. I can get a 21st-century version of the M1 or M14, but not a civilianized SAW. Why? Is the SAW not covered under the Founders’ desire that firearms ownership not be infringed? We seem to be rubbing up against some arbitrariness, in terms of what we’re willing to allow, and what we’re not willing to allow — and why.

I think where I have the most trouble is that I am not all on one side or all on the other. But many people are. For many people you’re either a 100% 2nd Amendment absolutist, or you’re a government stooge who wants to throw the Constitution into the ash heap and bring forth tyranny onto the American public. For many other people you’re either a gun ban absolutist, or you’re cruel and heartless and you enjoy seeing dead bodies on the news from the latest school shooting or spree killing. Shame on you. Shame, shame shame!

I’m kind of in the middle — albeit over towards the firearms defenders. I think law-abiding citizens should have the right to own and operate firearms, as the Founders intended. Up to and including something like the M240B. Provided they are trained and licensed to operate these things. I cannot, with my regular drivers license, climb into a tractor trailer and drive it. Assuming I could even get the thing out on the road, I’d be a menace to myself and everyone else around me. So too (I believe) are untrained firearms owners with no experience and, perhaps especially, no cultural underpinning for that ownership. I think it’s reasonable and perfectly within the Constitutional framework to have people properly trained on equipment which can be very hazardous in untrained hands. And I don’t think this spells the end of the Republic, nor presages the end of firearms rights.
Though I understand fully the fears of those who believe that allowing government restrictions, even a little bit, merely allows the government to take a mile where an inch was initially given.

It’s a tough, nutty subject. And every time we have a highly publicized event involving firearms and innocent deaths, we (as a nation and as a culture) launch into a brief period of recrimination and reevaluation — with predictable calls for restrictions and bans, countered by predictable calls for no restrictions or bans, otherwise it’s tyranny.

If we must take steps, let them be both objective and effective. But can we do that in America? Or are gun rights simply too highly charged for anyone to look at them without having a bias one way or another?


  1. Another aspect of the “culture” of gun ownership is hunting, and the hunting community has steps taken to educate gun users. In Texas anyone born after 1971 must undergo hunters’ education training to obtain a hunting license (even for bow hunting). I believe other states have similar requirements. This seems to me a responsible position to the sport and, tangentially, to gun ownership. Of course, accidents happen. In high school my best friend’s brother accidentally killed a friend of his. Alas, there will always be tragedy.

  2. Just wanted to drop some quick thoughts on some of this. Pardon if i just pick and chose a few things. And pardon the length

    “Would it be the end of freedom and the American civilization for us to require that people who have never handled a rifle nor pistol before, be required to get the kind of rudimentary training and indoctrination that many of us who did grow up with guns, take for granted?”

    This would only moderately fly if firearm safety was integrated within the school system say starting around 5th grade. Much as rifle teams were once found within most high schools. Even urban high schools often had indoor ranges in their basements. While i think teaching firearm safety has merit, many would both reject the idea outright, and point out that teaching firearm safety doesn’t correlate to reduced accidents. Just as teaching sex ed doesn’t prevent/lower pregnancy rates. Regardless, for adults, such training would have to be free to the consumer otherwise the poor and lower class would be barred from the basic human right of self defense.

    As a side note, do you really want urban gang members trained in how to use firearms effectively? Many training schools run background checks precisely because they don’t want to train those who engage gang and drug related activities (where 90+% of gun related homicides take place). Its also better for firearm incompetent police officers to fight against even more incompetent criminals.

    “Of course, New York City’s culture is about as different from Utah’s culture as one can get in the United States.”

    When discussing gun rights, we are indeed talking CIVIL RIGHTS. Before the 14th amendment and ‘Incorporation,’ it was fine for States to trample individual civil liberties so long as the Feds did not. And States did so regularly on a host of rights to take for granted now. Incorporation limits state power and it is a Federal role to protect civil rights. Since McDonald v. Chicago decision a few years ago, states are no longer can just trample 2A rights. Many of such things in NY City will fall within the next decade. Such places must come to grips that civil rights are for every citizen regardless of state. Just as states had to adjust from banning certain religions when the 1st was ‘Incorporated.’

    “Is the SAW not covered under the Founders’ desire that firearms ownership not be infringed?”

    The Heller Decision, as written by Justice Scalia, pretty much killed the option of unregulated machine-guns, and the phrase “shall not be infringed.” You ought to read the decision as it was crafted to garner Justice Kennedy’s vote. According to Scalia, guns which are hand held and in ‘common use’ are protected under the 2nd. A SAW, machine-gun, flame thrower, etc are hand held, but are not in common usage (therefore can be regulated/restricted/banned). Tanks, artillery, mil planes, nukes, etc are not handheld and not in common use (therefore not protected). Semi-autos? Hand held and in common use and therefore protected under Heller.

    “If we must take steps, let them be both objective and effective. But can we do that in America? Or are gun rights simply too highly charged for anyone to look at them without having a bias one way or another?”

    Its too charged an issue for there to be much in the way of compromise. Frankly, the gun control end of things is losing at the moment and has little to bargain with that won’t be granted by the courts. That is, so long as the House remains pro-gun, and so long as the Heller 5 remain alive and healthy on the Supreme court.

    As example, ‘Gun advocates’ keep being told they ‘need’ to ‘compromise’ when there’s never any willingness to give up anything from the anti-side. The least charged notion being to close the so called ‘gun show loophole.’ Which is an unlikely restriction given given nothing is offered in return. ‘Compromise’ is a 2 way street. What are gun control people willing to give?

    Personally, I’d be willing to mandate private party transactions so long as we get a great many things in return. Such as background checks at point of origin so FFL can run NCIS, then send an item directly through the mail across state lines (like CMP). National CCW reciprocity without a national standard. Opening the machine-gun registry. CCW, NCIS, or DROS costs to be FREE on the consumer. All firearm and ammunition purchases to be tax free and tax deductible. Civil liability protection (castle doctrine) outside the home if one stops an active shooter. Maybe i just don’t care about private party transfers, but all of the above in exchange for that one item would be something i’d entertain.

    But until the anti side has some interest in ‘compromise,’ the answer is go pound sand.

    BTW – I bet Nicole Simpson wishes she had had a gun that night OJ allegedly did her in. Crazy to think that any man who can bench 500lbs, can’t kill with their bare hands, or a knife.

  3. So well stated my friend. So well stated. My biggest fear right now, is not the ecomony (although that’s high up there) but is the 2nd ammendment and what might happen “for the good of everyone”. Concealed permit on board. Shotgun cleaned and ready. Handy carry will be under the Christmas tree.

  4. I think the difference is that driving on the public streets isn’t a fundamental right, so requiring training and proficiency exams to exercise it isn’t an infringement. How would you feel about mandatory training, using government-approved curriculum and teachers, in order to be allowed to vote, or to publish a story?

    Having said that, I’m not opposed to making training available. And making it clear that if you’re carrying, lack of such training will be considered in any legal matters. But requiring it? WIth the associated government costs, that’s pretty much the same as saying “right not applicable to poor people”, and that’s not acceptable.

  5. There are a couple of questions that people should ask themselves when standing in a pulpit and arguing for a position like licensing for gun ownership. The first is why should we change how we’re doing things now? The second and equally important is if we enact this change how will it be abused by the people charged with its enforcement?

    So if licensure becomes the new regime then the conditions for obtaining the license can be made so restrictive or inconvenient that you end up with a ban in all but name. People can also take the long view and create conditions in which fewer and fewer people are introduced to firearms at impressionable ages and thus you end up with “…urbanized up-scale New Yorkers…” who get white-faced and nervous at the mere mention of firearms. The point of my second question is that you need to evaluate if you’re handing the people on the other side of the fence from your position a club with which to beat you over the head.

    Take a look at the timeline presented in the History of Firearms Control in Canada and see if this the path you would choose.

  6. Well, this is a “thinker”. Where to start…
    “I think the big difference is that guns are symbolic. ” < Money quote right there. Sitting here in my home office, at my knee I have a handgun in a locked case. 8 feet across the room, I have my Kobudo weapons (Kali, Kama, Nanchaku, Staff, Katana, Sai, Tonfa). Of those items, if I were to walk down the street, only the handgun would get me police attention.

    Money Quote #2:
    "I think law-abiding citizens should have the right to own and operate firearms, as the Founders intended. Up to and including something like the M240B. Provided they are trained and licensed to operate these things. I cannot, with my regular drivers license, climb into a tractor trailer and drive it. Assuming I could even get the thing out on the road, I’d be a menace to myself and everyone else around me."

    Here I will disagree with you a bit. Trained, yes. Licensed, not so much. I understand that the license is the "proof" of training and competency but we see how driver's licensing fails everyday. Perhaps the answer is, a practical test by the seller. I am going to sell you this here 1911, let's go dry fire it a bit, and then throw some rounds down range before we complete the transaction. There are some obvious clues too, if the seller hands the pistol to the potential buyer and the first thing that happens is he flips it off safe and sweeps everyone in the room while trying to pull the trigger…. I have a problem. Let's step into the training room and talk about getting you some safety training first. Of course this model opens up the seller's to legal action downstream in the event of an incident but, that is a topic for another day.

    An alternative is to fallback to the citizen / non-citizen model that many writer's have constructed. Your citizenship is earned, and with it come specific rights and responsibilities. That model also presents some potential issues but, driving, weapons ownership, voting rights, tax models, political office eligibility, etc. could all be established and the information maintained in a single place / document.

    One of the most effective "training" sessions I had as a young Marine was from a SSGT that moonlighted as a fireman. He had compiled a set of photos from drunk driving incidents that he had to respond to over the years. One of those photo sets was from a fatality that involved members of the platoon. The crushed vehicles, the fluids staining the seats and the ground, the detritus remaining from the rescue efforts these are all the symbols that hit home for me. Couple that with a memorial service, Taps, "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" and it hits home…HARD.

    Firearm ownership is a tough issue because it is an emotional and symbolic issue. Training is the key to minimizing accidents, and imparting an understanding of what exactly an "oopsie" in this context will entail. The human, animal, or object on the receiving end is not going to respawn at the waypoint. Things are going to physically and emotionally horrific.

    I guess my point here is that training is key. Understanding the consequences of not following your safety protocols precisely each and every time. Understanding the physical and emotional damage that failing can have. In other words being responsible and accountable (which would lead me to another rant about those traits in our current society). Licensing individuals, often opens up a road that Americans do not want to go down.

    I wonder if anyone ever went through a historical study of how well driver's licenses were accepted by American society when they were introduced?

  7. This is a thing that’s about class (that thing that we deny having in this country.) What’s his name the football player is perceived by Costus (and others) as being in “their class”, and so obviously the gun made him do it. No gun, no crime.

    :rude noise:

    Yes, I’d rather that the gangsters (and the cops) were well trained in both shooting and safety. If they’re going to shoot someone, I’d rather that the shoot the person they want to shoot, rather than some bystander!

  8. I would put it that it’s our unwillingness to deal with the reality that there has always been, is now, and always will be violence in the world — at least until His second coming, and maybe even then — and refusing to prepare our children to deal with that horrible reality. An estimated ninety-four million American handgun owners didn’t kill anyone with a handgun this year. And that’s been true (although the number keeps growing) for quite a few years. Should we have better camera control, to prevent child pornography? Press control, to prevent libel? Religion control, to prevent bigoted preaching? Or just microphone control, to keep someone from shooting off his uninformed mouth?

  9. spree killers in the last 40 years…well airplanes and a ryder truck with some fertilizer are two weapons that spring to mind other than firearms. Maybe because I drove across the country in a ryder truck that week, and flew across the country in Oct of 2001. I appreciate your thoughtful writing tho.

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