The NRA Is the Biggest Threat to 2nd Amendment Rights

Your friendly neighborhood liberal gun-owner previously posted about the pro-gun lobby's self-defeating tactics and my skepticism that the NRA has anything but their own short-term financial interest in mind when they take such a hard-line, absolutist view of the 2nd Amendment (Read here: Stupid Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page). Here's even more blatant evidence that the NRA is too strategically inept to defend the 2nd Amendment:

"Gun Lobby Bombards Newtown Families With Robocalls Against Gun Regulations"

That's right, they're sending robotic messages to the families, possibly the young siblings, of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, trying to garner their sympathy for the gun industry ("gun manufacturers will leave the state and take away 'thousands of jobs'"). Are you kidding me? That's sick. 

Universal background checks (you know, that "well-regulated" part of the 2nd Amendment?), cross referenced against a beefed-up list of those who are diagnosed as mentally ill with the potential for violence, and increased funding for mental health treatment: These things will not prevent every shooting, but they'll save some lives at the cost of a minor inconvenience for responsible gun owners and a loss of some profits for gun manufacturers who are doing quite well, thank you very much. Profits that come from crazy people who shouldn't have guns in the first place! This is an opportunity for responsible gun owners to stand up and distance themselves from the kind of 2nd amendment absolutists who would rather put AR-15s in the hands of child-murderers than risk any reasonable regulation (the kind described in the 2nd Amendment they claim to love). 

Look, gun guys, I know you're scared. I know fear can make people do stupid things, even heartless things (like calling the families of a horrible tragedy and asking them to make another one possible in order to protect business profits). Please, please at least consider the possibility that the number one threat to your right to own a gun comes not from an urban liberal, and not even from the next crazy killer (there will always be the next crazy killer), but from your own intransigence on the issue. Gun laws will change. The majority of voters are not with you, and some politicians care more about voters than special interest money (if money can't be turned into electoral victory, it's only good to the most dirty politicians) so think clearly about what you want and what you'd be willing to give up to get it. A few extra minutes in a gun shop waiting on that background check in exchange for a safer country and a preserved right to keep and bear arms?  Jump at that deal!

Stupid, Faulty Reasoning on Gun Registration Infects my Facebook Page

I'm back, your friendly neighborhood liberal gun owner.

Over the last few days, my Facebook page has been overrun by comments and memes devoted to protecting my second amendment rights. As a gun owner and someone who's generally a fan of rights, that's fine, but I'm really struggling not to post rude comments on the pages of my friends. Note: My friends are not stupid people. In general, they post silly, light-hearted pictures or clever memes that make me laugh. But in the last few days I've seen multiple variations on this theme:

"Criminals don't register their guns." Ergo, we should not strengthen our registration system.

In some versions of this, President Obama is pictured and called various names. In one he is writing the phrase on a chalkboard while wearing a dunce cap.

My friends, before you put the dunce cap on someone else's head, please pull the pointy end out of your own eye. Because this is simply the dumbest argument I can think of against any kind of regulation. You are hurting your own cause. Check yourself before you wreck yourself. Please.

Murderers do not obey the laws that criminalize killing people. Should we, therefore, make murder legal? Rapist do not follow the law. Should we take that crime off the books? Most people (myself included) drive over the speed limit from time to time. Do you think we should take down all the speed limit signs and let people zip through school zones at a hundred miles per hour?

Laws do not prevent all crime. Laws reduce crime and allow the justice system to punish violators of those laws. Reducing gun crimes and punishing people who use guns in crimes should both be positions responsible gun owners should support, both as a matter of morality and as good strategy to maintain their own right to bear arms. 

Look, there are legitimate arguments that could be made regarding registration schemes. You could argue that regulations are only as strong as their enforcement, and you don't think they'll be enforced. You could argue that registration won't completely end gun crime (except that no reasonable person is claiming that it will).  You could argue that the right to bear arms is so universal and unassailable that it should not be limited even if a prospective owner is a felon or has been diagnosed as dangerously, violently mentally ill. That's a loser of an argument, I think, but at least it's philosophically defensible. You could even argue that you're afraid of a giant conspiracy to confiscate all guns which hasn't materialized or even been proposed, but which makes you reluctant to give an inch. I understand that's where some gun owners are coming from, though it does beg the question: Why are the most heavily armed people the most frightened? Whatever your argument, and no matter how loosely it connects to reality, it should at least follow logically from your premises. So don't argue that we shouldn't have rules because some people will break them. That's... well, not to be indelicate, but that's just dumb.

Guess what, fellow gun owners and second amendment supporters? We can't afford to be dumb. Maybe the NRA can afford it. Sure, there are lots of true believers in the NRA, but the decisions of the NRA leadership lately show that the organization is more concerned about selling memberships, getting press, and frothing up their base than they are in protecting gun rights in the long term. The NRA could have been reaching out to urban, liberal America, trying to show that they are reasonable. They were wise to push back by pointing to mental health rather than letting the debate be about types of guns, but between their vitriol about the U.N. Small Arms Ban, their commercial calling the President names and bring up his kids, and their absolutist position against expanded registration, it seems like they are making the same mistake the Republican Party has been making over the last few decades; they're doubling down on the far-right wing, rural, white men. This is about as smart a strategy as trying to conquer Russia in the winter or marching your empire's army in Afghanistan. If gun rights groups can only hold on to conservative, rural whites, they will simply be outvoted. Responsible gun owners who want to stay responsible gun owners need to go out of their way to show urban-dwelling liberals that they are, in fact, responsible. People who live in cities think of guns predominantly as the weapons of criminals and not the tools of hunters or people who want to defend themselves because they live more than five minutes from a police station. I know this from personal experience. When I lived in San Diego, my only experience related to guns was seeing a body surrounded by police tape in front of my junior high. Is it any wonder I grew up thinking guns were evil? It wasn't until I moved to a small town and got to know a lot of responsible gun owners that my feelings about guns changed.

Now, gun rights advocates will say I am advocating caving in to the anti-gun folks. Yep. Pick your battles, guys. Second amendment absolutism isn't even supported by the second amendment itself. We've had decades of fights about whether the amendment extended to individuals, we finally get a president who is a democrat and says he believes it does extend to individuals, and instead of calling that a victory, some people want to paint him as the Confiscator-in-Chief. You got a win, but even if Obama is willing to be generous (liberal, some might say) with his interpretation of some confusing language in a way that we gun owners appreciate, we can't deny the fact that the amendment explicitly says "well regulated." You can't expect him (or any sensible person) to interpret "well regulated" to mean "completely unregulated." (And I know about the argument that the militia is supposed to be well regulated but the individual right that's never mentioned is somehow exempt. That's a bridge too far, guys.) Look, if you're worried Obama might sign an assault weapons ban (you know, the kind Mitt Romney signed when he was the governor of Massachusetts), then make that your fight, but when the majority of NRA members agree that the gun show and private party sales loophole should be closed, take advantage of that and show people who are leery about guns that gun owners are reasonable. Fight to make it possible and even easy to transfer the ownership of a gun to someone else who can pass a background check. Fight to make sure guns don't have to be turned over to the government when the original owner dies, but can be willed to the next of kin who can pass the background check. Fight to make sure the definition of mental illness isn't so broad that people with no propensity for violence or self-harm are prevented from getting guns. But don't fight to put guns in the hands of criminals or the violent mentally ill based on obviously, painfully inept lack of reasoning. You will just push the growing urban, liberal majority to think you're dangerous kooks until they have the numbers to repeal the second amendment.

And you know whose fault that will be, responsible gun owners? Ours. If our arguments are dumb.

Return of the Liberal Gun Owner

In a previous post (“A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership”), I tried to explain why an avowed lefty would own a gun (or a bunch of them). That was prompted by a direct challenge from my mother in the wake of the Aurora theater shooting. After the shooting in Newtown, I have been hesitant to weigh in, not because I don’t have strong feelings about the political issues that have arisen as a consequence, and not because it’s somehow impolite to talk about an incredibly important news story while it’s still news, but because I needed to spend some time reading the responses to this tragedy in order to formulate my thoughts. As a liberal, I am on a bunch of e-mail lists wherein pundits and politicians keep me up-to-date on the mainstream liberal party line and the radical left-wing version. Because I’m a gun owner and read up on gun-related subjects, I’ve also found my way onto the e-mail lists of the NRA and their ilk. As a public school teacher, I have been reading about how schools are supposed to respond. I’ve also been talking with real teachers who know a lot more about real schools than so-called “school reformers,” and I have a pretty good idea about the broad spectrum of responses teachers are voicing. Oh, and I’m also a human being, so thinking about those children and parents in Newtown is still emotionally overwhelming. I don’t have any insight into that grief, but I hope the confluence of a liberal, gun-owning, public school teacher might offer something useful to others.

First off, to my liberal sistren and brethren, please, please stop using the phrase “assault weapons.” I understand that you are referring to the Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act of 1994, and I know that is commonly referred to as the “Assault Weapons Ban,” but you must understand that this doesn’t just close the ears of responsible gun owners because they have some knee-jerk antipathy towards a specific piece of legislation. It closes their ears because you sound ignorant. There is no such thing as an “assault weapon.” Don’t believe me? Go into your local gun store (I recommend that you don’t wear your Obama T-shirt for this outing) and see if they have a section marked “assault weapons.” Ask to see if there are any boxes for any guns marked “assault weapon.” When you find that there aren’t, ask the proprietor which of the guns in the store are, technically speaking, “assault weapons.” She may laugh at you. She may calmly explain that the term has no specific meaning. Either way, the answer will teach you a lot. You will come to understand why the 1994 “Assault Weapons Ban” was such a loophole riddled piece of legislation that it only successfully banned some dozen individual models of guns. You will also quickly deduce why gun owners are so resistant to talk of limited gun bans from people who clearly know so little about guns. After all, for all the talk about protecting the rights of hunters and other responsible gun owners, if the anti-gun advocates know so little about guns, isn’t it entirely plausible that any legislation they propose might be another toothless collection of loopholes? And isn’t it equally possible that legislation written by people who believe in mythical “assault weapons” might ban far more than they intended? As I tell my students, if you want to be taken seriously, you have to do your homework first.

For the sake of being “Fair and Balanced,” to my fellow citizens who find themselves on the other side of the political aisle, especially those who allow themselves to be swayed by the Fox News talking points, please, please try and be a tiny bit realistic when you blame violent movies and video games. First of all, this line of reasoning inevitably makes you sound a good forty years older than your real age. What’s next? Criticisms of the length of boys’ hair? The volume of rock and roll music? Pass me that crystal dish with the hard candy please, grandpa. Much like the mythical “assault weapons,” your definition of violent video games is so amorphous that even us casual gamers worry you’ll be banning just about everything. You do understand that Pac Man was about a yellow blob who was running for his life because he was being chased by murderous ghosts, only when he would devour a magical pill he gained the ability to incapacitate those ghosts temporarily by consuming them whole? Super Mario Brothers starred some plumbers who jumped on their enemies’ heads, stomping them to death, in an effort to rescue a kidnapping victim. The aforementioned Mario also starred in the game Donkey Kong, where he charged directly at an oversized primate who was trying to kill him by throwing barrels at him. What games would be left if violent video games were removed? Tetris and Pong would still be fine. And sports games like Madden Football… oh, wait.

And what about these violent movies that are corrupting our youth? The Godfather is probably the greatest movie ever made. In it, about twenty people are killed, more than half with guns, some with semi-automatic pistols, others with machine guns (those are assault rifles, which are real things, and not “assault weapons,” which don’t exist). Oh, and a really violent thing happens to a horse. Should we prevent people from seeing The Godfather because it is violent? What about Saving Private Ryan? Or Schindler’s List? Ah, you say, but those have historical, artistic, and socially redeeming value. Agreed. But did Steven Spielberg’s first short film, the one that led to Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, have that same value? I don’t know, because I haven’t seen it. You probably haven’t either. But if we banned violent movies, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have seen the light of day based on nothing more than the fact that it was a Western titled The Last Gun. I’ll bet there’s some gun violence in it.

And if we’re going to even consider banning the viewing of violence because it could lead to real world violence, we should certainly start with 24 hours news networks that make their money by keeping their viewers continually angry and afraid.  Pundits spewing toxic amounts of vitriol and doom are far more dangerous than episodes of Tom and Jerry.

Now, to my teacher friends, here in Oregon, we have our resident rhetorical-bomb-throwing-boob in our state legislature who has suggested that teachers should arm themselves. I’m sure there are some teachers who would feel more comfortable if they were armed, but I have two reasons why I, as a responsible gun owner, would not. First, a big part of my job is making students feel comfortable in my classroom. Contrary to those who look back fondly on nuns hitting kids on the knuckles with rulers, I firmly believe that children learn better when they are not scared. People should have a healthy fear of guns. So when kids have that fear, and some have it exaggerated by the fact that they are kids, and other have it exaggerated by the fact that their home lives have given them even more reason to fear guns than should be warranted, their ability to learn will be diminished if they know I’m packing heat in class. Second, I would be afraid some kid would grab my gun and use it. Kids are impulsive, some dangerously so. The proximity of other teenagers makes kids more likely to do stupid things. I wouldn’t want one of those stupid things ending with some kid pulling my gun out of my holster while I’m trying to help another student correctly place a comma in a sentence.  So if Newtown inclines any teacher to consider carrying a gun into a classroom, especially one of my son’s classrooms, I hope that teacher will also remember Columbine or Kip Kinkle here in Oregon and imagine his or her own gun falling into the hands of someone like that.

As to the NRA’s idea of a police officer in every school, I think it’s a great idea, but not for the same reasons the NRA likes it. They like it because it gets the conversation away from gun bans. I like it because it’s government stimulus spending on unionized workers in every community in the country. I know that it might not prevent something like what happened in Newtown. As many critics have pointed out, Columbine had an armed guard. But as long as it means more cops in more schools showing kids that police officers are not scary, distant enemies but friendly, relatable public servants who keep them safe, that’s all to the good. My only caveats would be that the officers’ salaries and all their expenses must be fully funded by the feds so the money doesn’t come out of the local or state education budgets, the legislation has to be written so the police will be there for the long haul and not just until the next round of budget cuts, and the police officers must live in the communities where the school is located. If the deficit hawks in Congress will go for that, Obama should sign it immediately. Take the money out of the Homeland Security budget and call it an anti-terrorism measure. Because what we saw in Newtown is indisputably domestic terrorism.

Police in schools cannot be the end of the discussion, though (sorry, NRA). We need to massively beef up our mental health services in this country. My wife is a mental health counselor who works at a live-in facility for severely mentally ill children. The stuff she sees would break most people’s hearts. But you know what breaks hers? You know what broke the camel’s back the one and only time I saw her job bring her to tears? It was when a kid who needed care had to be sent away because his parents private insurance wouldn’t cover his care any longer. Yes, high quality mental healthcare is expensive. The facility where my wife works has a two-kids-to-one-adult ratio, and that’s spendy. But parents, good parents who love their children and are trying to do what is best for them, should not have to give up custody of their children and turn them over to the state just so the kids will qualify for state-sponsored insurance. These parents shouldn’t have to quit their good paying jobs where they contribute to their communities and pay the taxes that fund those services just so they can move to other states with better care and go on the public dole in order to get their kids the care they need. That’s stupid. That’s backwards. And that’s the system we have. Ramping up our mental healthcare infrastructure isn’t sexy and it won’t show an instant payoff in lowering mass shootings because the future killer you’re treating is still a little kid getting the help he needs today to avoid that fate years down the road. But when it comes to preventing mass shootings, even with its high price tag, robust mental health infrastructure is still going to be the biggest payoff. We just need politicians willing to do things that won’t show results until after their term has ended, and we need a public willing to admit that taxes are investments in our society’s future.

While we’re being realistic, we can do some serious things about guns without making up fictional categories of firearms. There is no good reason that the same background check that I have to go through when I buy a gun at a store shouldn’t be mandatory when I buy one from a friend or from a “friend” who sits behind a card table at a gun show. I understand that the most extreme conspiracists worry that a more robust national background check system is just a means for the evil government to find out where to come take guns from. Furthermore, they worry that limiting the ability of the mentally ill to acquire guns would be a means for a nefarious government to keep guns out of the hands of law abiding citizens. To both critiques, I say, cut your losses, guys. Just as teachers’ unions need to do a better job of making it clear that we don’t protect bad teachers (We don’t. It’s a lie that’s been repeated so much people think it’s true. We protect the contract and the process to keep it fair, but bad teachers CAN be fired if administrators do their jobs.), gun owners need to make it clear that they do not support putting guns in the hands of those who would hurt others or themselves. As we beef up mental health services, counselors should have to report those who are potentially dangerous or suicidal, and those people should not be able to buy guns. From anybody (see the gun show/ private party loophole above). People who sell guns to criminals or the mentally ill should be criminally liable as accomplices if those people commit gun crimes or shoot themselves. Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people will do more to protect innocent people than trying to ban this gun or that gun.

To my fellow liberals and conservatives who’ve found common cause (or at least a common talking point) in protecting the rights of hunters and sportsmen, you are missing the purpose of the Second Amendment, and I think you’re doing so willfully. The Second Amendment is not about hunting. It’s about protecting yourself, your loved ones, and your property from your own government. Liberals don’t tend to like this amendment, but I think they should reconsider. I’ve made my share of jokes about the practicality of standing up to the U.S. military, with its complete arsenal of nuclear weapons, using common, handheld firearms (“assault weapons” or otherwise), but there’s something very real going on there. I’m not a hunter yet. The only thing I’ve ever killed with a gun was the gopher in my mother-in-law’s garden that she’d winged but was unwilling to shoot point-blank with a .22 to put it out of its misery. I plan on learning to hunt goose and duck during this next year, though. But even as I’m serving some succulent duck to my family (let’s be honest: I’ll probably overcook it the first few times, so I’ll be serving dry duck to my family), I’ll be fully aware that the founding fathers did not write the Second Amendment to make sure my family had duck to eat. They wrote it because governments can do horrible things to their own citizens. Just ask Japanese-Americans. And who, in our modern America, is most likely to be labeled as a potential traitor who should be rounded up and shipped off to a camp? Though I’m proud and grateful that I’ve never been involved with any group that has even hinted at armed insurrection (peaceful protest is not only more moral, but more effective), those of us who have marched in pro-union rallies and Occupy protests shouldn’t be too quick to believe we wouldn’t be on the short list if a very small, tyrannical minority ever managed to take power. As I’ve said many times, I hope to live my whole life without ever pointing a gun at another human being, but if that 1% of tyrants had a hard time rounding up jack-booted thugs to drag Americans out of their beds because they had very complete data telling them that a lot of those Americans were armed, if that knowledge made them think twice about kicking down the doors of “traitors” and “subversives” and liberal public school teachers, then the Second Amendment is doing its job, and in that unlikely (but not impossible or even historically unprecedented) dystopia, we’ll be glad it was there in the Bill of Rights. 

Lastly, let’s acknowledge that we could do everything in our power, beef up mental health care, close every gun purchasing loophole, ban this gun and that gun, hell, ban the sale of every gun and start kicking down doors to get the old ones melted down, and we still might not be able to prevent the next Newtown. We also wouldn’t be any closer to understanding this terrible, tragic, and ultimately incomprehensible act. If the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has compelled us to reevaluate some public policies, let’s harness that energy to make good ones, but let’s acknowledge that we will be more successful at preventing some of the thousands of other deaths in this country than at preventing the kinds of mass killings we simply cannot comprehend. If we maintain a focus on doing what we can do, and on doing it well, we might manage wrest a little bit of something meaningful from this mindless horror. I worry that, if we only focus on this one tragedy and the specific models of guns chosen by a madman, we’ll fall back into pointless bickering, do nothing, and insult the memories of those we’ve lost.

Why Does the Right Hate Obama So Much?: Part 3

I'm still waiting for someone to give a satisfactory explanation for why the Right seems to hate Obama so much. So far, the answers seem to be: A) He's black or in some other way different and that's scary, B) He's not an ultra-nationalist who preaches that America is and has always been perfect, or C) He's a harbinger of a demographic shift that will leave the Republican Party in permanent minority status, and they are pooping their pants with fear and obstructing everything he tries to do in order to stave off the inevitable. Without anyone making a particularly persuasive argument for any of these, I tend to think it's C. Mostly, this is because I'm a sucker and I like to think the best of people. C allows me to think that Republicans are not racists, nor are they so blinded by ideology that they are willfully ignorant of our country's history. Instead, they are smart people who can accurately read the political tea leaves. Maybe I'm wrong to give them the benefit of the doubt in this way.  But seriously, you should read the explanations some people have tried to give me (here and here). One would think, in almost four years in office, Obama would have done some far more substantive things to pick on, but the arguments are just pathetic.

Here's a great example I came across today. I'm a liberal and an Obama supporter, and I'm also a gun owner (as I've explained here). Even though I'm not a member of the NRA, nor do I support half of what they do, I somehow got on their email list. The NRA has been going all-out against Obama. The level of vitriol is nuts. But, just as I've requested it here, I've been examining their posts to try to figure out why they hate him so much. They seem to have three big pieces of evidence against him. One is an offhand comment he made during the his election campaign about clinging to God and guns. It was a stupid way of putting it, but it's actually not an anti-gun or anti-God comment. He was talking about people who vote against their economic self interest, trying to explain why they would do that, and said that they have lost hope of any true political change and thus hold on to what is important to them. Saying that guns are important to people shouldn't be interpreted as anti-gun rights, but that's how it was spun and that's what the NRA heard.

Second, they're freaked out about the U.N. International Small Arms Treaty. I don't buy this critique, either. Is it a bureaucratic boondoggle? Probably. Will it be as toothless as most international agreements? Probably. Will it effectively keep guns out of the hands of warlords? Probably not. But is it part of some global plot to limit the rights of American gun owners, some nefarious first step in a worldwide gun registration and confiscation scheme? Absolutely not. At its best it will keep a few guns out of the hands of warlords who kill children and terrorists who shoot at our soldiers, but it probably won't do anything at all. If this is the case against Obama, it says more about NRA paranoia than it does about him.

Then there's the third piece of evidence, the mess that was Operation Fast and Furious. And guess who just reported to all its members that the blame for the mess lies with some ATF agents and the Pheonix District Attorney's Office? The NRA! Check it out if you don't believe me: "Draft Report Blames Many for Fast and Furious" Guess who the draft report does NOT blame: President Obama. Now, someone who really wants to believe that Obama is responsible could say this is part of a massive conspiracy to cover up his close, personal involvement with a local ATF operation, but I am not willing to live in that ideologically-driven fantasy land. To me, the NRA has just made a persuasive argument that one reason they hate Obama has no merit.

Here's Obama's track record on guns (well summarized by Steve Chapman for

"[H]e has proposed nothing in the way of new federal restrictions on firearms. Even the "assault weapons" ban signed by President Clinton—and allowed to expire in 2004—has no visible place on his agenda.

"Not only that, he's approved changes that should gladden the hearts of gun-rights supporters, a group that includes me. He signed a law permitting guns to be taken into national parks. He signed another allowing guns as checked baggage on Amtrak. He acted to preserve an existing law limiting the use of government information on firearms it has traced."

As Chapman also points out, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence flunked President Obama on all seven of the items on its priority list.

Oh yeah, and Obama made his position on gun rights crystal clear. He said, "I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe in people's lawful right to bear arms. I will not take your shotgun away. I will not take your rifle away. I won't take your handgun away. … There are some common-sense gun safety laws that I believe in. But I am not going to take your guns away."

I think the NRA's antipathy towards the President is symbolic of the Right's feelings as well. They hate Obama. They can even give you reasons why they hate him. They just can't come up with any good ones. That leaves everyone else in America wondering where that deep well of hatred comes from, and it opens the Right up to some pretty damning speculation.

A Liberal’s Defense of Gun Ownership

In the wake of the shooting in Colorado, my mom voiced a question I expect many people are asking right now.

 "Can someone please tell me why the NRA would defend anyone's ‘Constitutional Right’ to own two 40-caliber Glock handguns, a Remington 870 single-barrel pump shotgun, and a Smith and Wesson AR-15 assault-style rifle? Benjamin Gorman, I just don't get it!"

I owe my mother an explanation, partly because I'm her son and she asked, partly because I'm a gun owner who was raised to fear and detest guns (especially handguns), but mostly because, when I got my concealed-and-carry permit and they asked me for the name of reference, I wrote down my mom's name. I think she deserves a reply.

Mom's question is actually three questions. Why should anyone have these guns? Should this be a right? And, if it is a right, why should the NRA defend that right?

First off, let's address those guns specifically. I don't own a Glock because there are specific things I don't like about them, but I have a Ruger 9mm semi-automatic handgun. I don't have an AR-15, but I have a carbine which some people would call an "assault-style" gun. I own a .22 and a youth 410 (that will be my son's when he's old enough). I don't own a pump action shotgun, but that's the next thing on my gun buying list. There are myriad reason for owning firearms, and I can't speak for all of them. Personally, I had multiple reasons. First and foremost, I started researching guns because I write novels (nothing published) and I wanted to be able to write as knowledgeably as the story demanded. The more I learned, the more I realized there's a whole world of knowledge I was unaware of. Could I have done all my learning simply by reading about guns? Certainly. A decent writer could also write believably about bicycles without ever riding one, and a moral writer should be able to write about murder without committing one, so if I felt that gun ownership was wrong, then my writing would be no excuse. But I'd also come to believe that gun ownership is not immoral. Few question a hunter's right to own a gun. Even fewer question a police officer's right to carry one, even in an urban setting. We allow these people to carry guns because we believe that most of them will be responsible. They will use these firearms to feed their families and to protect themselves, and us, from those who would do us harm. Implicit in this permission is an acknowledgement that there are those who would use guns to dangerous ends. Not only are there hunters who misuse guns (and police officers, too) but there are those who would use guns to do us all harm. Consequently, as I see it, we have three choices: We could try to create a society without any firearms. We could allow people to have guns and hope they will be responsible citizens. Or we could have some mixture in which guns are regulated but those who prove themselves responsible (mind you, prove themselves to some government official) are permitted to have guns.

I used to argue for a society without guns. When my in-laws first heard I'd never fired a handgun, their jaws dropped to the floor like something out of a cartoon. But even after firing some of my brother-in-law's guns, I would argue for strict handgun bans by saying I would give up that enjoyable experience to bring back just one innocent child killed by a handgun someone irresponsibly left sitting on their coffee table. That was a pretty effective (emotionally manipulative) argument, but it rang more and more hollow in my own ears as I grew older. Taking guns away from people responsible enough to follow the law doesn’t bring back the dead, and it might not prevent future tragedies. Certainly every accidental death caused by firearms is a tragedy, but would I give up my right to own a gun if it meant I couldn't protect my own son's life? And do I have the right to make that choice for anyone else? Even a world with no guns at all wouldn't entirely alleviate this concern. Sure, I'm no ninja super-hero myself, but do I get to tell a five-foot tall, 100 lb. mom that she has to defend her children from a much larger armed assailant without a gun? (My wife is one of these five-foot tall, 100 lb. moms. I wouldn't dare tell her what she couldn't do in defense of our son.) Plus, can we please admit that the notion of an America without guns is painfully naive? As a liberal, I'm horrified by the notion some hold that we should round up 15 million illegal immigrants and deport them on cattle cars. To me, the idea of police breaking into and searching every house in America in search of guns that haven't been voluntarily turned over is equally repellent, and even more impractical. There will be guns. And let’s remember that a word without guns wouldn't necessarily be a safer one. This guy in Colorado may have killed a dozen innocent people with his guns, but Timothy McVeigh did a lot worse with a van and garbage cans full of fertilizer. The terrorists who killed all those people in the Tokyo subway system lived in a country that's a model for handgun control. And the 9/11 terrorists used box cutters.

(Now, if I’m being totally honest about my motivations, I should also confess that, despite my ridicule of the paranoia of the right, I also harbor concerns some would dismiss as paranoia. Though I maintain my commitment to a kind of open-minded skepticism, I find supernatural apocalyptic scenarios exceedingly unlikely. I’m not concerned with the Rapture, the return of Quetzalcoatl, or the misreading of a Mayan calendar, but I do worry that our civilization is more tenuous than we like to admit. Possible man-made causes, like Peak Oil, a series of severe natural disasters precipitated by global warming, or even massive currency devaluation caused by a shaky international monetary system could potentially lead to circumstances that would make government overreach look like the better alternative. In that chaos, I’d like to know how to use a gun safely and effectively to protect my family. To me, this seems just as sensible as having a fire extinguisher or a first aid kit, but I know that even speculating about the fall of our civilization would cause some people to dismiss me as a kook. Oh, and then there’s always the potential Zombie Apocalypse…)

So, if we acknowledge the reality that we can't get rid of all the guns we already have, we could adopt a complete laissez faire attitude toward guns. I think that might be the position of the NRA, or at least of many of its members, but it's not mine. If the rationale for gun ownership is based on this free-for-all attitude, and is inspired by the Founders' idea that people need guns to defend themselves from their own government, then people should be able to have any weapon accessible to the military. That's madness. I may be comfortable with my neighbors owning guns, but I don't trust any of them with nuclear weapons, least of all the kind of neighbor paranoid enough to get into an arms race with his own government.

Since we can't get rid of guns and shouldn't take away a person's ability to defend him or herself in a world with guns, but also can't allow anyone to have any weapon they want, we need to find a balanced approach that preserves ownership rights for those we find to be most likely to handle the responsibility, while keeping guns out of the hands of people likely to misuse them. We also need to be reasonable about what guns we allow people to purchase legally. This tragedy in Colorado doesn't shed much light in the latter question. The guns he had were not only legal, but should be legal within such a balanced framework. Glocks are self-defense weapons, the most popular choice of police departments. The AR-15 is certainly a military grade weapon, but semi-automatics are practical for home defense, too; you wouldn't want to have to rack a round between each shot if you were being attacked. Lastly, the pump action shotgun, in my opinion, is the best weapon for home defense because it has the added feature of producing a universally recognizable sound that can ward off an intruder before a single shot is fired. As someone who hopes to never fire a gun in the direction of another human being, I find that very attractive, and I would expect that those favoring gun regulation would, too. Unfortunately, this particular act could have been carried out if the man had carried in a coat and belt full of loaded six-shot revolvers from the late 1800s. Though this instance doesn't tell us much about what guns to outlaw, it certainly tells us that we need to beef up our mental health services. I don't know anything about this assailant yet, but I can perform a layman's diagnosis and assert that he was ill. Now, I have heard concerns from more ardent gun-rights supporters who are even leery of limiting the rights of the mentally ill. Their rationale is that a corrupt government could use the pretext of mental illness to systematically take away gun owner's rights. I find this unpersuasive. Any government that had the ability to systematically separate massive numbers of people from their guns without the consent of the majority wouldn't need any pretext at all. Conversely, a government still beholden to its people couldn't successfully convince them that all gun owners were diagnosably mentally ill without broadening the definition of severe mental illness so much that it would be meaningless. Consequently, I have no problem limiting the right to bear arms to prevent the severely mentally ill from purchasing guns, much as we prevent felons from doing so. I know our purchasing systems are porous, and unlike some on the more extreme fringe, I don't have a problem with background checks, waiting periods, and other measures that keep guns out of the hands of criminals or (potentially) the ill.

But even that relies on a certain trust in the government's commitment to the right to own guns. I think gun-rights advocates undermine their own case when they go too far, always presupposing the worst form of tyranny. If the right to bear arms is to be protected, it's most easily done by working within the system, with the government, to show the people that gun rights are designed to help law abiding citizens. All the "from my cold, dead hands" rhetoric presumes a government that wouldn't be cowed by a constitution anyway. As long as gun owners want to maintain a legally protected right, rather than having it obviated by an anti-gun majority, we should seek to promote, enforce, and maintain the kinds of regulations that keep guns out of the hands of the kinds of people who would turn the majority against gun ownership.

But that's political tactics and policy, not the underlying principle. Most fundamentally, we do have the right to bear arms (just ask President Obama, the first democratic president and former constitutional law scholar to assert that he interprets the second amendment to guarantee an individual's right) and furthermore, we should have that right. Beyond hunting and self-defense, a well-armed populace is a check on the government. Our government has been beholden enough to its white, male, land owning citizens, that it's easy enough for some of us to forget some of its excesses and injustices. But think of all the Americans who haven't been afforded the most basic rights. We have to acknowledge that those rights could be removed again. After all, Japanese Americans had their rights suspended during the internment. So, since we know it's possible, we should also acknowledge that the government is far less likely to do something like that again knowing so many of its citizens are armed. It's a raw check on government overreach, I'll admit. It has none of the beauty of crisp, fresh, free newsprint , none of the biting wit of satire, none of the nobility of an independent judiciary, none of the simplicity of the ballot box. It's not my favorite check on government power. It's not even the most efficient. But it is the last check.

If it's a right worth having, it's a right that needs defending. In just the last few years, we've seen what happens when people won't stand up for the right to habeas corpus; extraordinary renditions, parallel courts, torture. You might not like gun owners any more than you like people accused of being in Al Qaeda, but just as those people deserve to have their rights protected, gun owners deserve to have theirs protected, too. And for the same reason: Just as you could someday be falsely accused of a crime and be protected by those brave enough to stand up even for accused terrorists, you could someday find yourself in a position that causes you to second-guess your decision not to own a gun, and those supposed villains who defended the rights of this crazy guy in Colorado would instantly become the heroes who defended your rights, too.
Now, as for the NRA, I can't speak for them specifically. As much as I respect those who stand up for all our rights, I can't stomach the NRA’s complete submission to the Republican Party. I also don't understand their irrational antipathy towards President Obama. He's actually been very good to gun owners, not only asserting the individual right to bear arms, but opening up federal lands to hunters under their individual state laws. I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure he opened up more previously restricted land to guns than any president ever. So why are they so devoted to getting rid of him? Partly it's the paranoid style of the American right which always assumes that, despite any evidence, the other shoe is about to drop and the communist plot will be revealed. Also, they hate this new UN restriction on the illegal international firearms trade, despite the fact that it explicitly allows for the import of any guns that meet the laws of the receiving country. Personally, I think that’s pretty weak, since some of the receiving countries would turn those guns over to terrorists immediately, but then we don’t look to the U.N. because of its track record of strong enforcement. There’s some concern among gun owners that the ban will create bottlenecks in the legal supply chain, but this presupposes that some of that chain depends on the illegal import and export of firearms, something that should be curtailed anyway. Beyond these fears, the ban plays into paranoia about some evil UN led “One World Government,” the kind of conspiracy theory I find ridiculous because politicians and bureaucrats, in my experience, just aren't smart enough or well organized enough to pull something like that off.

Despite my disdain for the NRA, I am a card carrying member of the Liberal Gun Club, and I'm glad there are people on both sides of the aisle protecting our right to bear arms. Tragedies like the one in Colorado, much like the events of 9/11, incline us to make reactionary decisions based on our horror and our fear of our own inability to explain the circumstances. Those who want to prevent violence would do well to take a deep breath and remember that such snap judgments all too often lead to even greater horrors. After all, we responded to thousands of deaths on 9/11 by killing or displacing a million people in Iraq. Since murder rates in this country have been consistently declining for decades, we can’t allow our outrage at this anomalous event in Colorado to motivate us to do anything, especially curtailing our most fundamental rights, without carefully weighing all the potential consequences. 

Addendum: Apparently my fellow liberals aren't the only ones who are inclined to be reactionary when it comes to guns. Here's a great take-down of one of Bill O'Reilly's uninformed rants: "Bill, You Ignorant Slut" by Robert Farago. 

Addendum II: And I'm not completely opposed to this proposal, either, though I don't think it would have had any bearing on the events in Colorado. "Regulate Guns Like Cars"