Back in 2007, when my only daughter was nine years old, I read a news report about a now-infamous home invasion and murder of the Petit family in Cheshire, CT. The whole thing freaked me out. The mother and her two beautiful daughters were brutally raped and murdered while the father was incapacitated by a baseball-bat blow to his head. The parallels between bucolic Cheshire and my town in upstate New York were so alarming that I went out and bought a shotgun.
Any fucker dumb enough to break into my house, I thought at the time, is going to get a face full of buckshot. To acquaint myself with my new weapon, I joined a gun club so I could practice shooting clay pigeons. To be honest, I always had a fascination with guns, which is odd because I lean blue in most, though not all, viewpoints (for the record, I’m an Independent). Having grown up in Colorado, I became fascinated by the Colt revolver and Winchester rifle, both of which were iconic in western lore. Plus I had a parallel interest in beautifully machined metal objects, including most any kind of antique weaponry. So for obvious reasons, the weight of a shotgun in my hand and the intricacy of its construction really worked for me.
Then a funny thing happened: I really enjoyed shooting those clay targets at the gun club—and after the first few outings with my 20-gauge Remington, I no longer felt like I was holding an instrument of death. It felt more like an instrument of clays shooting. The more I used that shotgun for sport, the less I associated it with home defense. And, having thrilled at its powerful discharge at the gun club, I sure as hell didn’t want it going off in in my darkened hallway. Consequently, my shotgun became an entirely different object to me. As its perceived purpose changed, I thought of less hysterical methods for securing our castle: locking doors and windows, keeping a phone nearby to call 911, stashing a flashlight and bat under the bed. Our creaky hardwood floors are a great burglar alarm, too.
Guns, Ideology, and Common Sense
That entire episode of buying a firearm reminds me how emotional the subject of gun ownership is. When I got a shotgun, I wasn’t just buying a firearm—I was buying peace of mind for myself and my family. I was buying justice, power, security, vengeance. At least that’s how it felt at the time. Once my fear over the Cheshire incident dissipated, I came to see my firearm more as an object than the symbol I first purchased. In doing so, I was able to discern how the shotgun might be better employed, and the pitfalls of keeping it near the bed.
Now here I am in 2018, the owner of several shotguns and an avid sporting clays competitor. On weekends I go to the gun club and shoot clays with guys who would sooner lose a limb than see the Second Amendment modified. (They’re all good guys—we just don’t happen to share many views beyond our fondness for shattering flying orange discs.) Meanwhile, we’ve had so many mass shootings, I can’t distinguish one from the others. Reading the press and, particularly, the nonsense spouted by the NRA—which was once dedicated to teaching gun safety but has become a lobbyist organization—I am reminded that the firearms we argue about haven’t been just guns for a very long time. Guns have become ideological emblems—and ideologies are, as Hannah Arendt starkly instructs us in The Origins of Totalitarianism, very dangerous things. Perhaps if we denude these objects of their symbolic meaning and discuss them for what they are, we might rationally conclude that an over-under 12-gauge shotgun is very low risk to society, but an AR-15 with a high-capacity magazine is a recipe for trouble. A 9 mm Beretta pistol sold by a licensed dealer to a well-trained sportsperson after a rigorous background check is a reasonable bet. The same gun sold under less controlled conditions invites problems.
Who knows, if we can stop arguing about ideology for a minute, we might even find our way back to the context and intent of the Second Amendment: To ensure, among other things, that citizens of a fledgling democracy in the 18th century could resist tyranny by forming a local militia. The framers, whose idea of a firearm was a muzzle-loading musket, did not and could not anticipate the extraordinary killing machines we produce now. Also, let’s remember that the Second Amendment refers to a “well regulated militia,” which, common sense suggests, points to some rules governing the whole gun thing.
Right now, I’m a lot more worried about mass shootings and inner-city gun violence than I am that Nancy Pelosi, the Right’s favorite bogeyman, will declare herself Caesar and “take our guns away.” Judging from a recent NPR survey that reports 75 percent of Americans favor stricter gun laws, apparently I’m not alone.
It’s funny, the things you learn from buying a shotgun.