No stranger to guns – but no good with them

Four in 10 American adults live in a household with a gun, according in a Gallup poll. where there is a gun, according for Pew Research, there are usually more.

My childhood home was one of those places. In the basement, perched on a caramel-colored shelf on a green-paneled wall, was a rifle, shotgun, and pistol built from a kit. To top it off, there was a military-style weapon, mine.

The latter, of course, was a toy. He had no bullets. It just went bang.

I was told never to touch real guns, and I didn’t. But if ever I had been overwhelmed by curiosity or some other impulse, they would have been there waiting, with the ammunition.

Maybe I was a trustworthy child. Or maybe people just didn’t care like they do today – although in 2016, according at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, less than half of gun owners said they store all their guns safely.

•••

My father was not an avid hunter but enjoyed the activity. When I was old enough, I joined him carrying a borrowed .410, a lightweight, low-recoil shotgun.

Dad, a Korean War veteran, struck me as a sharpshooter. A pheasant rose and he killed it. And he would patientlyaligning his lens, leading the bird.

On the other hand, I once nearly shot our hunting mate while turning and shooting the flapping wings – proof that training doesn’t necessarily stick with the excitable in the heat of battle.

Later, I started hunting with friends, sort of. I didn’t imply that I had resolved never to pull the trigger, lest there be more near-victims or worse.

With my lens, I was unlikely to pose a threat to a intended target. I didn’t want that either. I just loved being out in nature on cool fall mornings with good companions and good dogs.

•••

According to Pew, 56% of people who own a gun say hunting is one of their reasons. Seventy percent cite target shooting. These two figures have been relatively stable for 20 years.

But 88% say they have a gun to protect themselves against crime. That’s up from 65% in 2000. By comparison, according to Gallup, a steady 15% over the same period say they’ve been the victim of a crime in a given year. Is there a disconnect?

Or, conversely, could there be fewer guns in fewer hands if the crime was persuasively directed at these people? I don’t dismiss the role of paranoia, nor the societal complications of tough-on-crime policies. I’m just saying there’s a feedback loop.

I remember when my dad got his gun kit. He stayed long before he built it, and he had a few issues once he did. Finally, the weapon was ready to fire, although I noticed that it tended not to be.

Dad certainly didn’t think he needed a gun for his safety. We closed the doors at night and that was enough.

Yet handguns that can be concealed and rifles that can be used for assault are the weapons of choice these days, comprising 75% of the firearms made by American arms manufacturers in 2020. At the risk of stating the obvious, the atmosphere has changed.

•••

Children have always played games of conquest and annihilation. My generation is perhaps the first to have an interactive shoot-to-kill option that could be enjoyed in isolation.

In my early 1980s bedroom, there was a small black-and-white television, an Atari game console, and a bean bag chair, in which I spent hours playing “Asteroids.” Under my control was a weaponized rocket that was to blow up obstacles such as space rocks and flying saucers.

It’s hard to develop empathy for objects that are layers away from creatures that scream when you harm them. However, I never felt that the activity made me emotionally numb. It helped me develop skills like distance hand-eye coordination and pattern recognition that gave me an edge in the real world.

I didn’t have any more children, so I lost touch with the evolution of the game afterwards. During this century, I was visiting friends when their boy invited me to see what he was playing on the computer. It was a first person shooter, maybe “Halo”.

I’m not easily shocked, but I has been surprised. In the foreground on a large, crisp screen was the player’s avatar, well-armed and armored in a realistic but apocalyptic environment. Enemies would surge, killing first if they could and spraying blood when downed.

A few years later, I visited another group of friends with children. The easiest way to meet was to slip into their existing schedule, which included a birthday party at a game center that day. The piece de resistance was the laser tag. Somehow I became one of the few adults eager to participate. I soon found myself wearing a vest with a gadget sewn into the chest to register when I had been hit and wielding a gun to rack up points against everyone else.

For the next 15 minutes, I wandered through a dark maze, shooting children — virtually, while trying not to literally knock them over. I was stunned by the absurdity. Still, I couldn’t deny that it was fun.

The tendency is to look for cause and effect in these recreational tendencies. But depictions of violence have been an element of catharsis for as long as there has been entertainment. There is a lack of evidence that they lead to actual violence, however realistic they may be.

•••

The raw number of gun deaths in the United States has hit record highs in recent years. But the assesscorrected for population growth, has not been.

The number of “active shooter” incidents – that the The FBI defines as “one or more persons actively involved in the murder or attempted murder of persons in a populated area” – was 61 last year. It was half as much as in 2019. June happens to be the month with the highest incidence.

Although the number of active shooters pales in comparison to the overall gun violence, only the obtuse would not see the amplifying effect on the national psyche. It is not the result of hype, as some suggest. You can’t bury the news of a mass shooting. You also can’t deny the desire to do something about it, especially if the benefits can trickle down to anti-gun violence efforts in general.

But to do what? Well, what is the gun network and gun politics if not one big system? In systems analysis, a useful question is where to find leverage.

It won’t be found shooting fancy beams of destruction at obstacles like the NRA and the Second Amendment. Despite a membership that represents between 1 and 2% of the population, the NRA has a bigger budget than the gun control groups put together. And this month, the conservative majority of the Supreme Court determine whether New York can deny certain concealed carry licenses. The likely decision is that he can’t. The only real question is what is the extent of a precedent set by the court.

Leverage strength find in generational change. Gunshot research has only just begun. Eventually, it might persuade people of the risks not just to themselves but to others, as anti-tobacco efforts have. In the meantime, progressive but workable laws could prevent some bloodshed as momentum for broader action is gathered, a strategy the anti-abortion movement has employed.

•••

Finally, although it is difficult, never forget the leverage of goodwill.

One of the interesting characters in my first diary after college was a newsroom foreman who reminded me of Charlie Daniels, a famous good old Southern fiddler.

Both struck me as people I wouldn’t like to disagree with – and who I was probably with on most topics. However, in the mechanical production of a small daily newspaper, the foreman and I had to work well together.

One day he invited me to his farm for a skeet shoot.

I considered the offer. Good for the relationship, I thought, but bad for smearing my credibility by embarrassing myself with a gun. I nevertheless drove on an overcast fall day to walk the paces of his elaborate shooting range, where he greeted me like a friend.

I didn’t hit a single clay target. He didn’t look so surprised. And during the remaining time that I spent on this job, we got along very well.

About Jason Zeitler

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