(Continued from “My First Trip to a Shooting Range.”)
Two weeks later, my wife and I attended the concealed handgun course. Over twenty people had signed up for it, so the instructor held it in a motel conference room rather than in his home. The course was made slightly more interesting for us than it might otherwise have been by the fact that we were sitting next to a very spunky woman named Honor.
The class proved to be more political than I would have liked. At the very beginning, the instructor exhorted us all to join the NRA, saying that the NRA was “the only organization standing up for our rights and keeping Obama from instituting a tyrannical regime that would take away everybody’s guns.” He passed around a stack of membership applications, and I was very conscious of other people’s eyes on me when I passed the whole stack along without taking one.
The course consisted for the most part of PowerPoint presentations about gun laws and gun safety. For example, we learned what buildings you’re not allowed to carry a gun in (even if you have your license) and in what situations you have a legal right to use lethal force (i.e., shoot someone to death). And we watched videos of people accidentally shooting themselves (or getting shot by a child).
The most exciting part, of course, was the trip to the shooting range. Everyone was required to achieve a minimum score (by getting a certain number of shots within a certain distance of the bull’s eye), but I noticed that the instructor didn’t bother to actually add up anyone’s score. At the end of it all, I had shot a grand total of 100 rounds from a 9 mm handgun in my life. (In addition to that, I have fired a shotgun exactly once.)
We returned to the hotel to hear a presentation from an insurance agent who was also a Vietnam veteran. His company represents people who have brandished their guns or shot people (legally or not) and are being sued or charged with a crime. Finally, we took the written test, which was about 50 questions, most of which were true-or-false. At one point a student raised his hand during the test to ask a question.
“Is this a trick question?” he asked, pointing to a particular question on the test.
“There are no trick questions,” the instructor said. Then he read the question aloud for the whole class. “True or false: ‘An effective way to keep your gun out of the hands of children is to hide it in your house.’ What do you say, class?”
“False!” the whole class yelled.
A short time later, we each graded the paper of the person sitting next to us. Nobody failed, of course. Then we filled out the forms that would have to be submitted to the state with a fee to apply for our actual licenses. And that was it. My wife and I were officially qualified to carry guns around.
Now for some reflection.
I have to admit that the whole experience did make me into a temporary enthusiast. Shooting a gun was fun. I went home and watched YouTube videos about gun safety and gun handling. I read articles on the debate about whether it’s better to own a gun or not to own a gun.
A lot of the stuff out there is like this video, which takes an insulting tone and assumes incorrectly that gun control advocates would rather be armed with a phone than a gun if someone were to break into their homes to murder their families. (Note to the maker of the video: You’ve missed the point of gun control, which is to create a safer society by making it harder for bad guys to get their hands on guns.) Fortunately, there are other, more articulate gun advocates like this guy, who draws on some powerful personal experiences to argue in favor of gun ownership. I can imagine having a pleasant and enlightening conversation with him even if we end up agreeing to disagree.
The best-reasoned argument in favor of gun ownership that I found came from an unexpected source: Sam Harris, who is normally regarded as quite liberal. In his blog post titled “The Riddle of the Gun,” Harris offers good insight from the gun advocates’ perspective, and I think people on both sides of the issue would do well to understand his arguments. I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think the nature of his discussion is productive.
Harris points out (quite correctly) that the oft-quoted statistics about the degree to which keeping a gun in your home increases your risk of becoming a victim of gun violence include cases of mental illness, drug abuse, spousal abuse, etc., and therefore cannot be meaningfully applied to a typical well-educated, mentally and socially healthy adult (such as Harris himself). Evidently, Harris is suggesting that prospective gun owners should be assessed by a reliable external agent and declared mentally and socially fit before they can buy a gun — i.e., we need stricter background checks that include a psychiatric evaluation. (One obvious problem, of course, is that people who are mentally stable to begin with can develop psychiatric issues later on. And then what? Whom do you send in to take away their guns?)
Harris also suggests that guns ultimately make the world a better place. This sentiment is reminiscent of the words of Winston Churchill: “We sleep soundly in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm.” I am deeply skeptical of this assertion and would be interested to read a more thorough argument. I myself find it hard to imagine that there was much rejoicing in heaven on the day that guns were invented. (In all seriousness, given that there is such a strong correlation between gun advocacy and conservative Christianity, I do wonder how most Christians imagine that God and all of his angels responded to the invention of the gun. Was there a chorus of hallelujahs?)
The point on which I agree most with Harris is that there are two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives here. On the one hand, it is undeniable that (all other things being equal) our murder rate would be much lower if there were fewer guns in America. On the other hand, given that guns are all around us, it is reasonable to argue that it’s a good idea for mentally stable adults to assume the slightly higher risk of keeping a gun in their home in order to have a greater chance of successfully defending their families against a violent attack, should such an attack occur.
Sam Harris is an interesting case because he is an advocate of gun ownership while also being an advocate of gun control. He believes that well-trained, responsible, mentally and socially healthy adults are making a wise decision when they choose to own a gun. And at the same time, he believes that effective measures need to be taken to make it very difficult for the wrong people to get their hands on guns. I wish more advocates of gun ownership thought this way.
That’s all well and good for the question of whether one should own a gun. But what about carrying a concealed gun?
Overall, what makes me uneasy about the concealed handgun culture is that it fosters a mindset wherein we are constantly thinking about the possibility of attack and of having to use a gun to defend ourselves with lethal force. Moreover, it is easy to find oneself fantasizing about stopping a shooter at a school, movie theater, or church. (Don’t believe me? Just browse YouTube videos about guns, alertness, and self-defense.)
It is certainly possible that such a mindset could save your life — and the lives of many others — in the unlikely event that you actually are attacked; but on the whole, I find this mindset extremely troubling. Why? Having such a mindset at all times can make you imagine threats where there are none; and I don’t think it’s a good idea for everyone to be going about in a heightened state of alertness while carrying a gun. It is impossible to say for sure, but I would not be surprised if such a mindset were not ultimately behind George Zimmerman’s actions on the night that Trayvon Martin was killed. Zimmerman saw something that he perceived as a threat, and he tried to be a hero for his neighborhood — with terrible consequences.
Incidentally, I found Michel Martin’s essay (on Tell Me More) to be the most profound and productive reaction to the whole Zimmerman affair. Please go listen to it. Don’t just read it; it’s much more powerful when you hear it. Here are some of the most poignant words from her essay:
Think about the conversation we’d be having now if, instead of thinking, “These [punks] always get away,” a certain neighborhood watchman had stayed in his car with his gun tucked in his waistband, and asked a teenager visiting an unfamiliar subdivision, “Are you OK? Can I help?” Then he might have learned that a 17-year-old was trying to find his way back to his little brother, armed with skittles and iced tea. Instead of, well, you know the rest.
There is some logic behind the idea that would-be robbers might be deterred from committing crimes by the possibility that their potential victims could be carrying a gun. On the other hand, an awareness of that possibility seems to me more likely to make said criminals more careful and perhaps more violent when approaching their victims, in order to deny the victims any opportunity to use whatever weapons they might have. In any case, laws that enable the masses to go around carrying concealed guns appear to me to undo two hundred years of progress that we’ve made since the times of the Wild West, when men carried guns everywhere and you could get away with shooting someone as long as the other guy was the first to draw.
Let me close by saying that although I enjoyed my trips to the shooting range, I’m still not a fan of guns — particularly concealed handguns. When faced with the question of whether to carry or not to carry, perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves: WWJCD? That’s right: “What would Johnny Cash do?” To find the answer, go and listen to his song “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town.”