Among the many questions my wife and I did not consider when deciding to start a family, one stands out: What to do about guns?
She was raised in a city. There were no guns in her home, and she knew very little about them. She simply assumed our children would not have guns in their home either. The truth is, she was afraid of guns.
But I was raised in the rural Midwest. I got my first BB gun at age 7, my first shotgun at age 10 — a single-shot .410 for duck hunting. For my 12th birthday, my grandpa gave me an old Smith & Wesson .38 Special, a handgun passed down from his uncle. A couple years later I killed my first deer with a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle purchased with earnings from my summer job. Guns were an integral part of my youth, serving as significant markers of the passage into manhood.
These two very different backgrounds were sure to collide at some point.
The first time they collided was on our son’s fifth birthday. My sister gave him a toy cap gun. I was delighted. My wife — not so much. They collided again a few years later when I wanted to buy him a BB gun. That time she put her foot down. So did I.
What ensued was The Great Gun Debate. There were no winners and losers in that debate. (Marriages that tally wins and losses do not last long). Instead, we came to an understanding.
Our kids could have guns, but with conditions. The most important one was that guns — even toy guns — were never to be treated as toys. My responsibility was to establish the household rules and see that they were enforced. I would designate a safe place to store the guns and make sure our kids received safety training at the appropriate ages. If they violated any of the rules, their guns would be taken away. The rules applied to me, too.
Why can’t the same approach be used in our national gun debate? Why can’t those who own guns and know the most about them take responsibility for ensuring they're used safely and without malicious intent?
Admittedly, ensuring safe, responsible gun ownership is much more difficult in a nation than in a household. But the principle is the same. Those who claim a right to do something also take responsibility for ensuring that the exercise of their right does not cause undue harm to others. The task is difficult but not impossible. It requires a willingness by both sides to set reasonable expectations.
Liberals will have to accept the fact that we cannot simply legislate an end to gun violence. There is no simple, sweeping solution to this problem, and progress toward the goal will have to be incremental and use a variety of approaches. Conservatives will have to give up the notion that any firearms restriction is a violation of the 2nd Amendment. The Constitution gives us the right to “bear arms,” not the right to use any and all kinds of weaponry that might ever be devised by ingenious armament manufacturers.
The problem we have right now is that our national gun debate has the same pattern as long-standing disagreements within dysfunctional families: Each side takes the most extreme position and then talks about the other side without ever talking to them. Nobody is working seriously toward realistic and effective solutions.
The result is that both sides are losing. Gun control advocates have succeeded in passing laws such as the 1994 assault weapons ban, which resulted in a massive increase in the manufacture and ownership of semiautomatic versions of military weapons. And gun rights advocates, with their over-the-top displays of flag-waving, gun-toting bravado, have increasingly alienated younger generations of citizens. In the meantime, mass shootings continue, and gun deaths have surged to record levels.
What we need most is not new, more restrictive laws but something more radical: a change of heart among gun owners.
Do I think gun owners will take responsibility for lessening the amount of gun violence taking place in our country? No. But I think it ought to happen.
The National Rifle Association used to be the kind of organization that did that. For more than a century, the NRA was a nonpartisan organization broadly representing the interests of hunters and target shooters. It was concerned about shared responsibility. After 1977, the NRA became a lobbying organization for gun manufacturers focused chiefly on opposing any and all attempts at regulation.
Theodore Roosevelt, himself a gun owner and staunch hunting advocate observed: “Those who advocate total lack of regulation … themselves give the strongest impulse to what I believe would be the deadening movement toward unadulterated state socialism.”
If gun owners do not take responsibility for reducing gun violence in our country, at some point those who are afraid of guns will become the majority and make the regulations themselves. The worst fears of many gun owners will be realized, and it will be our own fault.