Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms

Trigger Warning: Alternate Viewpoints for a Bipartisan Discussion on Firearms

Accompanying this essay is a photo of me in 1998, firing a civilian version of the M14 rifle at the National Matches in Camp Perry, Ohio, where I was competing as a member of the California State Service Rifle Team.  The M14/M1A rifle, a civilian firearm based upon a 1950s-1960s era military issue service rifle, is now categorized as an assault weapon by many states that have passed assault weapon legislation, as well as under the now defunct Clinton-era federal ban on assault weapons.  This image is provided as proof that there is, in fact, a legitimate and peaceful usage for so-called assault weapons outside of a military context.  However, this essay is intended to inspire and spark deeper reflection and more conciliatory, bipartisan discussion on the topics of gun control, gun culture, and firearms regulation.

A few days after the recent tragic Florida school shooting, an old grad school friend posted on her Facebook page:

F*cking enough, America.  Nobody needs bloody assault rifles outside of a military context. If you disagree, unfriend me now because you are a disgrace. [censorship mine]

Initially, I was deeply hurt by her sweeping generalizations and indictment of everyone who disagrees with her, but I chose not to respond directly or to engage her in a public debate on her page, but rather to write a collegial and reasoned response, sharing my own personal experience and knowledge as my contribution to the larger question of gun control, liberty, and making our society more peaceful and functional.  It is my wish, with this essay, to inspire people to critically engage their own viewpoints, while respecting those of others, as we figure out how to better our society and make our nation safer.  I want people to explore the viewpoints of their erstwhile opponents without resorting to divisive, dismissive, and uninformed generalizations. Rather, I encourage people to educate themselves fully on all matters and to seek compromise and understanding, rather than division.

I was raised in a patently anti-gun family, and spent most of my childhood and early adulthood proudly proclaiming my liberal attitudes. Sometime in the mid-1990s, during grad school, I began to realize that life is rarely black and white, and during that time, as part of my work with military veterans’ groups, I was introduced to target shooting.  And I was good.  Very good, in fact.  But as an academic, this kind of pursuit is rarely accepted or lauded by the largely liberal academe.  And so I hid my other life from most of my friends and colleagues in the academy, knowing that they would not tolerate this and that I would likely be ostracized and marginalized for my pursuits.  Only a few close friends were invited to share my joy when I was awarded three medals for my performance in the 1997 and 1998 California State Service Rifle and High Power Rifle Championships.  In some ways, I felt as if I had to keep my true identity in the closet.  However, it was very beneficial to me, as a lifelong liberal who was for the first time seeing the other side of what I had assumed was a very cut and dry argument, to be able to hear first-hand the lived experiences of people far more conservative than I.  In many ways, it embodied what one of my Theology professors had taught us regarding the need to truly hear and engage the lived experiences and the reality of one’s conversation partners and even one’s opponents; to attempt to be in their shoes, to absorb their viewpoints in order to fully understand them and work with them toward building consensus and achieving compromise.  Without this, we can never expect any real progress, change, or collaboration, and in fact, true compromise would be impossible.

And so in 1998, I traveled to Camp Perry, Ohio with the State Rifle team and competed in the National Matches, giving it my best, but putting up some relatively mediocre scores in the presence of 1300 of the nation’s best shooters, both civilian and military alike.  Yet it was a truly edifying experience and I cherish the friendships I garnered, and the viewpoints—political, social, personal, and athletic—that I was exposed to and had the opportunity to engage.  Since that time, I have retired my rifles and have never shot a match again, partly due to the increased firearms restrictions in the state of California, which by nature classify my M14/M1A as an assault weapon, due to certain components in its configuration, forcing me to register it with the CA Department of Justice as a “grandfathered” assault weapon.  The uninitiated viewer might look at this gun, with its wood stock and its classic lines—inspired by the old M1 Garand rifle that was used in WWII and helped defeat Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini—and assume that this rifle is an antiquated piece of history, more nostalgia than performance.  However, this rifle was a highly tuned match rifle that was very much the equal of the AR-15 rifle, which was only just then starting to displace the M14/M1A as the equipment of choice in the service rifle category of target shooting.  In some ways, it outperforms the AR-15 in terms of range and bullet trajectory, but the AR-15 is a lighter rifle with far less recoil, and is an ideal competition rifle for smaller or lighter competitors, including women, who are a rapidly growing demographic in target shooting.  In fact, the year I competed, there were several young women on the California junior team.

The perceptive viewer will notice, at the extreme left side of the photograph, the muzzle of an AR-15 which was being fielded by the shooter to my left, and also about 70% of the shooters on the field in 1998.  At this time, twenty years later, the AR-15 has fully eclipsed the M14/M1A type rifle as competitive equipment of choice, on account of its light weight and low recoil, as well as recent advances in technology that allow it to compare with the naturally more accurate M14/M1A. With that said, this flies in the face of those who would uncritically claim that the AR-15—or any so-called assault rifle, for that matter—has no legitimate usage outside of warfare.  There are tens of thousands of competitive target shooters across the US who compete in local, state, regional, and national matches every year, as well as perhaps ten times that number who practice target shooting at private and public ranges on a regular, but non-competitive, basis.  Many of these competitors shoot in Service Rifle categories, which now almost exclusively utilize the AR-15.  The origin of this is that as of the early twentieth century, the U.S. realized that marksmanship is the core of all effective military training, and if we are going to have a strong military that can protect our nation, we are going to have to encourage marksmanship among all citizens, of all ages, so as to ease the burden of military marksmanship instructors upon induction into basic training. The Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP), originally formulated as a department of the U.S. Government, called the Department of Civilian Marksmanship (DCM), sought to support and promote individual marksmanship to further prepare people for military service and to anticipate and precede more advanced training.  Many baby boomers and those born well before 1970 will remember school programs promoting marksmanship, gun safety, and even school rifle teams, in an era when military training and service were considered propaedeutic to life, and not yet tainted by the stigma of mistrust of government that arose out of the Vietnam War.  While its functions are extremely limited compared to an earlier era, the CMP still exists to this day and is dovetailed with the many service rifle competitions held around the U.S.  And the rifles used in these matches are by nature military style rifles, or derive from the same family as past and present military “service” rifles, although stripped of the more dangerous and exclusively combat related functions, such as selective fire, or fully automatic capability.  Until the day arrives when world peace is established, until the time when we abolish all borders and the need for a military, the armed forces will continue to be one of the largest and most viable sources of stable employment and advancement for both the urban and the rural poor alike.  It has also become home to many women, and many people of the LGBTQ+ community, who proudly serve their country, despite the ambivalence of the current administration toward them.  Until that time, the concept of abolishing the military is simply a peacenik’s pipe dream, and the need for marksmanship training is still of utmost importance.

And with white supremacists, such as those who marched on Charlottesville this past August, openly displaying firearms during purportedly “peaceful” protests—even pointing them at synagogues and threatening Jews and other minorities, as well as peacefully counter-protesting clergymembers, while local law enforcement in Charlottesville did nothing about it—these members of right wing extremist groups often carrying the very same AR type rifles that are now undergoing debate, then I am grateful that minorities and vulnerable demographics, especially people of color, can still take full advantage of their constitutional rights to defend themselves against the increasing waves of armed bigots coming out of the woodwork in the last two years.  Trust me, you are not going to have an easy time disarming these folks, no matter what sweeping legislation you pass.  But that is a separate issue from the one at hand in this essay.

It is no small matter that we are seeing a dramatic and widening gap between the lifestyles and culture of the regions which are the most conservative, on one hand, and those of the coastal urban areas, on the other, most frequently representing a more liberal set of values.  Each side thinks that they are the entirety of America, when in fact they are not; the other side can make an equally valid claim to represent a good portion of America, and to deny the existence or validity of the other is a grave mistake—one which has led to our present predicament in which the liberal left and the conservative right are in open warfare with one another in the legislature, and in which our current president was elected as a reaction to—and an outgrowth of—that unwillingness of each side to truly recognize the humanity of the other.  There is enough blame to go around, but for the purposes of this piece, I highlight the fact that the liberal left, comfortable in its urban, coastal enclaves, seems to deny the very reality of the lifestyles of the so-called “fly-over states”, where agriculture, hunting, shooting sports of every kind, country music, and a more homogeneous cultural and ethnic demographic are still the norm, and represent the hegemony.  Just because it’s not your culture, or that you don’t understand it, doesn’t mean you have the right to disparage or discount it.  If we, in the cities, in our liberal ivory towers, see fit to ignore the realities of coal mining country and farm country, and the rural poor, then we are doomed to keep fanning the flames of division and we are partly responsible for fueling cultural warfare. And we will continue to see more outlandishly “populist” candidates being fielded by the Republican Party, and we are going to suffer from increasingly poor communication with their constituents.

What are the solutions to this problem, which has most recently reared its ugly head in the form of the Florida school shooting?  I don’t have all the answers.  But there are many options that we must discuss, and many of us are going to have to entertain some compromise, and we will need to consider new and innovative ideas, rather than keep circling around each other like two exhausted pugilists fielding the same tired footwork, neither gaining an advantage over the other; or people pointlessly doing jumping jacks in order to appear busy, as if their exertion were equal to accomplishment.  The following changes must be on the table for consideration: (1) Expanded and universal background checks are an obvious start, which were supported by conservatives (and even the NRA) in former eras.  (2) We will have to implement increased prosecution of firearms offenders, something which is surprisingly lacking.  (3) Recently discussed have been so-called “red flag laws”, which target high risk persons who have repeatedly displayed violent behavior and may be demonstrably a danger to themselves and others.  (4) It is widely known that the 1990s era federal ban on assault weapons demonstrated no measurable improvement on gun-related violence and was therefore allowed to “sunset” by the federal government.  As such, rather than attempt to revive the obsolete and ineffectual plan for a universal ban on so-called “assault weapons” (which is a politically created legal terminology and not a widely accepted technical or meaningful military categorization of weaponry), perhaps we need to explore the licensing of controversial weapons such as the AR-15, in the same manner that we license automobiles, a model which has shown demonstrable success in diminishing vehicular deaths since the inception of the system.  (5) Additional remedies need to address the reasons why these perpetrators continue to act out in violent ways, considering that most have been previously identified as “at risk” or troubled youth and yet they have fallen through the cracks; and in fact the majority of most notorious culprits who have employed these weapons in mass shootings in recent times have been identified as young white males, and often operating under ultra-nationalist and racist ideologies.  Despite the historical prevalence of firearms in American culture, and the relatively recent decline in the ubiquity of firearms across all regions and multiple demographics, we have never before seen the unrelenting frequency of these mass-shootings at schools and public venues.  Something is happening in the mentality of our culture and is activating a sleeper effect in the most disturbed of our youth, inculcating in them a doomsday reaction in which they deem it acceptable to solve their problems in this manner.  This kind of reaction was not a widespread phenomenon in earlier eras, when gun safety and marksmanship were commonly taught and accepted in public schools in urban and rural areas alike.  (6) And we simply must begin preventing those who are deemed mentally ill from gaining access to firearms, for their own safety and that of others.  To urge the removal of mental illness from this debate, due to the specious claim that mentally ill people rarely commit violent crimes (as I have recently read from the ranks of self-proclaimed punditry) is to forget that most gun related deaths are in fact suicides.  It is also misguided to pretend that those who commit the most egregiously violent acts do not suffer from a form of mental illness. This tack also serves to exempt the mentally ill from being screened before gaining access to firearms, based upon some stilted attempt to defend their privacy, while simultaneously perpetuating the myth that all gun owners are equally capable of committing heinous crimes and violent acts, simply on the basis of their firearms ownership—an argument which questionably shifts the blame from the user to the gun.  (7) Among the deeper issues, we may enumerate the issue of glorification of violence in entertainment and media, in which youth of a variety of demographics are subliminally and systemically taught that violence is acceptable and appropriate. From video games, to movies, to popular music, they are inundated with violence and as such build up a level of tolerance for increasing levels of brutality in their lexicons.

The foregoing are merely a start, if we are to see real change. All of these will require bipartisan efforts, as well as careful, introspection among people of all political standpoints. It will not be easy, but to continue down the road we are on will be much harder.  But for gun-control activists and supporters to glibly and smugly claim that there is no legitimate usage for these firearms outside of warfare, and to aggressively challenge all comers, belligerently issuing ultimatums in the guise of social activism and moral outrage, sounds more like something that we have come to expect from the most martial of all warhawks, and not from the classic liberal peaceniks.  We certainly need to continue the discussion of how to make our streets and our homes safer.  But I cannot stand silently by while we pursue the same partisanship in our attempts to overrun and disable each other so that our side can win. I have seen too much partisanship over the last twenty years, and particularly in the last election, where people have put party before nation, and have made excuses for deeply flawed candidates and ideologies.  “My country, right or wrong, my country” has given way to “My party, right or wrong, my party”. And I see this divisiveness as destroying our nation.

The kind of declamatory rhetoric I quoted at the start of this essay is intended to divide, not unite.  Rather than try to convince each other of the rightness of our logic, or make ultimatums that are intended as a precursor to overwhelming each other’s sides with superior force of will, I invite you to seek out people from the other camp and try to understand their viewpoints, ultimately with the intention of building consensus, seeking to find useful compromise that will unite rather than divide, that will find new and innovative collaborative solutions to this raging, endemic problem.

In closing, this essay is not meant to minimize or trivialize the pain of those who have lost or have suffered during the recent shooting, or any previous tragedies—especially the students of Parkland, Florida who are now protesting with passionate purpose.  In fact, we as a nation are suffering, with no foreseeable respite.  It is a serious situation that needs to be taken seriously, and if we merely find scapegoats and react with only a thin veneer of meaningful action—without the support of both sides, as was the case with much of the previous gun control legislation—then we will continue to find ourselves in the situation we are in right now, with more and more school shootings and more and more mass murder. All of us are responsible to bring about these changes together.

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