It took 42 years for me to fire a gun for the first time. And it was in pursuit of understanding this issue.
Here's what I knew about guns: the United States was founded with guns in hand. All that talk about the well-regulated militia -- the rag-tag group of volunteers and conscripts was what George Washington was leading against the Redcoats. You can't have one of those without the other -- guns and grossness.
Blood and guts for a cause. Or maybe just target practice for the future?
There are platitudes and bumper-sticker philosophies from all sides of what we as a country now think of as The Gun Issue -- but there is no denying that this is a touchy subject. Politically conservative people think everyone should be able to own and carry (whenever and wherever) whatever weapon they want. Meanwhile, the politically liberal believe that firearms should not be available to anyone outside of law enforcement and the armed services.
So heading into this story, I assumed that I would be taking interviews from individuals with drastically different points of view, and that I would find myself besot by extremes and extremists, and embroiled in controversy.
After all, we do live in a state who sent Tom Coburn to the Senate -- the same man who, in 1999, said, "If I wanted to buy a bazooka to use in a very restricted way, to do something, I ought to be able to do that." However, we also live in a state whose lone Democratic congressman was elected to the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in 2008, and that's not exactly expected behavior from a Democrat.
As it turns out, evaluating from a random (and admittedly small) sampling of Tulsans, there aren't a great many extreme views being espoused in Tulsa. Individuals from both sides of the political spectrum -- which these days is more a binary, R vs. D world rather than the graduated political world we once lived in, where you could actually find a liberal Republican who was politically to the left of a conservative Democrat -- share surprisingly similar views on the subject. There is precious little extremist dogma being spouted in the real world.
As things stand right now, some Oklahoma lawmakers hope to broaden the gun rights of citizens by allowing for the open carry of firearms. Thankfully, opinions differ on how far they should go.
In spite of Republican majorities in the House and Senate and a Republican governor, legislators were unable to pass a bill to allow for the open carry of firearms last session.
Giving It to The Feds
The Second Amendment reads thusly: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
Some readers may recognize this amendment's text as the NRA's motto therein -- but only "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed," while gun control advocates often cling only to "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," conveniently omitting any mention of the part about people keeping Arms.
Much like the Bible--with fundamentalism, literalism, and revisionism combined--most people are able to take quotes out of context and make those quotes fit whatever position they're trying to support. That seems to be the case here, as well.
This seems also to apply to the difficult-to-navigate statistics revolving around the gun issue. Each side chooses the numbers that it feels best bolsters its claims, while the other side tries to point out why those figures are wrong or misleading.
For example, in 1986, two doctors -- Arthur Kellermann and Donald Reay -- published "Protection or Peril?: An analysis of firearm-related deaths in the home" in the New England Journal of Medicine. In it, they included a study of guns and gun deaths in homes and came to the conclusion that a person is 43 times more likely to die if he or she has a gun in the home.
However, pro-gun literature pounces on this figure with relish, citing Kellerman's admission that suicides were included in what was considered "unjustifiable homicide," which inflated his numbers. Gun-control opposition also enjoys pointing out that Kellerman revised his 43-to-1 figure several years later, changing it to 2-to-1. That's a big difference.
Meanwhile, gun control advocates assert that suicides decrease as gun restrictions increase; their opposition holds that the decrease is only in suicides by gun, and the use of other methods proliferates. No one in this particular instance of the statistics war seems to be all that broken up about all the suicides, but perhaps that's another article.
Then there's the corollary: "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Proponents of Second Amendment rights maintain that the statement is a good argument against gun control.
Gun control supporters respond with, ". . . glasses don't see. Eyes see . . ." which might be a valid argument against wearing glasses.
And so we come ever closer to the realization that perception is reality, and that just about any stats can be manipulated.
But most of these figures and much of the oft-quoted texts are only used by politically-motivated (and/or funded) pundits or those spewing the aforementioned bumper-sticker politics, clever sobriquets like "You can have my bullets first," "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will accidentally shoot their children," "Ted Kennedy's car has killed more people than my gun," or "Actually, guns really do kill people," to name but a few.
In a time where our country is fractiously divided politically, even so much as to have states designated as "red" or "blue," the media and national organizations seem to be the only ones dwelling on the extremist sides of the issue.
In the documentary Bowling for Columbine, filmmaker Michael Moore cites some statistics regarding annual gun deaths per year. The United States tops Moore's list with 11,127 gun deaths per year, or 3.601 deaths per 100,000 people. Second is Germany with 381, or .466 per 100,000. The United Kingdom is cited as having 68 gun deaths per year, and Japan rounds out the list with 39.
Apparently there are no stats for death by howitzer or broadsword or samurai in historical context.
Going Local? Or Loco
Dave Randle, manager of Tulsa Firearms Range and Pro Shop, responds to all this calmly, intelligently, and, I must admit, in a manner I did not expect from a gun store manager. Randle answers that what Moore didn't include is how many violent deaths by other means occur per year in those other countries.
"He (Moore)didn't go into how many knife-related crimes happened in Japan or how many home invasions there are in England," Randle said. "Those places -- you can't have guns over there. There just aren't many guns at all." He adds that those countries have overall crime rates comparable to the United States.
Michael Whelan, small business attorney and vice chair of the Tulsa Democratic party, also wonders where the gun issue is going.
"We're not against the Second Amendment," Whelan says, adding he's not sure the Democratic Party's line on gun control is embraced in Tulsa or Oklahoma in general.
"The party's platform is not necessarily what the stereotypical Oklahoma Democrat believes. We have many Oklahoma Democrats who firmly believe in Second Amendment rights," he said.
That seems to go against the general perception that, while grossly oversimplified, Democrats are against guns and Republicans are for them. This plank in the Democratic platform repudiates that.
"I have absolutely no problem with someone going through the proper channels and background checks, getting a handgun, and having it at home for their own personal protection," Whelan said.
Not surprisingly, the gun store manager concurs, and does so with statistics and an allusion to his approval of permits and the background checks Whelan mentioned.
"In every state that has enacted a concealed carry law, the violent crime rate drops about eight to nine percent," Randle said.
"Put yourself in the bad guy's shoes. You go walking into a convenience store thinking you're going to rob it, and they've got concealed carry in there. There's a person like me standing over there with a windbreaker on, and you might think, 'I wonder if he's got one of these things under that windbreaker. And what about this guy over here? I think I'll go someplace else that has a sign that says 'no guns allowed' -- I'll go rob them.'"
And while Whelan recognizes a need or desire for personal protection, Randle points out another surprising fact: "A lot of times, the gun doesn't even get fired. It just scares off the bad guys."
However, the very act of manufacturing guns causes problems in Whelan's eyes.
"Manufacturing guns creates more chances for guns to wind up in places they shouldn't be," he said. "Every time a new model comes out, and a gun owner wants to get it, he might sell his old weapon in an arm's-length transaction," meaning that it could be sold to anyone at all without a background check or anything along those lines.
Whelan also raises the issue of some of the scarier weapons floating around in our gun-toting society.
"The products sold should be responsible. People talk about getting high capacity clips -- something that can hold 30 rounds," Whelan said. "I just can't think of a situation where I need to pull the trigger 30 times."
This hints at raising a question of terminology. We've all heard about bans on assault weapons and the like, but does the average person know exactly what an assault weapon is? Randle isn't sure they do.
"People talk about assault weapons," he said. "An assault weapon is a full[y] auto[matic]. You see the news, and people say you can go to these gun shows and pick up machine guns and rocket launchers. It's ridiculous. It's totally untrue.
"Can you legally own an automatic weapon? Yes. You have to pay an extra $200 tax on it. This gun," he continues while holding up a black AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, "is a high-dollar gun. It's about $1,900. If you want this as a full auto, you're looking at about $25,000. They had to have been made before 1986," which was when the Firearm Owners Protection Act was passed by Congress, rendering purchases of fully automatic weapons illegal in most cases, and making ownership of them very difficult.
Still, an AR-15 is radically different from weapons in use around the time Jefferson and his mates were writing that pesky second amendment.
"When the Framers wrote the Second Amendment, they couldn't conceive what kind of weapons we have today," Whelan said.
Certainly, the muzzle-loading rifles of the Revolutionary war took as much as a full minute to load and fire. Today, a handgun with a clip can shoot 15 rounds as fast as the firer can pull the trigger -- and in much less than a minute. And the AR-15 can fire more and do it faster.
"The strict constructionist interpretation of it says that anyone can have any weapon they want," Whelan said. "But to say the Framers meant that people could have grenades and bazookas, I think, is a perversion of what they meant."
Are You What You Shoot?
When asked about some of these larger and more controversial weapons and accessories, Randle responds to the perennial question raised by gun control advocates, this one involving the AK-47 rifle.
"Why do people need AK-47s? Why does anybody need a Mercedes? Why does anybody need a Ferrari? You don't need it. People enjoy them," he said. He goes on to tell me that I'd have a ball shooting one of them. As it turns out, he's probably right. He goes on to defend legal automatic weapons in a matter-of-fact, no-nonsense manner.
"I don't know of any documented place where a legal, documented full auto has ever been involved in a crime, other than in Prohibition gangster days," he said. "If somebody brings up the LA deal [a bank robbery in North Hollywood on Feb. 28, 1997] where you had those two bank robbers [very heavily armed and wearing body armor], those were converted weapons."
While a simple search of the Internet depicts obtaining the necessary parts for such a conversion -- as well as the process of converting the weapon -- as simple, perhaps even something looked on as boys-will-be-boys mischief.
However, the penalty for owning a converted weapon is a federal offense, carrying a fine in the five- to six-figure range, as well as a decade-long stay in one of the country's least desirable lodgings: a fed pen. In fact, in many states, it is illegal even to be in possession of the parts needed for converting a weapon, even if the offender doesn't own a weapon that can be converted.
Randle's point, then, would seem to be that with these severe penalties in place, weapon conversions are quite rare.
Randle also surprises when he mentions gun laws and regulations. He doesn't like current regulations on gun sales, but he disagrees with them for reasons that seem incongruous with his role as a gun store manager. He's bothered by how easy gun purchasing regulations are to get around. He mentions some reins-tightening in the process of getting a gun, but only in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Florida.
"Well then, why wouldn't you just go up to Oklahoma?" he asks rhetorically. "It's just too easy to get around." He also refers to the proverbial bad apples that might be helping people improperly acquire guns.
"Look, if someone comes in with a bag of cash and wants 10 guns, 90 percent of gun dealers' antennae are going to go up," he said. As in so many areas of life, that 10 percent screws it up for everyone else. "Man, I don't want to sell a gun that's going to be used to kill someone."
Another Randle surprise comes up regarding violent video games. Generally speaking, gun control advocates insist that these games contribute to violence in real life, while Second Amendment supporters dismiss this as poppycock.
"In a video game, you're actually there, killing people, basically. You're controlling all that," he said. "I think it desensitizes -- whether there are any studies to show that or not, it's just my personal opinion -- I think it desensitizes kids. It's like bang, you hit reset. It's not that way in the real world, but a lot of times, kids don't know that."
Imagine There's No Guns
Tom Harrison, senior pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church, has little to say about guns, whether in an interview or from the pulpit.
"I just don't see why I would need a gun. It's just not a part of my life. I don't have a gun, and it would just be really hard to use one. To shoot another human being, it would just be really hard," he said.
He goes on, leading to a phrase that keeps coming up in a rational discussion of guns: black and white.
"That's one of those things that fits into that area of gray. It's not black and white. That's why I don't talk [from the pulpit] about so many social issues," he said. As this is a political issue, he goes on to voice a general discomfort with church and state lines blurring.
"Sometimes, the church just gets involved in these political things, and I just think it's so divisive. Teach people about the faith, and they'll figure out their own political stuff, rather than 'This is the political stuff you should believe,'" he said.
He said that the only times he speaks on social issues during church is when such issues are raised by the biblical text. As there is no mention of assault rifles or banana clips in the Bible, "I can't think of a time I've even come close to talking about guns."
Generally speaking, going into this assignment, I had gleaned from the media and literature from both sides that pro-gun people are adamant that it says right there in the Constitution that "[Insert your name here] has a God-given right to pack heat," and that 90 million gun owners didn't kill a single person today. On the other side, those in favor of gun control say that there's nothing in the Constitution that guarantees anyone the right to have a gun, not to mention a tank or a hand grenade.
But that isn't the case in the real world. The black and white aspects of life don't exist, for the most part, being instead replaced with Harrison's gray areas. A gun store manager might be expected to view gun ownership with a hard-line, anything-goes mentality. What I found was one who wants to sell guns but only to the right people and who believes gun laws should be harder to get around.
A Democratic party officer might be expected to be staunchly opposed to guns in the hands of anyone but soldiers. I found one who sees nothing wrong with legally-obtained guns. A pastor might be expected to come down definitively on one side of the issue or another. I found one who shies away from offering an opinion, preferring to let the faithful make their own decisions.
After researching guns and laws and statistics and graphs and charts, and after conducting several interviews, and after synthesizing these for a coherent article, I realized that a piece was missing. I still had never fired a gun.
Upon concluding his interview with me, Randle leads me to the firing range at Tulsa Firearms. He has me wear eye and ear protection, then brings out a handgun made by Springfield Armory -- this one called an XD-9. To the accompaniment of the stunningly loud pops coming from the rifle range to my left, Randle shows me all the parts of the weapon and the correct way to hold it.
"The grip is with your left hand. Your right hand is for pulling the trigger," he said. That was news to me, actually.
He takes me through how to aim properly and has me dry-fire the weapon once, then loads it up. He has the demeanor of a grandfather as he talks me through it.
"Both arms straight. Get your thumb out of the way. You're making an isosceles triangle with your arms. Squeeze the trigger nice and easy," he said.
Even with hearing protection, the gun is shockingly loud. And it feels amazing. I fire all the rounds he put in the clip, and every single one of them hits its mark.
I was rather impressed with my beginner's luck, and he could tell.
"You know why you hit all those? Because you've never done it before, and you did what I told you to do. You don't have any bad habits," he said. "Some guys are the worst. They think all they have to do is practice shooting. But that's like saying I can buy a bag of golf clubs and just start swinging. I wouldn't know what I was doing right or wrong. How am I going to get any better? Same thing with a handgun."
Once we leave the range and go back into the pro shop, Randle asks if I feel relaxed. Surprisingly, I do.
"Guys come in here after a bad day at work and go shoot. And they come out feeling all relaxed. When you're concentrating on the sights and on the target, you can't think of anything else. It's very relaxing," he said.
Relaxing or not, and no matter how awesome it was to shoot that pistol, Whelan maintains that while he and his party do not advocate a gun-free society, he also believes, as do Harrison and Randle, that guns are nothing about which to be flippant. But none embraces a radically left- or right-wing position.
This reality is quite different from the impression given on the national stage regarding the gun debate: all Republicans are conservative and believe that everyone should be able to own any kind of weapon he or she wants, while Democrats are, to a man, extremist liberals who want every gun on the planet melted down, the metal used to add a wing to the ACLU headquarters. This just isn't the case. At least, not in Tulsa.
All those mentioned in this story hold views on this issue in their own shades of gray. While they do not agree completely, there is much more common ground than one would expect, and all three acknowledge the serious nature of a weapon of any kind.
"We don't think gun ownership should be taken lightly," Whelan said. "You shouldn't be able to go get a hamburger at McDonald's, stop by Wal-Mart for some groceries, then swing by the gun store and pick one up on the way home."
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