This blog has, for many years, been unabashedly “all tech.” I’ve often had second thoughts about that, wondering if I should give the rest of my self - my political, moral and ethical views - more of a voice. But I’ve always put that aside - partially because this always comes up when I’m looking for a new job and I don’t really want to be remembered as that guy with the strongly disagreeing views, partially because I don’t want people looking for technical content to be frustrated by my rants. And partially because it’s just harder for me to convey political or social concepts in the way I intend than it is to convey technical ones. But after the events of the past 36 hours - and moreover, of the past decade-plus - I’m going to deviate from that. Be advised that if you have strong feelings on either side of the gun control debate, this probably isn’t going to make you happy.
I’m a gun owner. I have been since my eighteenth birthday, the day when I became legally able to exercise my second amendment rights in my then-home state of New Jersey. That was only a decade ago, but the impact of guns on America seems so shockingly different. I own a single .22-caliber target pistol; certainly dangerous as any firearm is, but essentially the bottom of the scale when it comes to lethality. It’s designed to shoot paper, not much else. I’ve been shooting off and on since I was in my early teens, mostly handguns and shotguns. Apparently unlike most people who are vocal gun owners, I’ve never fired a shot at anything that is or was ever alive, unless you count paper. I’ve never fired a shot outside of a shooting range.
I’ve also never carried a gun in public, nor have I ever had a serious desire to. Despite what gun-rights activists claim about self-defense and defense of others, I think that the way police in this country are both trained and act in the field is a wonderful example of why firearm carry in public often doesn’t work: we’re talking about people whose profession involves firearms, who must train and qualify with their guns annually (or more often), and still often can’t hit a target in a real-life situation. As far as I’m concerned, if someone wants to carry a firearm to defend themselves or others, they damn well better be shooting every day, doing live-fire training, and completely confident that they could identify and hit a target in real life. To my knowledge, only the most elite units of the military do this. I grew up in New Jersey, where the only people who carry guns are law enforcement and criminals, period (OK, there are some extremely rare exceptions). I now live in Georgia, where anyone can walk into WalMart and walk out with a gun - and many people walk around the store with handguns on their belts, something that’s still foreign to me.
On my eighteenth birthday, I went to the police department in my home town to begin the process of purchasing the target pistol that my father had offered as a gift. For those of you who aren’t familiar with how gun (specifically handgun - it’s significantly easier for shotguns and rifles) ownership works in the northeast, here’s the gist of it (my memory may be a bit hazy, and some of it may have been explained poorly):
- I went to the police department and met with the chief, whom I already knew personally through family.
- I paid a fee of approximately $100 and filled out about six pages of paperwork, including a full history of my addresses and a lengthy questionnaire.
- I was fingerprinted - all ten fingers, three sets of prints.
- I filled out consent forms for federal and state background checks and consents for mental health records searches.
- These were all sent out to the respective agencies.
- About a month later, the chief called to tell me that he’d received the replies from the federal and state governments, and they came back OK (which is to be expected, as I had no mental health history and no criminal record).
- He then sent out form letters to the three non-related character references I had specified on my application, requesting them to assert under penalty of perjury whether they believed that I posed any danger to myself or others, if I were allowed to purchase a firearm.
- The letters were all returned by my references. The chief then sent the completed paperwork back to the state government, which issued me a state firearms purchaser identification card, entitling me to purchase firearms and ammunition. I was also issued - as requested - a Permit to Purchase a Handgun, which entitled me to purchase one (1) handgun within 90 days of the date of issue.
OK, so that’s quite a process. All in all, it took two or three months to complete.
When I finally received my ID card and permit - which had to be picked up in person - I headed out to a local gun store to find the model I wanted. And I did. I turned the purchase permit over to the salesperson, who called the state government to verify its validity. We finalized the details of the transaction and I inspected the merchandise and filled out some last paperwork. The gun I’d purchased was then marked with a “sold” sticker and had a copy of the invoice attached, and was locked in a safe for me to pick up in seven days, when the mandatory waiting period was over. When I returned a week later, one of the two spent cartridges from the gun (shipped with it by the manufacturer) was sent to the state police for future forensic use.
New Jersey is widely regarded as having some of the strictest gun control laws in the country. And none of that is enough. There was never a follow-up. There was no ongoing monitoring that I’m aware of. I’ve heard more stories than I can remember of people being convicted of crimes or involved in domestic violence situations, and then using their legally-purchased and registered firearms in future crimes. It makes no sense to me that we live in a world where Amazon knows what items I’m interested in today, but the authorities can’t figure out to take my gun away if I assault someone. There was also never a mandatory proficiency or safety test, either written or at a real firing range.
How is it that we live in a country where operation of a motor vehicle - a device which can be fatal when operated improperly - requires a written examination, a practical demonstration of skill, and an ongoing demonstration of responsibility (traffic police), but the possession and operation of a firearm does not? It makes no sense. I don’t want to minimize the effects of poor driving decisions, they certainly claim many lives, but there’s no avoiding the fact that firearms were - and in many cases, are - designed to kill.
I suppose that most of my feelings on this are based on two of my core beliefs, which run contrary to many gun-rights activists: (1) that my only use for a firearm is target shooting, and it doesn’t really matter to me how quickly I can buy one, and (2) that our military has tanks and nukes, and the idea of “defending my Freedom [against a government takeover]” with any legally-purchased weapon is impossible, regardless of whether or not it’s simply paranoid.
Whether openly or not, many gun rights activists base their positions on a romanticized fictional “past America”, where everyone was good, owned guns, defended themselves, and was self-sufficient. Even if that past world existed (in reality it was quite violent; the violence just isn’t remembered in the Utopian narrative), it’s certainly not today. The past America they speak of was a time when most gun owners had been so since childhood (it was merely a part of living), likely had many fewer violent influences, and could count on swift justice. Let’s also remember the technology of this past age: I might be OK with gun rights activists going back to this mythical past, if they also could only have a six-shot revolver that takes a few minutes to reload.
But despite what gun rights activists try to tell us, the problem here is not hardcore criminals. It’s people who may or may not have criminal or suspicious pasts, who decide to act on their violent ideas. It’s people who can walk into a store and buy a weapon or magazine that holds twenty or fifty rounds of ammunition - something which has no legitimate use other than mass killing. It’s people who can borrow or steal guns from family or friends, because those firearms weren’t treated with the proper respect and safety by their legal owners. It’s the belief by some that there’s a legitimate reason to obtain a gun in less than a week, or a month, or months. It’s the ironic dichotomy of the people who believe that Snowden was a traitor and mass surveillance is fine, but registering guns is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy. And it has to stop. I dare say, if every mass shooting in the past decade or two was carried out by a Muslim or an immigrant or anyone other than a white Christian, half of the roadblocks to a safe America would’ve disappeared.
To everyone who takes a literal reading of the Constitution and says that the second amendment grants every American the right to posses and carry as many and whatever kind of firearms they want, I make three comments:
- “falsely shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.” We have a Supreme Court for a reason: that the framers knew the Constitution would have to be interpreted differently with time.
- If you stand against gun registration or regulation, please keep in mind that your precious second amendment begins with the phrase, “A well regulated Militia.” Even if you don’t believe that this is equivalent to a modern-day standing army, it clearly does not say, “Everybody gets all the firearms they want, period.”
- “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They weren’t put in that order by mistake.