“A well regulated Militia, necessary to the security of a free State [country], the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” US Constitution Amendment II
I’m in a unique position to talk about the subject of guns in America. I was 10 years old when the man in the photo below put a .22 caliber rifle in my hands. (It was actually my second rifle—I was given a 30.06 at birth). Growing up in a rural America, it was a common occurrence. Being able to shoot a gun was like my bar mitzvah, it was part of becoming a man. Guns were always a part of my life.
My family was here before the Revolution and that means before a Second Amendment. Many generations before me literally had to hunt for their families to eat. By the time I came along, they’d gone from killing an animal to put food on the table to selling being a hunter as sportsman (Doesn’t the other team need to know there’s a game before it’s a sport?). The gear was pretty crazy even back then. I would stuff myself into a heavy orange jumpsuit/coat until I was a cross between a traffic cone and Ralphie’s little brother Randy from A Christmas Story. We weren’t carrying weapons of mass destruction like the AR-15, the gun of choice for mass casualties. No. It was a rifle that had a bolt action, which in my case meant I had to pause between shots. I had to pass a test before getting my hunting license at the ripe old age of 12. And it was some of the only bonding time I ever had with my father and my grandfather. I treasure most of those memories.
I remember talking to my dad in adulthood about gun laws. He liked President Obama personally, but he drove truck over the road and spent a lot of time listening to talk radio. He was never afraid, or would never admit to being afraid, that President Obama was going to try and confiscate our family arsenal. But he was concerned about the undefinable “slippery slope.” He didn’t want mentally ill people to have access to guns, did’t think violent people should get them either and he certainly didn’t want someone who made it onto a watch list to be able to walk into Wal-Mart and buy a gun. The problem was, like so many who lived through Watergate and other government scandals, he didn’t trust politicians to make laws that could stop those things from happening without infringing on his own ability to own guns. It was irrational, but fear often is.
Dad didn’t live to see 332 mass shootings in 2015, or similar numbers in 2013 and 14. He didn’t see my 20 year old cousin with a history of depression put a pistol to his head and take his own life. He did see the two criminals take my high school friend out in the woods and put more than a dozen bullets in him with stolen guns that were unsecured. Not long before he died, another father, who reminded me of him, accidentally killed his 7 year old son because his gun went off as they were getting in their pickup truck. Just Google “dad kills son” and you will cry all day. Guns, even in the right hands, hold the power to snuff out a life whether you’re in the Appalachian Mountains—where I grew up—or on the streets of Chicago, IL, and frequently intentions don’t count for much.
This reality and my background of growing up around gun wielding, beer drinking, chain smoking rednecks who never hurt anybody led me to this conclusion: where things went wrong is when local governments got a hold of gun regulation and the federal government abdicated their responsibility to the safety and well being of their citizens. The second amendment arose, in part, because the majority of the Founders were against having a standing army. Additionally, we lived in a country that looked very different geographically than we do today. Travel was difficult and law enforcement was insufficient—like it can be today in rural America.
After the Civil War, the Thirteenth Amendment would officially end slavery and the Fourteenth Amendment—along with other post-Civil War circumstances—changed how the Second Amendment was interpreted. The Union Army would make “well regulated militia” obsolete and bands of White thugs in the South terrorized newly freed Blacks. All of this helped to enshrine the new reading of the Second Amendment to be a nearly absolute guarantee of an individual’s right to own a gun for protection—regardless of background. (I highly recommend reading America’s Constitution: A Biography by Akhil Reed Amar for insight on how history impacted and drove the forces behind constitutional amendments. The book is frequently cited in Supreme Court rulings.)
Owning a gun, especially in rural America, became a security system. It was a tool for harvesting food for the family and a symbol of heritage and legacy. When I was first born, my grandfather bought me a hunting rifle and gave it to my father who gave it to me when I was 12. I have used it and I cherish it (and if someone threatened my home, having it would make certain they’d regret it.) As a law abiding citizen, I do not fear “gun control.”
To help save lives there are steps our leaders could take. I’m going to add just a few here. But contrary to being anti-gun, most pro-gun control groups want laws that will do what most Americans agree with: Improve safety, keep guns out of dangerous hands and keep military grade weapons off civilian streets.
1) Background checks should be as quick as credit checks. People should be able to get confirmed as eligible to make the purchase, make the payment and pick the gun up 3 days later. The 3 day waiting period can be an effective “cooling off” period.
2) Appealing a denial to purchase a gun should be inexpensive and simple. If a correction is necessary, all fees should be refunded. The purpose is to keep guns out of dangerous hands, not to deny the right of law abiding citizens to defend themselves.
3) A gun safety course (which would include firing a variety of guns under the supervision of a trained instructor) should be mandatory. By mandatory, I mean the federal government should develop minimum standards and let the states go from there.
4) Transferring a gun across state lines should require a permit. States have to be able to reserve the right to refuse to allow guns into their state. State sovereignty isn’t absolute but laws regarding safety, such as traffic laws, drugs, alcohol and guns should be honored. Gun laws are only as strong as the neighboring state’s weakest gun laws.
5) Continued efforts should be made to update and expand access for gun dealers to the tools they need to prevent them from selling a gun to the wrong buyer.
6) A background check must be mandatory for all gun sales.
7) Individuals should be able to sue gun manufacturers when safety is ignored over profits. The courts are capable of sorting that out and lawsuits, while burdensome, drive innovation—if for no other reason but to prevent the next lawsuit—see corporate scandals where companies that violate rights or laws become leaders in defending rights and developing effective policies.
8) The following categories of people should be banned from purchasing a gun in every state: All persons convicted of a violent crime, anyone under a restraining order for violent behavior, anyone deemed by a psychologist to be a threat to themselves or others (a second psychologist could remove this but would have some level of liability), anyone on a terrorist watch list. Again, the appeals process should be made available, low cost and if an error was made, costs recouped.
9) As part of an infrastructure bill, rural America needs access to broadband and law enforcement needs to be provided with the tools to perfect the data base that holds the names of people who can’t buy a gun.
10) Some government entity must be funded to study the causes and effects and the prevention of gun violence.
There has to be flexibility and making sure systems are effective. A poorly working system must be able to be replaced and things that work must be able to be duplicated. Follow the data. Acknowledge that the gun debate gets silly. Phrases like “assault weapons,” “semi/full auto,” “armor piercing,” “cop killers” are thrown around too much and can be hard to properly define. And the people throwing them around often don’t know what they’re talking about.
Law abiding citizens, properly trained how to safely use and store weapons to protect themselves and the public, have a right to protect themselves from armed, dangerous people. Much can be done with writing punitive consequences for irresponsible behavior, such as fines or even jail time for reckless endangerment if a child is killed by a gun in the home that is left unsecured. This will promote safer behavior like properly storing guns and ammunition when the gun isn’t being used.
Gun enthusiasts can (and often do) hinder these things from happening but it’s the gun manufacturers who pay a lot of money to prevent any meaningful action that they fear will injure their profits. But their profits are not the government’s problem. The government has two jobs to do where guns are concerned: protect the right of law abiding citizens to buy a gun and protect law abiding citizens from being shot by a gun.
Finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that gun control advocates should stop attacking the National Rifle Association (NRA). Their executives are like modern urban terrorists. They hide among the people. You can’t attack them without it feeling as if you are attacking everyday gun owners—their members. It’s time to name the gun manufacturers and target their individual behaviors. The NRA feeds off of attacks. It’s time to starve that beast. This conversation will continue.
-Adam James is the editor-in-chief of Majority 60 and a political scientist. Before founding “M60” as a place for Democratic movers and shakers to meet and discuss important topics, he traveled the United States while earning his MBA and later his MA in political science. He now lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife. Follow him on Twitter @adamjamesm60 Majority 60 was founded in 2016.