I grew up in a gun culture in southern Virginia, and I hunted. I owned four shotguns, two pistols (one of them a .357 magnum), more .22 caliber rifles than I can remember (a Remington Nylon, Apache black, as I recall, that I loved), a .270 varmint rifle, and maybe even a 30.06. I don't know. Guns were everywhere. Here's a list of the animals I shot with those guns, all legally, and all with fully paid licenses and stamps or whatever paper-work made me field-legal: rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, quail, doves, ducks, grouse, and crows. And one deer.
I shot that deer early in the morning, in my late twenties, walking down a logging road after I'd become disenchanted with hunting, but still felt the peer-group pressure that had pushed me out there. At the bottom of the hill, a creek crossed the road, and a thicket with tangled branches covered a small pool. When the branches moved, I realized the branches were antlers. A seven-point buck. Easiest kill I ever made. It wasn't a fair fight.
I never hunted again. Several years before I killed that deer the sport hadn't felt right for me. But hunting was such a part of my culture that I didn't know how to get out of it even after I'd acknowledged the feelings that ultimately led me to give it up.
So, I understand our hunting culture and the guns the culture needs to survive. I know how to take those guns apart and clean them. And put them back together again. I know how to sight in a deer rifle. There was a time in my life when I could say—and did say—"I love guns."
I can't say that anymore. The gun culture in this country has changed, and it's being commandeered by a violent faction of Americans that I don't recognize. And don't care to know.
I grew up with the Second Amendment in my head because my great, great grandmother was James Madison's cousin, and while my family never talked much about it, we had a bowl that belonged to the Madisons, and so the Madisons, in one way or another, were always around.
And when the Madisons are around, so too are the things that James Madison wrote. I know the Second Amendment, all twenty-seven words of it, and have thought about those words informally for fifty years. You can read the Second Amendment in different ways, but establishing the meaning of these texts always involves a debate. It's not complicated. One reading prevails until another one takes its place. (You can find my take on this process here.)
When I was a boy, owning a firearm jump-started a way of living, a gun-life of responsibility and respect for the awful damage that a firearm could do if it weren't used properly and if it weren't properly controlled.
I had never heard of an assault weapon.
I never purchased a gun out of fear, the kind of fear that Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice-president of the NRA, peddles every day. I never purchased a gun because I thought my government was coming to take my guns away. I never owned a gun because I thought I lived under a dictatorship. I never carried firearms because I feared the impending race wars that LaPierre predicts.
Now, as our gun-makers worry that people like me are walking away from their guns—and we are—they're looking for another kind of customer. The sales numbers for the guns I know, the traditional hunting firearms, are down, way down, and will continue to descend, according to market prognosticators, while the sales for assault weapons are up, and will continue to climb, according to the same prognosticators.
So the current weapons-market has changed dramatically, and the new customers, the arms exhibitionists, don't interest me.
And assault weapons are the new guns on the block.
The NRA knows what they are doing. The organization has "targeted" a potentially violent and already angry faction of Americans for these weapons, and has set out to convince them that they are under attack: from gangs, hurricanes, tornadoes, federal agents, black helicopters, immigrants, and European-style debt riots—LaPierre's phrase, not mine.
As one of my friends recently told me: in the arms industry now, it's all about military-chic. Camo + assault-style weaponry = money.
None of the folks I grew up with, and hunted with, are opposed to universal and painstaking background checks.
None of my folks feel the need to carry a weapon on a school campus or into their places of worship. They don't carry them to Starbucks because the old men that taught me to shoot don't do Starbucks & cinnamon-spiced lattes with a double pump of vanilla.
None of them feel the need to fire over 60 rounds a minute and carry several 30-round magazines with them to the grocery store.
In fact, the one man who taught me the most about guns, a fellow I'll call Ken, told me once, "If you can't drop a deer with one round, you need to put your gun up, and sit beside those folks who can, and learn how to do it."
I killed the only deer I ever killed with one shot. For the deer hunters I know, that's not unusual. It's expected.
So I don't see the need for an assault rifle, but I'm not in the business of banning them. I support the Second Amendment—specifically, I accept Scalia's reading of it in Heller v. Columbia simply because it's the law. I'm not a gun-grabber. I believe that individuals have the right to own guns.
But I believe that American culture has changed since I was a boy, and I believe that the spike we are currently seeing in concealed-carry applications in Arkansas and across the country is not coming from the hunters and recreational marksmen I grew up with.
I believe the new applicants are driven by the fear and paranoia generated by our gun lobbyists. Fear and paranoia—two qualities that should never accompany carrying a gun.
I also believe that owning weapons nowadays has implications that are radically different from those that I confronted when I was a boy. Para-military and patriot groups—dramatically increasing in number, angry, armed, and intentionally misinformed by LaPierre with myths that stoke their bigotry and inflate the bank accounts of gun-makers and sellers—have become the lobbyist's darlings, and they are being used for monetary gain. After all, the number of documented hate groups in this country has increased by 67% since 2000.
I believe that gun-owners like Ken are a vanishing breed. I'd trust Ken with an assault weapon, but Ken doesn't see the need to own one. And so I believe that we need now, more than ever, better enforcement of our existing gun-control laws, more extensive background checks, and an increased attention to preserving our gun-free zones.
Not because I don't support gun ownership, but because I do support it. Because I want the gun culture I knew as a boy to return, even though I'll never be a part of it again.
The table has been turned on responsible gun owners. The radical extremists that the NRA has identified as a market for the gun-manufacturers are destroying the responsible and authentic gun culture that this country once had.
But remember: reasonable advocates for the Second Amendment—almost 75% of the NRA membership and an even higher percentage of the Americans public—constitute the vast majority of our citizenry. Those who demand assault weapons and reduced controls are a faction, a loud faction, but a faction nonetheless.
They've hijacked the national discourse, and we need to take it back.
I honor Madison by standing up for a responsible gun culture, one that recognizes the dangers and responsibilities of carrying a firearm and doesn't cower in the face of intimidating, fear-mongering demagogues like LaPierre and the paramilitary factions he represents.
And whom Madison warned against when he described in The Federalist 10 "the violence of faction."
It's time to take a stand against these violent factions. It's time to support responsible gun control.
Remember: we are the majority, and we need to exercise the rights of that majority. Now.