There is a reason why America has about as many guns as people, and it’s not because millions are terrified of a home invasion or fear drug gangs crossing the Rio Grande. It is a reason “anti-gunners” seldom acknowledge, but it helps explain the rejection of seemingly reasonable firearm safety laws.
It’s that guns are fun.
Take it from me, a blue-state guy. I was raised in Massachusetts, worked as a newspaper reporter and editor, and now I write books. I vote Democratic, mostly. I’m Jewish. Noting I’m bald is only redundant.
I didn’t grow up with guns, and no one I knew in the Boston suburb of Medford did. That guns were bad and gun control good was a given in my professional and social circles. I was never quite such an absolutist, but I didn’t own a gun until December 2015, when I began researching a book about Wyoming’s infamous 1892 range war. To supplement my archival research, I decided to learn two skills: how to ride a horse and how to shoot a gun.
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As it was too cold for riding, I drove to a local gun store and purchased an Italian-made replica of the famous Colt Single Action Army revolver. It’s the gun you see the good guys and bad guys shooting in almost every western TV and movie.
I found an instructor to teach me the fundamentals of my six-shooter and the rules of gun safety. We met in a gravel pit. A half-dozen rectangular steel plates were mounted four feet off the ground. I stood three yards away, cocked the hammer and fired.
The recoil was wicked. The gun almost jumped out of my hands as the barrel swung a foot into the air. The bullet hit the plate, but at three yards I really couldn’t miss.
The instructor repeatedly corrected one novice mistake – I rested my finger on the trigger. Amicably but firmly, he ordered my finger to remain outside the trigger guard until I had the gun pointed at a target, saw what was behind the target, aimed the gun and was ready to fire.
This was interesting. Fun, even. I didn’t feel empowered, or any more masculine, and it wasn’t even exciting, exactly. It was simply interesting. I was learning some new things. How to control a weapon and hit a target, and how to use this famous hand-held machine.
Shooting requires skills similar to golf, basketball, and baseball, sports that of course demand far more physical exertion but depend on the athlete’s command and exact control over arms, legs, feet, and breath.
But here’s the thing. The worst a basketball will do is break a finger. A nimble victim can dodge a falling golf club or swinging baseball bat. My carefully crafted .45-caliber 1911, on other hand, was originally designed to kill, and in the wrong hands fast feet won’t save a life.
Guns can be scary. And they are dangerous. Handling and shooting them demands close attention. But like any sport or hobby – think woodworking – the tactile pleasure of loading, aiming, shooting and working on guns can be satisfying, and not just to Americans who still make their living handling tools. For most people, daily work lacks contact with the physical world.
Guns are here to stay. Perhaps common sense gun-safety measures – mandatory lessons for new gun owners (ignorance may be why some leave a loaded gun within reach of a child) or banning sales to anyone on Homeland Security’s no-fly list – would be possible if gun owners could be convinced that ever-tougher regulations would not inevitably follow.
That said, I’m not optimistic there will be a gun-safety “grand bargain.” The nation is divided and guns often mark the border line, even if some of us manage to straddle both sides.
Nathan Gorenstein is a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter and editor and the author of “Tommy Gun Winter: Jewish Gangsters, a Preacher’s Daughter, and the Trial That Shocked 1930s Boston.” Readers may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.