Mobile, Alabama is sticky in June, and the summer of 2003 was no different. The heat didn’t bother me; I was 19, bullet proof, and had spent the last six years working with my Dad outdoors in the Arizona summers building swimming pools. Even with the humidity the southern sun was easy to bear, but never being dry…that was taking some getting used to. I’d been there 13 days, a volunteer paired with a more experienced trainer, going door-to-door in a bad part of town for a cause I believed in . . .
We were almost done when we noticed them following us. Three kids, hanging about three houses back from us. We’d go to the next house, knock on the door, then look back to see they’d moved up. Not getting closer, but not letting us get any further away.
The last house wasn’t far from our car, and we closed the distance fast. They were faster. A voice called to us from behind, asking what we were doing. We turned to face them: three kids, no older than thirteen, standing about eight feet away. The one in the middle had a smile on his face, playing it cool, asking what we were talking to people about. With one practiced motion the game ended, and I found myself staring down the barrel of a small silver handgun.
* * *
My grandfather bought his first gun when he was about twelve. After saving up his money he purchased a .22 rifle from the local hardware store without his parent’s permission, and then hid it in the barn so they wouldn’t find it. When my Dad was in high school, it was common for students and faculty to bring shotguns to school so they could go dove hunting after class. I grew up learning gun safety. We had three in the house, a deer rifle, a shotgun, and a revolver, so of course I would be taught. From Boy Scouts, from hunter safety classes, and most importantly, from my family showing me how adults behave around dangerous things. I got my first bb gun at nine and my first rifle, a .22, when I was thirteen, I was of course excited. But they were not mystical, sinister, or marvelous. They were normal.
That may seem bizarre to some, sick to others. What parent would expose their children to such dangers? But for millions of Americans it’s the story of growing up, of coming of age, of tradition, heritage, and bonding. For millions of Americans, it’s their story. That’s why we fight, and that’s why we win. Because at the end of the day we don’t simply have facts on our side, which we do. Nor do we only have reason and law, which again favors us. But because what ultimately drives success isn’t money, influence, or power. Those are just tools. What drives success is commitment, the slow, steady, commitment of a lifetime.
And it’s my story.
* * *
A Congressional report places the number of guns in America at roughly 300 million.1 That same report found that in 2009 there were 10,301 firearm related homicides, and 326,000 gun related crimes. These numbers are not new, we hear them all the time, and every time there is a high profile shooting they are brought out to be evidence that are awash with guns, that we are diseased with guns. That there are simply too many machines that are designed to kill and kill quickly, and the results are inevitable.
But what these numbers also tell us is that in 2009, 99.999% of guns were not used in crimes. That 99.99997% of guns in America were not used to murder someone. In fact, that same Congressional report cited evidence that guns were used in self-defense between 80,000 and 2.5 million times a year. In other words, at a minimum a gun in America was more than twice as likely to be used in self-defense as to kill someone. FBI statistics further found that despite the explosion in popularity of “assault rifle” styled guns in the last decade, gun homicides dropped 39% since 1993, while other gun crimes fell 69%.2
The facts support what gun right voters already know: that guns are not the problem. If the primary purpose and design of guns is to kill, as countless op-eds will attest to every time the issue is raised, then virtually every gun in America fails in that regard. Each charge to ban “assault rifles,” “high capacity magazines,” or whatever else is the object of derision of the day, ultimately is an effort to vilify things that are overwhelmingly used lawfully.
When it’s something tied so closely to heritage and culture for so many, even when a majority of gun owners might support a measure in theory, it’s hard not to see an effort to enact new laws based on the use of .0001% of guns as something else: an effort concerned neither with guns nor crime, but with power, control, and fear.
* * *
Fear is a powerful motivator. The Navy Yard shooting occurred on a Monday, I had just started working somewhere close by and I was on base the Friday before for a conference. When my wife heard about the shooting in the heat of the moment she couldn’t remember if I was supposed to be there that day. Where I actually was had poor cell phone reception, so her calls and texts went unanswered for about half an hour in the thick of it. Just a few months later, during the middle of an exam, I found myself locked down on my campus as “person with a gun” warnings were sent out. For 90 minutes she again had to worry about what might happen. I wish she never had to do that, and I can’t imagine how hard it must be for those who have lost loved ones in such tragic events.
It’s a scary world we live in. Sometimes those fears are real, like the Navy Yard shooting. Other times they are not. When my school was locked down it was eventually determined that an off-duty DC police officer was riding a nearby bus, somebody had seen his empty holster, reported it, and that set off a panic.
In the midst of the lockdown, which occurred late in the evening, a brief discussion was had in our classroom in which several students attempted to comfort several distressed students. Noting the lack of gunfire, the lack of sirens, police helicopters, and various other things, they reasoned that if there was a danger it probably would have manifested itself by then. Perhaps there never even was a person with a gun, just someone overreacting followed by institutional procedure. It might have been something as simple as someone carrying a stick, which in the dark could be mistaken for a gun. Exasperated, one frustrated person responded, “Who would carry a stick? What purpose would they have? You shouldn’t be allowed to carry sticks at night, they should be arrested.”
Never was a gun seen, never was a gun on campus, and certainly never was a shot actually fired. That’s the power of fear.
Gun owners hear a lot about fear. That the NRA has tricked us into being afraid, that we own guns because we live in constant fear of our fellowman that we cling to our guns out of fear. But it wasn’t our ideas, our policies, or even our guns which caused thousands to be afraid that night. It was a mindset, a climate, and a system which attempts to make guns so marginal that even the idea that a gun might be nearby set the wheels in motion.
But while fear is powerful, it ebbs quickly. For long term success you need commitment and dedication, not knee jerk support which will be distracted in a few months.
That’s where we win. Gun owners don’t act as we do because we’re afraid, because we’re reactionary, or because we’re trying to force someone to live differently. The strength of the gun movement is that this is our lifestyle. Whether by heritage or by adoption, it is part of a larger framework of values, of interests, of beliefs, and feeling safe.
Those don’t fade. You don’t lose interest one day in fond memories of your childhood, of habits, hobbies, of wanting to protect your family or raise your children with your same values. You don’t lose interest in who you are.
Some people here call me a gun nut. I don’t think I am, especially not when compared to some of my friends and family. But I am what I am, and if the shoe fits, I’ll wear it. I’m proud of where I come from, who I am, and the rich history and society it allows me to be a part of.
We are the 99.999%, the responsible gun owners. Your friends, your neighbors, your family.