Want to really piss off the gun crowd? Refer to guns as ‘toys.’ I did it in a recent column and the gun folks went bonkers – called me all kinds of names, used it as the penultimate ‘proof’ that Mike the Gun Guy is really an enemy of the 2nd Amendment, and so forth. So I thought I would spend a few paragraphs explaining the reasons for the remarkable vitriol that ‘guns as toys’ provokes, because it says a great deal about why the two sides in the gun safety debate have such difficulty coming together on anything that even faintly smacks of a similar point of view.
I was eight years old in 1952 when I got my first Daisy Red Ryder by sending in ten dollars and an advertisement from the Boy Scout magazine, Boys’ Life. I spent thousands of hours playing Cowboys and Indians with that gun in my back yard, and so did all the other boys. When I was ten years old I joined the NRA so that I could shoot 22-caliber, bolt-action training rifles that the government gave my brother’s rifle team that practiced in the shooting range of his junior high school located in the middle of Washington, D.C. I knew those guns were real and that my Red Ryder was a toy. But I got that same, enjoyable feeling when I played with one or shot the other, and I still get that same, enjoyable feeling when I go to the gun range today.
Sometime in the 1980s the notion that guns were fun started to be replaced with the idea that guns were a serious and necessary way to protect us from crime. These cultural chickens came home to roost during the Los Angeles riots that broke out after a jury delivered its ‘not guilty’ verdict to the cops who beat up Rodney King. The second night of the riots a television crew filmed several Black youths pulling a guy out of his car and beating him senseless as he stumbled across the street. If you owned a gun shop anywhere in the United States, you were able to sell every gun on your shelves the next day.
The NRA ramped up its rhetoric about guns being essential for safety and security during the debates which led to the passage of the Brady Bill and Assault Weapons Ban in 1993-94. And since then, the gun industry and its promoters have wrapped themselves in an almost religious mantra combining love of family, love of freedom and love of guns. Guns are no longer used just for hunting and sport, they are sacred instruments that sanctify the Biblical requirement to protect ourselves and our families from harm.
Meanwhile, the evidence keeps mounting that gun ownership creates risks in terms of injuries and deaths that no amount of emotion-charged rhetoric can obscure. In terms of morbidity and mortality, guns do much more harm than good. The bogus argument that guns prevent ‘millions’ of crimes from being committed each year just can’t withstand the simple logic stated by Elmore Leonard, “Don’t fool with guns in here, okay? The goddamn piece’s liable to go off.” But the fact that it’s liable to go off, the way it went off in Hayden, ID, isn’t necessarily a reason to prohibit or even control ownership of guns. After all, nobody argues about the ‘benefits’ of smoking, but people can still go into the corner drugstore and buy their cigarettes.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that gun owners are stupid or irrational when they defend their right to own guns. But maybe it’s time to stop thinking that appealing to logic and citing ‘facts’ about gun violence will carry the day. I’m willing to accept the risks of gun ownership for the simple reason that I like my guns. And like most risks, I can’t believe that something bad will ever happen to me. Then again, my doctor keeps telling me to lose weight but that piece of lemon-meringue pie looks just too good to pass up.