Debra Marshall: The gun delusion

For the Monitor
Published: 8/6/2017 12:20:06 AM

Okay, I admit it: I grew up shooting guns. And I’m not safe if you’re armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained to use firearms.

Back in the dark ages, the only things anyone had a gun for was to hunt for food, to deal with pests who eluded trapping and were trashing your garden or causing destruction in the barn, and the unlikely time one might need to dispatch a rabid wild critter. Guns stayed in their places unless they were being used for a job – they were tools for acquiring and protecting food, mostly, and you didn’t leave your tools scattered about.

Target shooting was how every dad (back then, it was always a dad) introduced gun safety to their children. The Fish and Game club had a target range – out in the puckerbrush, with a sand bank and many hay bales for safety, in front of which the targets (usually a used tin can – bring your own) were arrayed. When we were physically big enough and emotionally and mentally calm enough, fathers would teach their kids about safe gun-handling, and part of that was learning to target shoot. You can’t learn to use a saw if you never cut something, and you can’t learn to use a gun if you never shoot something.

We also took hunter safety classes, whether we intended to hunt or not. There were lectures and demos: repeated cautions not to rely on the safety catch, not to load a gun until ready to use it; and lessons in how to safely clean a gun – which required solitude, uninterrupted focus and never pointing the gun at anything or anyone we didn’t intend to shoot, even while cleaning it, even after carefully checking that it was unloaded – because that’s how tragic errors happen. And most important: to lock the unloaded, cleaned gun in a gun safe, the ammunition locked in its own, separate safe, with the keys stored elsewhere. A gun is a dangerous tool and you didn’t leave it on any more than you’d leave your table saw running or your cookstove burners lit while you went to the store or took a nap.

Respect for safety

Back here, back then, many people owned a rifle and a shotgun, and we knew to respect those tools no matter in whose house we encountered them. Our training was sufficient that we could judge whether the guns in other houses were being safely handled and we could safely stay in that house.

Once Dad became a policeman he owned a revolver, which started a new cycle in our education. He made sure we each shot his revolver once: He wanted us to understand, viscerally, how powerful it was, how hard to control because of its weight and its recoil; he wanted us to see for ourselves that it was nothing we ever would want to handle.

He explained carefully how anyone casually handling one could accidentally shoot something they didn’t mean to, because there would be a hidden bullet in the live chamber, even after you’d removed the other bullets. Making certain that bullet was removed before doing anything else with the gun was a deadly responsibility.

I’m not safe, if you’re armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained in firearms.

Tools and weapons

For police and military, guns are weapons. The mind-set required to use a weapon is very different from one that can hunt or loves target shooting. We got that – gun tools could be appropriate for regular folks, but weapons regular folks would never need, and should not play with, lest they get burned. The guns that we debate aren’t the guns that are tools – they’re weapons. And a weapon is designed, and intended, to be used to kill another human being.

I’m not safe, if you’re armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained in firearms.

After Dad became ill, he didn’t always have his weapon under perfect control – leaving it in his locked car, then sending me out to fetch it when he remembered. I may even have driven that revolver unknowingly around town running errands for him – a foolish error on my part. I knew Dad had a weapon, and it was my responsibility – as he’d trained me – to be cognizant of the whereabouts and condition of that gun at all times when I was in his space. I dropped the ball; I was thinking about my ill Dad, not about his gun.

Dad’s disease eventually played tricks on his mind. He sometimes saw stuff that wasn’t there. He kept his revolver in the drawer of his bedside table, and not as soon as it should have, it occurred to me that that was very dangerous. I snuck into his room when he was asleep – another foolish thing to do, when a weapon is at the ready to deal with intruders – and took it. The gun, and the ammo, left the building – the only safe storage solution. I had a flashback to when my father removed his father’s decade’s unused guns, when Alzheimer’s was suspected. Even exceptionally well-trained gun owners can quickly become very unsafe gun owners. I was struck by how close to the bone a weapon can become; how someone’s gun can, without warning, become another person’s responsibility.

I’m not safe, and you’re not safe, if either of us is armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained in firearms.

Poor training

Too many weapons are owned by too many poorly trained people. Consider our state representatives who accidentally dropped their loaded, concealed weapons onto the floor in the State House, in rooms filled with other people. They should have had extra, impelling reasons to demonstrate extremely responsible gun ownership. But, Oops, both essentially said.

There’s no excuse – none – for such an accident. Those legislators are clearly not trained properly, and are dangerous. They should not be allowed to own a gun. They were incredibly lucky to have not shot someone, and they shouldn’t be given a second chance. Being sternly spoken to by the presiding legislator was not a sufficient consequence.

A weapon has just one purpose – to kill another human being. We all need to assume, very seriously, that anyone who possesses a weapon has every intention of pointing it at another human and attempting to kill them. Not maybe, not only if they have to – but absolutely. And that any person who carries their weapon around with them intends to do so at any moment, without warning. We would be fools to think otherwise, and fools to think that we won’t be their target.

The fog of conflict

Police and military personnel are trained to shoot other human beings. They train how to identify an actual bad guy, how to decide whether it’s safe to shoot the bad guy, and how to do so without getting shot themselves or killing bystanders. They’re trained to decide when it’s appropriate to shoot another human being.

Both will tell you it’s extremely difficult to shoot another human being. It’s even harder to do it right – just read the news to see how many times it goes wrong, how many times these specially trained folks do it wrong – or can’t do it at all.

Specialized training doesn’t consist of taking pot-shots at a human-outline target in an indoor target shooting range. I don’t care what the range instructor told you – he lied. If you aren’t a member of a police force, military unit or related government agency with specialized weapons training, you have NOT received the training you need to be armed with a weapon and for me to be safe anywhere near you.

People who are so afraid that they need a weapon to feel safe aren’t going to lock up their guns, even at home. If you think you’re going to have to protect yourself at any moment from a home invasion, you don’t want to have to go fetch the key to the gun safe, then go open the gun safe, then go get the key for the ammo, then go get the ammo, then load the gun before shooting at the invaders. Those people feel righteously justified keeping their loaded guns at their sides; or under their beds when they sleep; or maybe even casually placed on a coffee table or countertop while they use the bathroom, or talk on the phone, or take a shower, or change a diaper, or make supper. And when they enter a location they consider dangerous – the grocery store, a theater, or the bank – they’ll easily decide it’s okay to unbuckle the strap that keeps their gun from launching out of the holster if the wearer moves wrong; or leave their little pistol in their purse on the shopping cart seat – aimed at who knows who? The seconds it takes to unbuckle, unsnap, undo the strap, retrieve the gun, could mean the difference between being the hero and being shot, right? And they won’t drop the gun accidentally. No, of course not. That never happens.

Those people wouldn’t do any of those things if they’d been properly trained. If they had been properly trained, they wouldn’t own weapons, because the training would convince them that they – as civilians, as parents, as responsible community members - can’t possibly own a weapon and safely manage it, much less effectively and safely use it.

The lies they tell

Parties with vested interests in scared people’s money tell all sorts of lies. What they never tell is that in a shooting situation, there’s chaos and loud noise, it’s often impossible to identify, or even see, the bad guy, that while the weapon owner’s fumbling in their purse or under their coat, or in the waistband of their pants (an excellent place to store a loaded weapon if you want to shoot your own butt or junk), or under their bed, they’re likely to get shot in the head or the balls. No one tells them that when they’re scared to death, their hand will shake, they won’t be able to get the safety off, or that once they do, they won’t be able to aim accurately, and their eyes will be full of tears, or smoke, or cold sweat, and they’ll be soiling themselves, and they won’t be able to stand and aim because they’ll be lying on the floor hiding, or surrounded by people bumping and trampling them, and they won’t be able to raise their heads safely.

No one tells them. No one tells them that policemen and military who are trained, and who receive continual training so it can’t grow stale, in a similar situation would not be able to do what these gun owners imagine they can do. And no one tells them that if they’re unexpectedly successful – if they somehow, against all odds, manage to get their weapon out and blast the bad guy and no one else in the process – if they’re good people, they’ll be haunted by that act for the rest of their lives.

I’m not safe, and you’re not safe, if either of us is armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained in firearms.

Blah, blah, blah “the threat to the Second Amendment.” The threat to all our lives should take precedence. The folks who wrote the Second Amendment didn’t live in a time when civilians were trying to kill each other for reasons that would have made no more sense to them than it does to us.

The framers wanted to be sure the citizenry could form a militia – they were all about rebelling against their king, after all – but I doubt they’d think it okay that citizens own tanks, and military firepower, and bombs, and missile launchers, and the rest of the gear we’d need to actually fight a war or defend ourselves against a modern military force. They weren’t seers.

Sometimes we must adjust our understanding of the original intent to fit the modern reality, and maybe even re-write the words. The framers would be the first to say so, and several did, in fact. If you want an 18th-century rifle or musket, which is what the framers had in mind for citizen’s weaponry, I support your right to it. If you’re going to be a stickler for original intent, then live with the actual original intent.

No forgiveness

Back in the real world, the morbidly frightened, the untrained, racists, self-proclaimed heroes, and anyone with any other serious impediment to safe use must not have free access to weapons. We need a stringent, mandatory national training program designed to cover specifically the type of gun you want to own, a prerequisite to owning any gun – even if you inherited it, Bubba, skill and safety isn’t passed in the genes. We need a no-forgiveness policy: You do something dangerous with your gun, you lose all gun privileges forever – immediately. No exceptions.

A friend suggested that the Second Amendment says the citizenry can own guns, but it says nothing about being able to keep weapons in the home. In fact, it may be historically more accurate to store them in a community armory.

So, folks who own weapons, keep them in a locked armory. If you want to use one, you have to check it out – you get possession of it for a certain period of time, depending on what you’re planning to do with it. Target shooting or sharp-shooting contest, maybe a weekend, then you bring it back; threatening the neighbor who’s making you crazy, flashing it meaningfully when you go to pay your property taxes, dropping it on the floor of the State House – maybe you only get to take it for half an hour. Zombie apocalypse – you don’t have to bring it back until afterward.

The NRA used to be the association of gun safety and sensible gun use. When did we decide that free ownership of any type of gun was more important than public safety? When did it become okay for gun owners to scare the bejeezus out of the rest of us? Radical, irresponsible weapon ownership is seriously threatening my constitutional right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the right to live without fear, the right to feel safe in my home, and in the public and private spaces of our towns.

I’m not safe, and you’re not safe, if either of us is armed; and you’re deluding yourself if you think you’re well-trained in firearms.

(Debra Marshall lives in Wilmot. She blogs at

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