It should be patently obvious that the arguments involved in the discussion about the second amendment to the constitution, and about gun rights and gun control in the United States, have tended to greatly oversimplify reality. And the simplification goes well beyond such claims as the slippery slope paranoia that any restrictions will eventually lead to confiscation and the competing wishful thinking that a single piece of legislation—an assault weapons ban or universal background checks or universal open-carry or smarter guns—will solve almost all of our problems with gun violence. We also tend to greatly oversimplify the human factors.
My own exposure to guns began relatively early in my life, which means that my experiences have spanned many decades and a variety of activities. I’ve also known many different types of gun owners and users. When I was in my early teens my step-father took my sister and I out into the oak-forested foothills of the Sierra Nevadas to fire a rifle at targets of opportunity, whatever was available. It wasn’t hunting, just target practice, and we didn’t shoot at anything that moved. It simply involved getting familiar with loading and aiming and pulling the trigger and getting some outdoor exercise. We didn’t do it often.
In high school I was in Junior ROTC. This required knowledge of a variety of military weaponry, and special familiarity with one surplus weapon that the army apparently had in abundance, the M1 Garand rifle that was standard issue during World War II. This is a relatively heavy 30-caliber semiautomatic long rifle. Its heft and balance and the wooden stock which encloses most of its barrel means it remains popular with honor guards and military drill teams even today. We didn’t fire the M1s, of course, we only cleaned them, marched with them, and learned the standard movements of individual arms drill. I was, however, one of the members of our school’s fifteen-man rifle team, which competed using fairly ordinary bolt-action 22-caliber rifles.
Therefore, by the time I volunteered for three years of military service I was already fairly familiar with guns. After boot camp there were two weeks of basic infantry training, which included target practice using the M1 Garand and a few other isolated experiences such as firing a 50-caliber machine gun and throwing a live hand grenade—interesting, but nothing I would spend money to repeat. I went from that into months of training to repair military radios, and although I spent nine months in Vietnam, the only time I held a weapon after that was when I was assigned to night-time sentry duty.
My mixed exposure to a variety of weapons is matched by experiences with a variety of people who own and use them. There are several types of these, exhibiting very different attitudes regarding their guns. For example, there are those who fire weapons almost entirely at targets at a firing range. Start with serious target shooters, some of whom are professionals. They choose the characteristics of their weapons to maximize accuracy. They tend to use manual bolt-action long rifles to better control the path of the bullet and to avoid the vibration induced when a semiautomatic weapon ejects a cartridge. They would be no more likely to use an AR-15 than a skeet shooter would be to use a sawed-off shotgun. On the other hand, there are recreational shooters who want to hit the target, but who are mostly in it for the sheer experience of firing a gun, perhaps even a variety of guns, including the AR-15 and other popular types. These include users who post pictures or videos online showing them firing rapidly, often with closeups of the gun itself. The gun, not the target or accuracy, is emphasized. At the extreme end of this group are the shooters who use bump stocks or other modifications to experience the thrill of fully automatic fire.
Then there are the hunters. In this case there are at least three sub-groups. We still have subsistence hunters, the ones who actually eat the animals they hunt or who use guns to kill wild predators who threaten them or their livestock. Their weapons of preference, depending on the purpose and the prey, are bolt-action rifles or shotguns. The intent is to kill with as few shots as possible, and from a distance. For them, accuracy is again a major goal. A second group of hunters, who sometimes also eat parts of their prey, are the trophy hunters. For these people the intent is, again, to kill quickly, with as few shots as possible. Again the weapon of choice tends to be the bolt-action rifle. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of trophy hunters, but I recognize that they, and the subsistence hunters, have much in common with the serious target shooters. Their weapons are chosen to fulfill a specific purpose.
The third group of hunter-types are epitomized by a group I knew in the military. These men would gather whatever weapons they could find, from rifles to assault weapons to pistols, and would go out into the hills to shoot at whatever they decided would make a good target. Using the title “hunter” for such a group could be inappropriate, as indicated by a statement I heard from one of these men after one of their “hunts”. He said, in a matter-of-fact comment accompanied by a smile, that “when you hit a squirrel with a 45-caliber slug, there’s not much left.” I doubt this group ever shot anything larger than a skunk or carried back any part of anything they killed. As with recreational target shooters, the idea is primarily to enjoy shooting, not to accomplish any specific purpose, and the weapon of choice could be anything, although some weapons are clearly more cool than others. Some isolated locations outside of cities are littered with bullets and casings left behind by such groups.
With such a wide variety of gun users in the United States, and with each group or sub-group having different reasons for owning and choosing their guns, how can we generalize about them and the NRA?One big problem with gun ownership, illustrated by many common attitudes held by recreational hunters and recreational target shooters, is that the concept of the “coolness” of certain guns is largely divorced from dedicated purposes such as serious target shooting and subsistence hunting. But when the National Rifle Association and its allies defend gun rights, they talk about supporting serious hunters (but notably, rarely about trophy hunters) and about another group, the self-defenders who own a gun to protect themselves. They don’t mention the small percentage of gun purchasers whose primary motivation is to collect and display and fire specific guns because they are “cool”—for example, because they are rapid-fire military carbines like those used in movies, or because they are historically significant, or because they use high-caliber ammunition.
It is important to recognize this because the NRA position on gun control is driven primarily by two constituencies that they rarely mention. One is gun manufacturers, the companies that have in recent decades provided the bulk of the funding that keeps the NRA afloat. The second constituency consists of the most devoted of gun fans, the ones who provide the most verbal support and single-issue voting patterns. The manufacturers oppose gun controls of all types because any restrictions on sales would cut into their profits; the devotees oppose them because they want to own the types of “cool” guns, ammo, and accessories that would likely be banned by new restrictions. Both constituencies eagerly help the NRA propagate the slippery slope myth of universal gun confiscation to attract more support, a strategy that has effectively attracted the votes of many ordinary owners who are not devotees but who, for example, simply want to keep one rifle for hunting or a small pistol to stop intruders at home.
The fact is that gun owners are only a small and declining percentage of U.S. citizens (currently about 31 percent), and the variety of reasons they have for gun ownership makes for poll results that go significantly against the NRA’s broad obstructionism. For example, a 2018 Politico.com poll found strong support for gun controls opposed by the NRA: 88 percent for background checks on all gun sales, 78 percent for a three-day waiting period, and 68 percent for bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. A Quinnipiac University National poll found similar results.
Yes, the NRA and their supporters like to pretend that they are keeping legitimate hunters and home-defenders away from the edge of the slippery slope. But in fact they are only defending two highly limited privileges desired by two relatively small populations: The ability of gun manufacturers to maintain their markets, and the ability of gun enthusiasts to purchase whatever destructive toys they desire. Note that these are indeed privileges, not rights; the Supreme Court has repeatedly stated that the “right to bear arms” is not absolute. The position of the NRA, however, is absolute, despite the continuing human damage that their policies are causing in our country, not only the mass shootings that occur all too frequently but the even more destructive daily toll of suicides, accidental shootings, and murders and other crime-related incidents. We need to limit the NRA’s influence and apply some reasonable reality-based controls to our all-too-free market in weapons.