I have not been personally touched by gun violence, at least not so far. You never know how close you might be to the consequences of one split-second bad decision.
For example, the other night my wife and I went up the hill to Virginia City for some music at a popular bar and pizza place. Virginia City is a tourist town that sells itself as a throwback to the mythic Old West, complete with strolling, period-costumed townsfolk, saloon girls, a comedic prospector and his burro, and gun-fighters. The concert, appropriately enough, was a quintessential country western band—cowboy hats, Texas twang, and steel guitar.
I noticed two random guys in the crowd caring side arms, simple little holsters clipped to their belts. A six-gun knock-off might have been more suited to Virginia City, but they wore humorless, black thirty-eights that could have been extruded from a 3D printer.
I had never seen these two before in my life, so the only thing I knew about them was what I saw—nothing about their life history, mental state, current life situation, or even how much they had to drink.
But as they passed by a couple of times, beers in hand, I couldn’t help wondering what went through their minds as they dressed to go out. Let’s go to a jam-packed bar, music so loud you had to shout, everybody drinking to their own personal stopping point, or beyond. And let’s bring our guns. The point isn’t a facetious “What could possibly go wrong,” but the infinitesimal chance of anything involving those guns going right.
And then there is El Paso, much further away than Virginia City but much closer in my life because that is where my daughter and three grandchildren live. They are, along with being the light of my life, Mexican-American. Two years ago a young man drove all the way across Texas to a Walmart in El Paso to shoot and kill Mexicans. He succeeded, as you can tell from the names on the memorial in the parking lot. Had my daughter, my eldest grandson, and the two youngest ones, five and three, been there, they would have been his targets too.
But they weren’t. Though they live in the same general area, another Walmart is closer to their house. But who knows? The victims were there because of those small choices we all make, or turns in the road we take, every day of our lives.
The apprehension and fear I feel thinking about this remotest of possibilities is real, but nothing at all compared to the pain, suffering, and grief our country’s relentless flood of gun violence is causing.
We live in a country where 316 people are shot every day. One hundred and six of them die, and 210 survive. Of the fatalities, 39 are murdered, 64 die from gun suicide, and the rest die in accidents or under other circumstances.
We’ve had to create a special category of killing—mass shootings—to describe this reality. The cutoff point to qualify is four people being shot, including killed and wounded, but not counting the shooter.
During the first three weeks of June this year there were 56 mass shootings in our country, or almost three a day. Sixty-three people died, and 263 were wounded. There was nothing exceptional about this. It was simply a slice of what goes on week in and week out.
As appalling as it is, I do not think anything I or anyone else can say will stop this in its tracks. But in lieu of doing nothing, I have a modest proposal, a change in how we regard gun ownership that might nudge this titanic ocean liner just a little bit off its current course.
There are two realities to acknowledge. First, the statistics are telling us too many of the wrong people have guns, and are using them. The crux of the solution is to determine who the wrong people are, and keep guns away from them.
To name a few: criminals for whom guns are the tools of the trade; terrorists; the young men in our cities and towns who gun each other down for reasons that only make sense to them; the mentally ill, which includes not only those divorced from reality but individuals who take fatal retribution for slights ranging from traffic incidents to rejection by a spouse, parent, or girlfriend; and those who think their only recourse is suicide, but might be wrong, or who had no business making that decision in the first place.
The other reality is that as citizens of this country everyone has the right to keep and bear arms—to own guns. The courts have put this on par with freedom of speech, assembly, and other basic, constitutional rights.
If we can’t see the critical role of guns in all this, and if we regard the Second Amendment as an untouchable absolute, then there is nothing more to do than sit by and watch. On the other hand—and this might well be the only new thing I have to say here—what about accepting the expansive interpretation of the Second Amendment, and in return gun owners acknowledge that along with this inviolable right comes a commensurate, new level of responsibility?
This does put an added burden on gun owners, but the right to bear arms is unique among rights because—as we see all around us—it confers on the owner the capability to deprive fellow citizens of the most basic of all rights, their right to life. It is not at all unreasonable to ask for something above and beyond in return. Why not take pride in both gun ownership and in doing your part to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people?
The first step is knowing what guns exist and who has them. Yes, some sort of registration would be unavoidable, not to mention tracking guns from manufacture through successive owners. That means a list, or in modern terms a database, possibly run by the government but why not explore the idea of an independent registry, free from political influence?
Registration would also include demonstrating knowledge and competence in the proper use and security of firearms, and the granting of a license recognizing this accomplishment.
Gun registration has always been feared as the first step toward confiscation, which is impractical to the point of impossibility. So is identifying each and every wrong person. If nothing else, they often don’t make themselves known until after the fact, until after they use a gun to demonstrate their unfitness.
We already have in place an uneven system that purports to keep guns from felons, domestic abusers, or the mentally ill but the plain facts show how inadequate these efforts are.
We need to do better, and we need to start somewhere. The first pass-fail test would be the willingness to declare yourself as a gun owner, and accept the higher level of responsibility that comes with the Second Amendment. At this basic level, anyone refusing to take on this responsibility would, by definition, be the wrong person to own a gun.
The next, and crucial step would be a broad and concerted effort by society to reward the acceptance of the new level of responsibility, and punish its rejection. We can’t leave enforcing qualifications on gun ownership to law enforcement without a commitment from the rest of us to the concept of the Second Amendment as a special right, which carries with it an elevated responsibility for the safety and well-being of our fellow citizens.
This is for sure a huge, expensive, complicated mountain to climb. But if we can get our minds around 106 dead bodies a day, and 210 people shattered and maimed, taking the first steps toward moving the country to a better place just might be easier than we think.
Erich Obermayr is an author, community activist, and career archaeologist specializing in sharing historical and archaeological research with the public. He writes about Nevada politics and social issues. He lives in Silver City, Nevada, with his wife.
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