Shooting holes in the Constitution: some thoughts on guns and violence

Recently, like many Americans, I’ve been thinking about the issue of guns in civil society. The tragic shooting in Tucson certainly focused attention on the topic, as did a story on National Public Radio that identified the United States as the source of most of the guns being used by cartels in the Mexican drug wars, a story that aired days before we visited friends whose ranch is just a few miles from the Rio Grande. But other, more personal circumstances also got me thinking, like the three different episodes of gun violence, or the threat of gun violence, occurred during the past semester on the college campuses (2,000 miles apart) where two of our children are students. And all this happened before our first bison harvest at Madroño Ranch this past Monday, in which two 1,500-pound animals were felled by single shots from a .270 rifle.

Full disclosure: I don’t own a gun myself, although we have a gun safe well stocked with rifles and shotguns at the ranch. (They mostly belong to our son.) My grandfather taught me to shoot with a pellet gun, an activity which he oversaw carefully and I enjoyed mightily. I still take pleasure in target practice and found, the one time I tried it, that shooting skeet was a fine way to while away an afternoon. I don’t hunt and don’t expect that I ever will, although I have no objection to ethical hunting. I’ve thought that it might be wise to have a pistol when I wander around the ranch, in case one of the dogs riles up a pack of feral hogs and brings them back to me. My fear of shooting my own dog is sharper than my fear of rampaging pigs, however, and I remain pistol-less.

While there’s been no change in the number of guns I own, my thinking about guns has changed considerably over the last few years, to wit: I’ve concluded that there’s a difference between urban guns and rural guns. (Yes, yes, hold your applause.) A gun is a necessary tool on a ranch or farm. I’m very grateful that Robert, the ranch’s redoubtable manager, is an excellent shot. If the bulls we harvested this week felt any pain, it was less than momentary; they were dead quite literally within a couple of seconds.

And then there’s the issue of self-defense. A friend recently told me about an encounter he’d had on his remote South Texas ranch with an armed and heavily tattooed non-English-speaking trespasser he suspected of being a member of the fearsome MS-13 gang. My friend didn’t have a firearm at hand, but fortunately, after a tense exchange, the trespasser left. “I’ve never felt so naked,” my friend said. I understand: I, too, would have wanted some clothing in that situation.

And yet, and yet… we recently saw and thoroughly enjoyed the Coen brothers’ adaptation of True Grit. That is, Martin saw it; I had my hands over my eyes during several violent scenes. Even so, I loved the movie. At the same time, I made a new connection: imbedded in the myth of the American West is the image of the lone gunman, meting out swift and violent justice. No amount of regulation is going to smother the breathe from that compelling image.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for intelligent gun control. I’ve never felt so naked as the day that a student opened fire on the UT Austin campus a block from the room where our son Tito was in class. But I emphatically would not have felt more clothed if, as a bill passed by the Texas Senate in 2009 proposed, his fellow students been permitted to carry concealed handguns. Guns do not belong on campuses. Or in the hands of the mentally ill. Anyone who wants to own a gun has a responsibility to register, and law enforcement agencies should be able to trace every gun to its owner. Anyone who wants to buy an automatic or semi-automatic weapon should have to jump through a lot more hoops than a weekend hunter does. Gun shows should be heavily regulated. But the image of that lone, justice-seeking gunman is more powerful than any regulation. Did I walk out of True Grit disgusted by its glorification of violence? Of course not: I loved it, even as I was distressed by some of it. The story is part of my identity as a westerner, as a Texan.

On Wednesday, as I was wrestling with this post, Martin received a membership solicitation from the NRA. I suspect that the trigger for this unlikely offer must be the fact that he recently purchased from a copy of Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Meditations on Hunting, the introduction of which was written by a visiting professor of environmental perception at Dartmouth College—not exactly a rip-roarin’ shoot-’em-up. If I’m correct, the NRA’s tracking mechanisms qualify as spooky at best, and maybe terrifying, but also revelatory of a mentality that refuses to see any kind of subtlety or gradation of perception.

Here’s the opening salvo of that membership solicitation: “Your constitutional right to own a gun is under attack by hundreds of anti-gun politicians, global gun ban diplomats at the U.N., militant anti-hunting extremists, radical billionaires and the freedom-hating Hollywood elite.”

The letter consistently associates freedom with gun ownership; restricting gun ownership equals restricting personal freedom. “Remember: the NRA is the one firewall that stands between our Second Amendment rights and those who would take our freedoms away.” Freedom, in this view, has nothing to do with national service, with love of country and fellow-citizens, with restraint or knowledge or self-discipline.

I visited the NRA website and found it even more appalling than its fear-mongering letter. Of the assault in Tucson, it says: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of this senseless tragedy, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords, and their families during this difficult time. We join the rest of the country in praying for the quick recovery of those injured.” There was no condemnation of the gunman who perpetrated the senseless tragedy. There was no call for self-examination. There was no exhortation to the faithful to adhere to any code of responsibility or ethics. I found nothing that encouraged gun-owner restraint or training, or an acknowledgment of the enormous social responsibility that comes with owning a gun.

I did find a persistent paranoia that encourages NRA members and sympathizers to view strangers as threatening and potentially aggressive. I did find—even as someone with a sympathetic view of some gun use—a willful and destructive distortion of that figure so many Americans love: Rooster Cogburn, the courageous gunman who takes the law into his own hands and then rides off into the empty landscape. Many of us love Rooster, yes, but his place is in the mythic past, not in the increasingly urban present.

I know and respect—and even love—individual members of the NRA; my grandfather was one of them. I went to its site in hopes of finding something to change my mind about gun control. But I left loathing the rhetoric the NRA has adopted in recent years. (In this regard, I highly recommend Jill Lepore’s excellent article “The Commandments,” about the way various groups, including the NRA, have sought to interpret the Constitution, in the January 17 issue of The New Yorker, and thank our daughter Elizabeth for bringing it to my attention.) To encourage people to think that their fellow citizens are their enemies is surely to unravel the careful work of the Constitution, which recognizes the precarious balance inherent in a federalist system, a balance requiring trust, self-restraint, and mutual good will among its participants. So while calls for legislation are important in curbing American’s extravagant gun violence, they aren’t enough: we need to call the NRA’s violent distortions of the Constitution to account. Maybe guns don’t kill people: maybe it’s NRA rhetoric that kills people.

What we’re reading
Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ
Martin: Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

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4 Responses to Shooting holes in the Constitution: some thoughts on guns and violence

  1. Julie says:

    What will it take to break the back of the NRA?

  2. Nancy says:

    Amen. Agree wholeheartedly with your article.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I experience periodic bouts of clinical depression, which means I am classified as "mentally ill."

    Does that mean I shouldn't own a gun?

    If so, what should I do with the 2 shotguns and 2 rifles I now own?

  4. Heather and Martin says:

    To Anonymous: That's an excellent question and it points precisely to the reason I see legislation as an inefficient (though necessary)tool to promote more responsible gun ownership. Perhaps more important than legislation is a conversation within the community of gun owners what the right to bear arms in the 21st century looks like. Just because a person has a right doesn't mean that right should always be exercised. For example, some people choose to give up their drivers' licenses as they get older because they judge themselves to be a danger to other people on the road–and they make this choice even when they have valid licenses and even though it restricts their mobility. Surely it's in society's best interests to promote the idea that willingly laying aside a right is an honorable option. I see nothing in NRA rhetoric that encourages that kind of conversation; if anything, it seems to trigger immediate accusations of conspiracies by the liberal elite to ban all guns. As to your own situation, of course I can't say what you should do. But I hope that you're able to have a conversation in which the setting aside your right to your guns is an honorable option, should a reasonable community consider it in your and its best interest that you do so.

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