My recent posting about the April 19 ceremony at the Oklahoma City National Memorial commemorating the 15th anniversary of the bombing of the federal building that killed 168 people ("Pondering Timothy McVeigh's Lethal Legacy") generated more than 465 comments from HuffPost readers, far more than any for the approximately 100 postings I've written since my friend Arianna Huffington invited me to contribute to her start-up blogging venture five years ago this month.
As any HuffPost blogger quickly learns, readers' reaction runs the gamut from commendation to condemnation, the latter often in language you'd only hear in a biker's bar (at first, it was a bit unsettling, but now I tell my wife it's like when the Mafia tells the family and associates of the guy they've just rubbed out, "Don't take it personally, it's just business.")
Be that as it may, one of the most interesting responses came in a letter from Jim Coyne, a classmate of mine at a Catholic liberal arts college in Minnesota run by Benedictine monks. He's a retired advertising executive who splits his time between homes in New York City and Carbondale, Pa.
As you will see, he has an intimate knowledge of firearms, as I once did while shooting squirrels, rabbits and pheasants on our farm in Minnesota. But I've rarely used a firearm since I was in the military -- I qualified as expert with the .45-cal. pistol in Army officers school -- except for a few duck and goose-hunting expeditions on the Chesapeake Bay. Anyway, his response is thoughtful and thought-provoking, to say the least. I think you'll find it interesting. Here it is:
I happen to share your concern about the lethal groundswell in the firearms community, for reasons at least as cogent as yours. I don't need to apologize to you, a fellow Midwesterner, for my lifelong involvement with guns. We -- or at least I -- grew up with a shotgun and a .22 rifle standing next to the umbrella in the hallway. That all went away when I came to New York City in 1959. In the fall of 1986, however, I started going back to South Dakota to hunt pheasants again near my hometown, and gradually I acquired a number of guns I'd fancied ever since boyhood. I've been licensed in NYC (no easy thing) and Connecticut, and now in Pennsylvania (much easier).
Finding a place to shoot has never been easy for a Manhattan resident. It involves driving considerable distances into the exurban environs to find a "sportsmen's club," which then requires an annual membership, which further requires each member be an NRA member in order for the club to cover its liability insurance policy as provided by the NRA.
So there I was, schizoid -- the liberal, peace-loving, college-educated guy to my friends and colleagues on Madison Avenue -- while at the gun club I was the gun-toting, pistol packing, rifle loony from Manhattan. If my peacenik, furcoat-hating, Bambi-loving pals in the City knew of my shooting self, it could cost me work; whereas to the guys at the club -- the right-leaning, dyed-in-the-wool Second Amendment fanatics, subtly racist, suspiciously fascistic -- I had to pretend I still had cowflop on my boots from South Dakota. (I shouldn't overstate this -- I usually just clammed up whenever talk drifted far right-ward.)
For the past 24 years I've been a classic man in the middle, and I've seen close-up how effective the NRA is with its propaganda espousing "liberty" and "freedom." Since President Obama's election, the NRA response has been nearly hysterical, and obviously it has had a large role in the growth of the Tea Party movement. The gun dealers loved it, however; rifles, ammo, and every primer for reloading was swept off the dealers shelves within days of the election, and stayed off until late last year.
Through the years I've subscribed to a number of gun magazines, some of which I continue to read, and since the election I've witnessed a growing number of articles that comment on "the current administration" and what a menace it is to the rights of the readership if allowed to prevail.
The ballot box is one thing, and I've put my trust in it. But about a year ago I began to notice that more and more of these articles aren't dealing with topics of high precision accuracy, or with finely-tuned competition rifles (as I favor). No, the emphasis has switched to the semi-automatic platform, the AR-15 and AK-47 -- once disdained by the bench-resters and long-range competitors as blasters and alley sweepers.
Now more articles are being published dealing with how to make modifications to these military-style firearms, how to squeeze more and more accuracy and performance out of them. Just yesterday at the drugstore I found an annual Gun Directory in the magazine rack. In it were listed 30 semi-automatic combat-style rifles, ugly, clad with every conceivable contrivance and gimmick to make each appear more deadly than the next. Deadlier to whom and to what, I ask? Is the citizenry preparing for war? Civil war? The gun press insists on calling these things "sporting rifles," as though a deer hunter or varmint shooter needs a rapid-fire, multi-round semi-automatic weapon basically designed for warfare. Yes, the old right wing double-think is out in full force. And it's scary. Numerous news items on militias and open carry of guns at rallies in the past three months bear me out.
So, yes, I share your concern with where the far right crazies are headed. It's sheer serendipity that I would read your Huffington Post article now. I have no idea how many others have seen both sides of the issue from as close a perspective as I have, but I'm ready to blow my cover and take a stand. I let my NRA membership lapse shortly after Obama's victory and no longer have any affiliation with any gun club. I never expected to see things turn so far to the right -- I thought the country was en route to new heights of enlightenment. Instead, almost the opposite has happened. In many respects, it's devastating... but certainly challenging.
Whether it was conscious or not, you cited a precept of the gun culture that I discovered early on, one that has confounded me the most -- "Agree with me or I will kill you." Whatever happened to "You may not agree with me, but I will defend to the death your right to disagree?"
On reflection, I must say I didn't find all gunners to be yahoos or racists. But the prevailing ethos is one of intolerance of diversity, disdain for liberalism, and a general insistence on laissez faire politics. Not inconsistent with the Reagan years, when I started organized club shooting. Most shooting is done with discretionary dollars, and for the blue collar guy those dollars often come hard. The notion of having to give up some of that "hard-earned" money to help others less fortunate is as loathsome to Joe Sixpack as it is to Charlie Annuity and Reginald Lockjaw, grandson of the widget inventor.
Nothing new there. What I perceive, and what I find most objectionable, is how thoroughly the NRA has brainwashed every strata of the shooting culture. Like a bad angel, it sits on its members' shoulders, whispering in their ears, filling their brains with a paranoiac fear that first Big Bubba and now Big Bro are gonna take their guns away.
Many guns are, to me, things of beauty -- mechanical marvels, artwork in wood and steel, precision instruments of astounding efficiency. I don't blame the gun, I blame the person wielding it and his or her motives. But to my mind, the NRA's insistence that "any bullet, any gun" be considered equal under the law is a grave error. As a society, we do not need semi-automatic "sporting firearms" designed for small arms combat, and armor-piercing bullets. And we don't need easily-concealable hand guns (remember "Saturday Night Specials?")
What we do need, for the good of the country as a united entity, is a frank dialogue between those who make and sell guns and those who seek to legally limit and control the type of gun available to the public. I believe this requirement can best be met with a National Gun Registration Act, one that would foster gun laws consistent from state-to-state. I've been stumped for a long time at the inconsistency of licensing: if you have to be licensed to drive a car, why shouldn't you be licensed to own a gun?
Obviously, the NRA would never agree to any of this. Their basic interest, in my opinion, is in protecting their bottom line -- not so much the interests of their membership but their industrial clients, the manufacturers and importers who are their bread and butter.
So this may all be blue sky. There are so many guns underground in New York City now that more gun laws probably would only push them deeper. But it has to start somewhere. And that somewhere, for me, is to start firing back at the NRA. Maybe this isn't news. But the subtle poisoning of the public's mind, through the insidious approval of threats of insurrection, should be brought to light. They're there, in the gun press, in the rallies hearing Sarah Palin's cries of "Don't retreat, reload!" And they are serious.
All the best,
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