Getting Out From Under the Gun

Like most Americans, I've spent the last few years reading stories about mass shootings in one part of the country or another, each more horrific than the last.
01/15/2013 06:14 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2013
A box of 9mm bullets sits on display at the 35th annual SHOT Show, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Las Vegas. The National Shootin
A box of 9mm bullets sits on display at the 35th annual SHOT Show, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013, in Las Vegas. The National Shooting Sports Foundation was focusing its trade show on products and services new to what it calls a $4.1 billion industry, with a nod to a raging national debate over assault weapons. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Like most Americans, I've spent the last few years reading stories about mass shootings in one part of the country or another, each more horrific than the last. Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora. After every one of them, I thought we, as a country, had reached a tipping point, where we would say "Enough is enough," and finally do something to make the killing stop.

I was wrong each time. The shootings made headlines for a few days, some a few weeks, and then dissipated from our collective consciousness, like ghosts in the night.

Then came Newtown, where the victims were children the same age as my daughter, their photos showing the same gap-toothed smile that greets me every morning, the same tiny forehead I kiss every night before bed.

After Newtown, I tried not to think the same thoughts, for fear that the country would again do nothing, and the deaths of those 20 beautiful children and the six adults who tried to protect them would be even more pointless than they already seemed.

But certain things have happened, things that had not happened all those other times, and I'm beginning to think I can be hopeful again.

Former congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in Tucson in 2011, started Americans for Responsible Solutions, a political action committee to support stricter gun control. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for tougher restrictions, including background checks and an assault weapons ban. Some Republicans, like Georgia Rep. Phil Gingrey and former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge, are changing their minds in favor of gun control measures.
On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden will deliver his recommendations for federal legislation, which will likely include mandatory background checks and restricted access to firearms -- particularly for the military-style weapons designed to kill the largest amount of people in the smallest amount of time.
I think the tipping point is finally, thankfully, upon us.

The topic of gun control is everywhere. It's on talk radio, network news and social media. Parents at my daughter's elementary school are talking about it. The woman who made my latte yesterday was talking about it. So were my hair stylist, the mailman, and the lady who rang up my groceries at the supermarket.

The National Rifle Association is talking about it too, though not entirely in the way one might assume. While Wayne LaPierre, the organization's rather excitable spokesperson, calls for more guns, studies show the group's members want more responsible gun ownership. According to a 2012 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz, 74 percent of NRA members favor mandatory background checks for all gun purchases. As it stands now, only licensed dealers are required to conduct checks on buyers. That means people can buy guns at private gun shows, which are held every week across the country, no questions asked.

When I was a kid, my father was a member of the NRA, something I was aware of only because his membership card arrived in the mail once a year. I watched him at the kitchen table, tucking the card into the folds of his leather wallet. I grew up in western Maine, where hunting is practically a religion. It's a sport, a pastime and a way to feed your family. There were winters when we had no choice but to eat what my father brought home. Sometimes it was deer. Sometimes it was rabbit.

Now and then, my dad took me target practicing in the woods not far from our house. My brother and I took turns shooting tin cans off logs. It was one of the few things we all did together.

I'm sure that rifle is still in my father's house, right there in the maple cabinet he keeps in the living room. What's not there is his NRA membership card. Somewhere along the line, my father let his membership lapse, as his ideas about responsible gun ownership were no longer in step with the priorities of the NRA.

"Nobody needs an assault weapon," he said to me recently, with disgust in his voice. He has granddaughters now, two of them the same age as the children killed in Newtown. When he thinks about it, he can only shake his head. What else can he do?

It seems clear to him, to me, and to an increasing number of Americans from both political parties that things cannot go on the way they have. According to Mother Jones, there have been 62 mass shootings in the last 20 years. The deadliest year was 2012, when 126 people -- including the children of Newtown -- were killed or wounded.

We seem to be poised on the threshold of a real gun-control debate, one that is not about scrapping the Second Amendment or taking guns from people who own them legally and responsibly; no one has proposed that, no matter how much the NRA argues otherwise.
As I see it, this debate is about finding a way to balance our right to own guns with our need for protection from people with deadly intent. It's a chance to get weapons meant for warzones off the streets of our neighborhoods and away from our schools. It's an opportunity to ask ourselves why it's harder to get a library card than it is to get a gun, and why ammunition is more accessible than mental health counseling.

It's a chance to say, finally, "Enough is enough."