I grew up in a white, middle-class urban Philadelphia neighborhood in the 1970’s, where the only gun culture in our neighborhood was supported by Mattel, a toy manufacturer that sold “cap guns.” Cap guns imitated the sound of gunfire and emitted a puff of smoke from the slight amount of explosive contained in the caps (and for those who don’t know what a cap gun is, here’s a photo of one model). It was common from the 1950’s through the 1970’s for boys to own these kinds of toy guns, imitating the behavior of their favorite T.V. Western star. I still somehow managed to injure myself with this toy when a cap misfired, causing a slight flesh burn. That ended my interest in toy guns that had anything resembling explosives-or at least I don’t remember receiving any more toys guns from my parents after that little incident. So why did I decide to spend three hours learning how to shoot a pistol and a rifle in 2013?
In June 2013, there had been another lethal shooting on a college campus in Santa Monica, California. The shooter had legally purchased components of an AR-15-type semi-automatic rifle, which he then modified and assembled before he went on his shooting rampage. There had already been several mass shootings at high schools and universities, and by the end of 2013, the last year in which the Centers for Disease Control was able to collect data on firearms, well over 11,000 people were killed intentionally by someone with a gun and a staggering 21,175 committed suicide using a firearm.
Facts and figures were one way of understanding the realities of the lax gun laws that we have in comparison with other Western countries. But I needed to see if the experience of firing a pistol and a rifle would give me better insights into what it was about Americans and their relationship to guns. Having made Minnesota my home, I had also gotten to know gun owners who grew up in rural areas where owning a gun was a part of the community culture, and they are as kind, caring and generous as you could hope for in a human being. Guns are not my thing, but I don’t automatically assume that just because someone owns a gun that person has an inferior moral compass. In fact, some of these gun owners are also city and state prosecutors who have seen the horrifying effects of gun violence in domestic abuse cases.
So here’s what I experienced, and learned in a way that I couldn’t have without having fired a shot. For about the first two hours of this training, I was drilled about the critical need for extensive annual training, gun safety – especially locking guns securely away from other family members – and how easy it is to miscalculate using a weapon and unintentionally injure innocent people or yourself. Only then were we permitted to practice, under very close supervision. And I will confess openly I felt an adrenaline rush when I fired a pistol and then hit the inside ring of a target six out of seven times with a rifle. The experience of that feeling helped me to understand why responsible gun owners take pride in their training and proficiency and gave me a glimpse into why they enjoyed hunting during our annual hunting season, even though I have no interest in ever touching a gun again.
But I also learned how easy it is to maim or kill somebody unintentionally unless. As one of my gun owner friends said to me, “if you’re serious about owning a gun, then be prepared to live with it more than with your family.” In the United States, toddlers accidentally shoot someone every week. Please reread this sentence-I am not talking about toddlers who are shot, but toddlers who get their hands on guns and wound or kill siblings, parents, or themselves. I remembered reading about a couple whose granddaughter had recently moved from another state to Minnesota to live with them. Because there had been some neighborhood burglaries, the husband legally purchased a pistol, and he and his wife had a plan in place if an intruder tried to enter their home. Despite that plan, when he fired off two rounds at someone he thought had come to burglarize his home, it turned out to be his 16-year-old granddaughter, who fortunately survived her wounds. Some years ago, during synagogue services on the high holy days, an older retired law enforcement officer accidentally dropped his loaded handgun, striking his 42-year-old daughter in the foot, and causing some minor injuries to two other people in the congregation.
Mental background checks, ongoing training and recertification, mandatory waiting periods before purchasing a handgun, making it illegal to purchase a gun at a gun show or from a friend, limiting the amount of ammunition that a person can purchase and permitting only those during active military service to carry and use assault weapons are some measures that individuals of any political party should be free to have a debate about.
So to those students who are leading the charge to have an open debate about safe and responsible ownership of guns, don’t quit. Open debate of ideas is your right as citizens of a democracy. The hateful tweets about you hurt but don’t be discouraged, because when you “put yourself out there,” it’s something you have to expect. Let it hurt and then wear the insults as badges of honor because it means that you are shaking a status quo that has far too long been complacent with inaction around the preventable loss of life.
You grew up with technologies that enable you to do things which those of us who are Baby Boomers can’t always imagine, so keep using your skills to track and publicize information about how much money is spent on lobbying for guns versus lobbying for education, how much money elected officials receive from the NRA on the city, state and federal levels and create your own “report cards” on politicians based on your values. Encourage your peers who are eligible to vote to do so and remind those who are already eligible voters to vote in elections. Look for groups with whom you can form strategic alliances to multiply your influence. Profile and praise individuals who have expressed their views with courage and eloquence through videos and also continue to speak respectfully of those who legally and responsibly own and use guns, and like you are deeply troubled by the pervasive availability of guns and assault weapons. Continue to forge a “third way” that breaks the gridlock that prevents action and do not despair. Many more faith leaders will be with you, praying the words of the ancient prophet Isaiah, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning knives (2:4),” and we will protest and march with you.
So yes, I learned how to shoot a pistol and a rifle, and it strengthened my resolve to stand up to those who invoke “rights” yet won’t discuss revoking laws and loopholes that can save lives. Being number one in owning more guns per capita than any other country in the world is a record we need to change. Now.