A couple of weekends ago, my friend Tim Padgett took me out to shoot sporting clays. This is roughly a cross between skeet shooting and golf. You walk through the woods and stop at 14 stations, each of which has two hidden trap machines that toss clay targets in the air. You get three or four cracks at each station, 100 shots in total.
This is only the second time I’ve exercised my Second Amendment right, and the first in more than 30 years. I came away with a smile, an enormous bruise on my left shoulder and a score of 11/100, which is so far below “You Suck” that they don’t even have a name for it. Those poor clay targets clearly had a lot more to fear from the ground than they did from me. Killer Earth! Killer Earth!
Time to be serious, though. My friend Tim is incredibly safety-conscious, and I felt completely comfortable wandering around a field full of people who were armed and loaded for bird. Not a Dick Cheney in sight. But I had this experience a week after a madman shot up a movie theater in Colorado and a week before another madman shot up a place of worship in Wisconsin. It’s hard not to think about that. I can’t be the only one wondering what these nutcases (I refuse to describe them as “alleged nutcases”) were doing in possession of firearms.
I had the privilege of seeing our sacred national texts, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution a few years ago. They are faded, withered and incredibly profound. (And no, the National Archives don’t look like what you saw in National Treasure.)
The founders did an extraordinary job of creating a framework that has proven adaptable to an evolving world. But when the Constitution was written, the available weapons were muskets and pistols, both of which fired single shots and took about 15 seconds to reload. They were notoriously inaccurate because they fired round balls. Rifling hadn’t yet been invented.
Fast-forward 225 years. One of the weapons James Holmes used in Colorado was an AR-15, which is the civilian precursor to the M-16. This is a semi-automatic .22 caliber assault rifle. “Semi-automatic” means it fires as fast you can pull the trigger. Holmes had a 100-shot magazine. The combination of the AR-15’s small ammunition and high muzzle velocity causes the bullets tumble on impact, which enables a relatively small and light weapon to do extraordinary damage to the flesh at which it’s aimed. (For a full discussion of what went right and wrong with this weapon, see James Fallows’ extraordinary 1980 book National Defense.)
The standard rationale for Holmes’ right to own this weapon is that an armed populace is the last line of defense against an oppressive government. That argument is preposterous in an age in which the real military has nuclear weapons, tanks, and drones that can both spot and hit the rear end of a mouse from 30 miles away. It also is not supported by the Second Amendment itself, which reads:
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The reference to militia doesn’t mean “a bunch of nut jobs in the mountains of Idaho preparing to stop the totalitarian assault.” It means that the founders wanted farmers to be armed in case THE COUNTRY needed to raise an army in a hurry.
And by the way, we already have laws that infringe on the right to keep and bear arms. What else would you call a background check and a waiting period? Yet those laws have proven stunningly ineffective at keeping powerful weapons out of the hands of crazy people.
It should be shocking that in the wake of these two recent massacres, there has been no outcry whatsoever for some limitation on the right to gun ownership, nor even a call for some debate about it. In fear, I suppose, of the NRA, our courageous current leaders and the equally courageous people who would replace them have fled in the opposite direction. We’ve gotten used to these shootings, have learned to accept and even expect them. The guy who shot up Virginia Tech killed 32 people. Can you name him? I can’t.
We place limits on our civil liberties all the time (see “Patriot Act”), but this particular liberty has become a third rail – completely off limits. This amounts to a form of religious extremism. Fundamentalism starts with a narrow and excessively literal reading (or misreading) of sacred texts, which is then used to justify the unjustifiable. How else to describe our slavish adherence to an outmoded expression of the right to armament?
I don’t pretend to know where the line should be. My friend Tim certainly should be able to shoot clay targets out of the sky. I should be able to go along and miss them.
But it seems like we should be able to agree that it would be a good idea to keep firearms and the insane apart, and that we should both want and be able to have a conversation about what tradeoffs we might accept in order to make it safe, or at least safer, to go to the movies, to temple, to church, to college, to high school.