Pistol-Whipped

Pistol-Whipped

Published in Issue #30, Fall 2013 of Democracy Journal.

The first time I fired a gun, I almost shot a friend with an AR-15. This was some years ago on the outskirts of Scranton, Pennsylvania, where my then-boyfriend—as it happens, a grandson of a famous firearms inventor—took me and a group of friends for a birthday outing that included firing off a whole mess of guns. The vacation was fun, except for the part where I unthinkingly swung the barrel of a loaded rifle past my friend while attempting to point the gun downrange; only then did I receive an introductory safety lecture. Shortly after that near-disastrous incident, I took a two-day pistol safety course. After a few hours of instruction, I was proficiently hitting a target at 20 yards. I can now outshoot my ex, who carries concealed everywhere he goes in his home state out West.

My experience underscored a key point about guns: They are easy to use—but also easy to misuse. By this I mean that it’s easy to learn the basics of shooting: how to line up your sights and squeeze the trigger. But to use them properly and safely takes work, and without the proper training, the line between recreation and disaster can be thin.

And under duress in real-world conditions, when your adrenaline is pumping and a moving target is shooting back, it’s almost impossible to handle them without that training. As one SWAT officer told me, “It’s basically ‘train train train,’ because when you’re in that type of stressful situation, you are going to revert to your lowest level of training.” And yet a common refrain from gun proponents after a deadly mass shooting is that if only somebody at the scene had been armed, lives would have been saved. Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association (NRA) takes it further: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” This idea, which underpins most gun marketing efforts, overlooks two important points: that guns in the home are more likely to be used against their owners than against invaders; and that without sufficient training and practice, citizens should not expect to be able to defend themselves with a gun. In many states, the requirements for a concealed carry permit do not go far enough to establish whether the applicant knows how to operate a firearm in a high-pressure situation. Combined with gun-industry-backed statutes like “stand your ground” laws, it’s a recipe for more gun violence.

The availability of guns, then, is not the problem, or at least not the only one. Just as important are the beliefs people hold about guns. And instrumental in the formation of those beliefs is the gun industry, desperately clinging to its consumer base even as the American appetite for gun ownership continues a decades-long decline. In The Last Gun, Tom Diaz, a lawyer and former senior policy analyst at the Violence Policy Center, weaves together compelling stories of gun violence’s human toll—the domestic violence that spirals into murder-suicide, parents threatening each other with guns at their children’s soccer games, the litany of homicides and suicides facilitated by guns—with the larger narrative of the gun industry’s efforts to protect itself at all costs by promoting a permissive, almost cavalier, attitude toward guns in America.

Read more at Democracy Journal.