Things have changed for the worse since I joined the NRA in 1947, when I was 17. There might have been 200,000 members then. We were all gun bugs and target shooters - not much different from camera cranks. The public and the politicians paid very little attention to us except, in the aftermath of World War II, to be content that a few people in the country could shoot straight. Hunting and target shooting were considered reasonable ways to spend time not devoted to the family or making a living. The sight of a gun didn’t agitate the citizenry. I well remember carrying my target rifle, uncased, on the New York subway back and forth from the City College rifle range without causing a commotion.
This hobby honeymoon began to fade as the 1950s wore on. The boy babies born in World War II were edging into their teens the criminal years. As the teens and young twenties increased their share of a growing national population, more crimes were committed. Law enforcement agencies got better at record keeping, and more of the crimes were actually reported. Politicians began to smell votes and campaign contributions in the issue. The late senator Thomas Dodd of Connecticut declared that guns were the source of all our troubles. Nobody listened until first Jack and then Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated.
Then the floodgates opened. The urban elite, the intellectual and professional leaders of the nation in the big cities and academia, didn’t own guns, didn’t know the 70 million who did and had never cared much about the issue one way or another. To them a gun was something carried by a soldier, a policeman or a criminal - all exotic and uncongenial occupations. But the shooting deaths of three illustrious men permanently estranged innumerable influential Americans from the idea of gun ownership.
Calls arose not merely for the licensing or elimination of handguns, long desired by metropolitan police departments, but for restrictions on all gun ownership whatever its nature or purpose. The magisterial Christian Science Monitor, surely in the pay of bow and arrow manufacturers, even called for guns to be banned for hunting.
The Gun Control Act of 1968 passed Congress, outlawing interstate sales of firearms. It is completely disregarded by criminals. But blatant rights violations by Treasury cops from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - most recently in the Waco debacle - have been ignored by my fellow liberals, who would shriek “Nazis” at any other law enforcement agency.
We avocational shooters were unorganized, unready for the torrent of vituperation that flooded us. We were called fascists, murderers, breakers of the public peace, redneck fanatics. There was much uncomplimentary speculation about our sexual proclivities by psychiatrists who had never spoken to a gun owner. The least insulting thing the commentators said was that we were intoxicated by early American fantasies of patriotism and self-reliance, unsuited to the modern age. All of us, whatever our political faiths, were consigned willy-nilly to the radical right.
Slowly we got to our feet, and now more than 3 million of us are in the NRA, resisting the erosion of what we and many legal scholars consider a vital constitutional right. But even as our political power has grown, the crisis in the inner cities, where children slaughter children, has commanded the attention and pity of the nation and redoubled the anti-gun outcries.
Why are we so doggone stubborn, then? If there were any real showing that you could take away the guns and save lives, we NRA members would have to give way. But most criminologists who have seriously looked into the issue don’t believe it.
You don’t often hear the solid academic arguments for our side, but the evidence is strong that private gun ownership prevents more crime - and kills more criminals - than the whole creaky machinery of the criminal justice system, including the police. Studies say that if handguns were banned, predatory criminals would use much more deadly sawed-off shotguns instead, and homicides would actually increase.
As for the dreaded semiautomatic “assault” weapons, they are much less powerful than tens of millions of ordinary deer rifles and are used in, at most, one percent of homicides. Moreover, we gun owners still believe it is a useful antidote to Nixonian dreams of overbearing government to have firepower in the hands of some Americans besides the police and military.
Let me put it straight. We in the NRA don’t see much point in laws that only pure-hearted people will obey. The stricter the anti-gun laws are made, the fewer Americans will heed them. Rules that don’t have general consent from those affected only engender contempt for law, like Prohibition, that brilliant social experiment, supported by all the right-thinking people of the day.
We only wish the anti-gun idealists would finally recognize the futility of trying to control crime by regulating the law-abiding. Then we NRA members could at long last get out of politics and go back to the shooting range.
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