I also spent an afternoon last week on the Mississippi River, shotgun in hand, hoping to get a decent shot at a mallard.
In the latest edition of Isthmus, you'll find a satirical piece by me about Wisconsin's new concealed carry law, which will go into effect next Tuesday. That was fun to write, but here's a more serious take on guns in America.
Last week, I sighted in my rifle, part of the annual ritual of gun deer season in Wisconsin. This is my 20th season hunting deer, and it's something I look forward to as a kind of marker for the year gone by. One of my best moments was hitting an eight-point buck from 225 yards with one shot. But I have more memorable experiences just sitting in my stand and watching the sun come up, drinking some strong coffee and, despite that, maybe dozing off a little bit.
I also spent an afternoon last week on the Mississippi River, shotgun in hand, hoping to get a decent shot at a mallard. I didn't, but I still enjoyed the afternoon. My friends and I once calculated the cost per ounce of duck breast once you take into account the boat and all the gear. You don't want to know. Our wives especially don't want to know.
So, here's the thing. I've got my credentials as a Wisconsin sportsman. I own two guns, a 30.06 deer hunting rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun to shoot at turkey and ducks. I love hunting, the camaraderie, being outdoors and sharing the meat and the stories with friends.
I understand guns. I don't hate them. But I don't see my guns as the bulwark of democracy either. The debate over guns is as passionate as it is because it goes to Americans' varying definitions of what freedom is. When I think of freedom I think of the First Amendment, not the Second. I believe that the pen is mightier than the sword and that the blog is stronger than the 30.06. I believe that if my freedom really depended on my personal firearms, then my country would be pretty far gone.
But for many gun advocates, it's not about the guns, but what their firearms represent. Their guns are to them what freedom of speech is to me: the tangible evidence that we are free people. Add to that the culture war mix of rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal, and all of the markers that come with those things, and you end up with a potent stew of political conflict.
But what if we thought about guns as a public health issue? If we had a drug that was killing 30,000 people a year, 17,000 by suicide, wouldn't we declare that an epidemic and do something about it?
Consider the following statistics from Washington Cease Fire:
An average of 268 people are shot every day in America, for a total of nearly 100,000 each year. Source: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence http://www.bradycampaign.org/facts/
From 1960 to 2000, about 500,000 Americans were murdered with guns -- more Americans than died in all the wars of the 20th century. Source: David Hemenway, "Private Guns, Public Health," University of Michigan Press, 2004
Americans own an estimated 270 million firearms -- approximately 90 guns for every 100 people. Source: Small Arms Survey, Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, "Small Arms Survey 2007: Guns and the City," at 39 (Aug. 2007).
Living in a home where there are guns increases the risk of homicide by 40 to 170% and the risk of suicide by 90 to 460%. Source: Garen J. Wintemute, "Guns, Fear, the Constitution, and the Public's Health," 358 New England J. Med. 1421-1424 (April 3, 2008) http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/NEJMp0800859
Rather than conferring protection, guns in the home are associated with an increase in the risk of homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance. Source: Arthur L. Kellerman et al., "Gun Ownership as a Risk Factor for Homicide in the Home," 329 New Eng. J. Med. 1084 (1993).
How many mass shootings, everyday rampages and lonely suicides will it take until we come to our senses about gun violence in America? And why has the gun control movement been so ineffective in going up against the National Rifle Association, even though most Americans would support stricter gun laws?
Part of the answer is in just how unreasonable the NRA can be. I'm convinced that it is a conscious strategy -- oppose even the mildest restriction so that nobody even dares propose really meaningful controls.
So we have the bizarre example playing out right now where the Wisconsin Legislature passes a concealed carry law requiring the weakest of standards to get a license to carry. The attorney general, hardly an anti-gun zealot, writes rules requiring four hours of training in order to get a permit to carry around deadly force. And the NRA cries foul. So, the AG responds by saying that he's not going to prescribe any actual useful training during those four hours. The NRA still objects.
And at the national level there's a bill in Congress that would allow every state to recognize the carry permits issued in any other state, no matter how permissive. Those same congressmen aren't advocating that every state needs to recognize same-sex marriages that take place in Vermont or Massachusetts, but I have to assume they'll be consistent on that point. I will not be holding my breath on this.
The NRA's zealous unreasonableness has turned out to be a brilliant strategy. They've learned that if they oppose everything, even the most concerned public official won't dare to propose any real steps to get at the problem. We should be debating why handguns and automatic weapons even exist in our society, not just how easy we can make it to carry a loaded firearm across state lines.
I'm a Wisconsin sportsman and gun owner, and I can tell you that the extremists in the NRA don't speak for me. Not even close.
What's needed is a new movement of responsible sportsmen who recognize the fact that there is so much unnecessary death, injury and suffering that goes on in this country thanks to our lax gun laws. I'm not worried that laws clamping down on handguns and automatic weapons will affect my hunting options one bit. My shotgun has as much in common with a machine gun as a Piper Cub has with an F-16.
Of course I am aware that my hunting rifles can be used to kill people as well as deer and ducks, but they're not designed for that, and that makes a big difference. It's hard to conceal a long-barreled gun and impossible to get off more then four shots at a time with a semi-automatic 30.06. Could people be killed with legitimate hunting rifles? Of course, but not nearly at the same rate that we kill people today with handguns and automatic firearms. If guns were a drug, we would do something to stem the death toll.
Instead of fighting these pitched battles over the mildest and least effective of gun laws, let's have the same battles over controls that would matter. For a long time into the future the voices of reason will still lose to the NRA. But if we change the terms of the debate we will at least give ourselves a chance for gun sanity in America someday.