By David K. Shipler
Years ago, driving through the Wild West Bank, I was stopped by an Israeli army checkpoint on the road up the Jordan Valley. The young soldier asked if I had any weapons in the car. No, I said. Well, in that case, he advised, it would not be a great idea to continue.
That’s the kind of America envisioned by the NRA: Don’t send your kids to schools where teachers can’t sport .45 Magnums on their hips or keep Tec 9s in their desks. Don’t lull your kids into thinking there are safe places, free from marauding crazies, where they can concentrate on learning. Remind them every moment of every school day how scary the world is, how vulnerable they are, how consistently high their stress and sense of danger should be. Beginning in their early years, keep those cortisol levels elevated to make sure they greet every affront as if it’s a dire threat. With teachers as role models, every kid will want to carry a weapon. What a wonderful country we’ll have.
Here is a guess: Asa Hutchinson, the sweet-accented, thin-smiling Arkansas gubernatorial candidate, the former Republican Congressman who heads the NRA’s campaign to turn every school into an armed camp, has never lived in such a country. He has never seen how quickly the proliferation of guns can crack a society’s civilized veneer. He has never seen how disputes and deep disaffection can suddenly turn bloody on a large scale. You’d think after prosecuting a white supremacist group following an armed standoff when he was in his early 30s, he’d be able to extrapolate.
But extrapolation is not a trait associated with the NRA. Its leaders do not let their imaginations run far enough. They don’t seem able to imagine the charged atmosphere in a school with armed teachers, or a college with armed students, or a movie theater with patrons sitting with their weapons in the dark. The next thing you know, they’ll be suggesting that “good guys” be allowed—nay, encouraged—to take guns onto planes so they can help the incognito air marshals put down hijackers. Why not? Airport security is hardly infallible.
Here’s another guess: The NRA leaders and their followers watch too much TV. Good guys almost never miss. They don’t hit innocents, they don’t kill their colleagues by friendly fire. Cops don’t mistake one of their undercover officers for a crook—as they do quite regularly in real life. And their aim with handguns at long range is uncanny. It is great fun to imagine yourself like Mr. Reese in “Person of Interest” wielding one of those fantasy pistols that can rapidly pick off bad guys with such precision.
I get a kick out of that show, I confess, but maybe Hollywood could do us a favor by showing the dark side of weaponry—the mistakes, the accidents, the kind of country we’d have if we all retreated into our caves of paranoid individualism with our personal arsenals. How about a school shooting where a “trained” teacher heroically starts firing and hits a couple of students, and gets blasted himself when the cops arrive and think he’s actually the shooter? It would be an instructive futuristic film: no more of that pesky, wimpy notion of the community or the common good. Everybody could just hunker down in their houses, swagger through their streets, and teach their children that they can depend only on themselves—and their ammunition.
I remember vividly the first time I shot a gun, at the age of nine, at a tin can against a tree, under the strict and kind supervision of a farmer from up the hill. It was a moment of quick education, the sensation of sheer power and awe coursing through me, a strange blend of heavy and light-headed respect for the enormous force that I held in my hands. It was exhilarating and sobering all at once—a strong lesson for a small boy.
Out in the countryside, not far from Newtown, Connecticut, I hunted as a kid. I used my aunt’s old bolt-action .22, with a sight attached by a rubber band, and I was given a new 20-gauge shotgun for a present. I killed woodchucks that were digging dangerous, leg-breaking holes in cow pastures, I knocked off a few squirrels, and shot at noisy black crows, always unsuccessfully. I learned to be extremely careful, because the box of .22 ammo carried a warning that the range of each bullet was a mile. I cradled the gun aimed always at the ground or at the sky, unloaded until I was ready to shoot. In short, I was granted huge trust and responsibility.
I had a passing acquaintance with other guns. My friend got a thrilling new .303 semi-automatic rifle, thrilling because it fired a round every time you squeezed the trigger—no need to slide a bolt back and forth. He and I hunted partridge—also unsuccessfully.
During a hitch in the Navy, I got to shoot guns at cans and bottles we tossed off the fantail of my destroyer: pistols, M-1 carbines, and—most fun of all—a .45 Thompson submachine gun, which we had aboard. (This dates me, gun aficionados will know.) I was also gunnery officer, in charge of 3-inch 50s and 5-inch 38s, which couldn’t shoot unless I closed my firing key.
All this is to say that I have no particular aversion to guns. I have an aversion to a society that worships them. If they are the ultimate answer, they will not protect us, but will facilitate the shredding of our fabric of community.
This apocalypse may not arrive, despite many millions of guns already on the loose. Some schools have armed guards, but enough school officials, teachers, and parents are more cautious than the NRA about creating a damaging atmosphere for children. The NRA’s odd logic about background checks is also a hard sell; it says that bad guys shouldn’t get guns, but that we shouldn’t stop them by checking all purchasers—only transactions in gun stores. This runs against polls showing that about 90 percent of Americans now want thorough background checks, which is amazing since 90 percent of Americans can’t agree on anything else.
It’s not hard to predict, despite the spasm of concern, that strict gun control will fail, except in patchwork form as some state legislatures act boldly. The crazy quilt of laws, many unenforced, may impede but will not arrest the free flow of small arms across the state boundaries and into dangerous hands.
By the way, I did not take the Israeli army’s advice. I continued, unarmed, up the Jordan Valley.