I suppose we all base our positions on public policy issues at least partially on personal experience; I am no exception. When he and I were 7 years old, my cousin and best friend, Benny, died as a result of a gunshot wound inflicted by his sister. Patsy was two years older than Benny, and probably today would be diagnosed as having Down’s Syndrome. Sixty years ago she was regarded simply as mentally retarded.
As long as memory lasts, I will remember tossing flowers on to Benny’s casket in his still open grave.
This event involved all the elements of a classic tragedy: an innocent child as victim, a loaded firearm improperly handled, and a mentally challenged person who pulled the trigger. I think their older brother, Gerald – not yet in his teens – who had left the loaded firearm lying on a bed while he went to get a drink of water, was also a victim, even though some might say he was the person most immediately responsible.
Nevertheless, as long as Patsy lived, I could not look at her or think about her without thinking “She killed Benny”. An unfair stigmatization, no doubt, but one too easily arrived at in too many similar cases involving the mentally challenged or mentally ill as perpetrators of horrible events.
On the other hand…….
Many other factors were involved in Benny’s death: poverty, a total lack of facilities for the mentally challenged in that time and place, inadequate medical treatment of physical wounds (the immediate cause of Benny’s death was “blood poisoning”) – to name a few. But I am also mindful that the family was able to put food on their table (both before and after Benny died) because they owned firearms. They hunted, and because they hunted they were able to survive.
I grew up in the Southwest where firearms were – and still are – common. When I was growing up some of the old men still packed six shooters on their hips (just like in the TV westerns) — not only out on the range, but in town as well.. Nearly every household owned – and still owns — several guns. Nearly every pick-up truck had – and still has – a rack supporting one or more rifles and shotguns. Many people carried – and still carry – a handgun in the glove compartment of their car.
Almost everyone knew – and still knows – how to shoot, and most know how to handle firearms safely. Almost everyone I knew hunted – both within the official “hunting season” and outside it. Some did it for sport; most of us did it for the same reason my cousin’s family did — to put food on the table.
I cannot remember when I didn’t know how to handle guns, and how to do it safely. I was allowed to use firearms long before I was allowed to drive a car on public roads. One of the few recognitions I received in a very non-illustrious stint in the military was for marksmanship. I am a gun owner. Some of my best friends and most of my relatives are gun enthusiasts And I might add that many, many more people that I know have been killed driving or riding in automobiles than have been killed with firearms.
I cite these facts because they color – just as surely as Benny’s death colors – my attitude toward gun control. It probably differs from that of many Unitarian Universalists. I understand the mentality of gun owners — which I think many of us UUers do not. Therefore, I offer the following for consideration when pressing for stronger legislation for gun control (which, incidentally, I support).
• Controls that may work in large urban settings, won’t set well and probably won’t work at all in most areas of the U.S. • Half the population opposes stringent gun controls, not because the NRA is strong; rather, the NRA is strong because half the population opposes stringent gun controls. • Demonizing gun owners serves no purpose at all, except to strengthen opposition to reasonable gun control laws. • Statistics mean nothing to people who fear their rights to gun ownership are being diminished.. Relying upon arguments based upon statistics will not move them. Anecdotal evidence may. • Public policies change incrementally and only through compromise; don’t let a quest for the perfect drive out the do-able. Tailor your appeal to moderates if you expect to accomplish anything. • Don’t overlook the mental health components of reducing gun violence, but please don’t stigmatize in the process the 99 percent of mentally ill people who would never, and will never resort to gun violence, by requiring some kind of registry for the mentally ill. That would make about as much sense as requiring all people who drink alcohol to register as potential DWI’s. So much for my sage advice.
I expect I can enlist the support of the organization I co-chair, Unitarian Universalists for Social Justice in the National Capital Region (UUSJ) for any or all of the following actions:
(1) a ban on future sales of semi-automatic firearms, aka assault weapons;
(2) a ban on the sale of high capacity magazines;
(3) background checks on the sale or firearms at gun shows to match that required to make purchases from registered firearms dealers;
(4) prior training and licensing for all handgun owners;
(5) an improved national data base for convicted felons and mentally ill persons who are known to have committed or threatened to commit violent acts (not to include those who may have merely thought about committing violent acts);
(6) increased access to mental health facilities for troubled persons.