I learned more about gun violence in our country about ten years later when I found out that somebody with whom I had played tennis and golf, with whom I had had conversations and drinks had died. He had killed himself. With a gun. This somehow impelled me to look up information that I was only partly familiar with before.
I had thought that many people died each year from gun violence, and that was right—nearly thirty-four thousand every year—with about 60,000 non-fatal firearm injuries every year. But I learned that most, not quite two-thirds of the deaths, were by suicide, and I reflected on all the impassioned debates about assault weapons, the size of magazines, armor-piercing bullets, and open carry laws and thought how little those issues were likely to affect the majority of those who die from gunshots—suicides. Mass shootings, as has happened yet again, deservedly get widespread attention with almost always futile pleas that the government should do something to help prevent them, but I learned that these are only a blip in the homicides by firearms each year, and the more common killings seldom get much national attention. My intuition was correct that handguns, not rifles, were the real issue for most murders. About seventy percent of all homicides are committed by people wielding handguns. And,yes, we are violent with our guns. America’s firearms homicide rate is more than twenty-five times the average of other developed countries.
All these thoughts about rifles and pistols came back because of a recent weekend I spent with guns, many, many guns. I have a friend—let’s call him Al–who has a firearms collection. Al does not fit my preconceptions of a gun nut. He is a corporate executive who was raised in New York City and has lived for a long time on the west side of Manhattan. He is a liberal. He is anti-Trump, and his wife is even more so. But he owns a lot of guns.
He is quick to say that his gun collection stems from his relationship with his father, who fought in World War II. I don’t know his full story, but I have the feeling that he returned without his full health. He did teach Al something about guns, but he died while Al was a teenager. Al says, with a smile, that perhaps he should see a shrink, but instead he collects guns, primarily, but not exclusively, weapons from the Second World War. And it is an extensive collection. Al keeps the firearms stored in a big safe, but every so often he displays them on racks in his basement, which takes him several hours to set up. He did it recently for me, the spouse, the daughter, a nephew, and the nephew’s husband.
There were single-action revolvers and double-action revolvers. There were semi-automatic pistols, including a Glock. There were American and German rifles from WWII. He had semi-automatic rifles, some of which could become fully automatic. He had other machine guns; I think there were eighteen in total, for which he needed special permits that required him to be fingerprinted eighteen times.
He collected only weapons in mint condition, and the wood of the stocks shone and the metal was all oiled and burnished. Frankly, putting aside their lethal purpose, many were beautiful.
Al was incredibly knowledgeable about each of the firearms and was patient in answering our questions, which no doubt were often naïve. But we were there not just to learn about the firearms, but to shoot some of them. We loaded a few into Al’s SUV and drove to a field with a picnic table. We moved the table to a bottom of a slight incline. We set up bottles and cans up the hill. Although to a marksman they may not have been far away, it seemed quite a distance to me. Al showed us how to load the magazine for a .22 target pistol. Al gave us stern, but friendly, instruction in safety and how to fire the gun. And one by one we did. The spouse missed everything, as did the nephew and husband. The daughter, however, who had always wanted to shoot a handgun and was now getting her first chance, hit one of the targets. That made me happy. I, too, hit a target. That made me happy, but pissed off the daughter a bit. No competition here!
We moved on to a larger handgun, with similar results. Then there was a rifle. Only the daughter and I wanted to shoot it. She hit something, and so did I. We then scoured the site for spent cartridges, packed up, and headed to Al’s home so that he could lock up the guns in his safe.
I felt I had learned something important that day besides that I still liked firing a gun and occasionally could hit a target. I already knew Al believed he had right to his gun collection, but in talking to Al that day I realized that this right to him was not like other Constitutional rights, such as the right to speak freely or have a jury trial. Those other rights, as important as they are, are for the public functioning of the country. His right to own a gun was something more personal, even something intimate. It went to his identity. Without those guns he was not the same person. That feeling for him no doubt has complex roots, but it is real and sincere. And I suspect that many other gun owners feel something similar to what Al feels.
Al, however, may also have beliefs that aren’t shared by the others. He supports universal background checks and other rules that will improve gun safety. He does not see why people should be allowed to carry guns openly. He thinks it is ok that he has been fingerprinted eighteen times. He has a right to his guns, but society has a right to try to make sure that guns are not misused.
And for me, it was a satisfying day. I only wished that I had hit more targets.
And I continue to despair that we will find a way to lessen our gun violence.