The Hobby That Kills

The day after the shooting, this headline, this image, and this ad appeared on the front page of the Charleston Post and Courier:
That ad's a little hard to read in context, so here it is all by itself:
In case you're still not sure what it says, here's the text of the ad:
Ladies' Night THURSDAY! ATP Gun Shop & Range specializes in teaching ladies to learn to shoot for fun, sport & self defense!
$30 GETS YOU EVERYTHING! Eye/Ear Protection, Souvenir T-Shirt, Pistol or Revolver, Range Pass, 50 Rounds of Ammo, Instructor 
The morning after a young man, using a pistol purchased at a department store, shot and killed nine African-Americans at a Bible study, the local newspaper ran this ad, partially obscuring the headline announcing the killings. To its credit, the newspaper acknowledged the horrendous timing of the ad, as did the ADP Gun Shop and Range. What neither did was admit the irony of the juxtaposition--or make even the smallest admission that the ease with which the shooter procured his weapon might have contributed in any way to the high death toll.

There's a problem here, a problem that takes thousands of American lives every year: too many Americans not only own, but love guns, and these gun-loving Americans, the industry that manufactures their guns, and the lobby that speaks on their behalf have a louder voice in Washington than that of all the grieving parents, maimed survivors, concerned citizens, and pragmatic police departments struggling to bring some sanity to this nation's gun policies.

Just to be clear: the shooter was a white supremacist whose hatred and paranoia on racial issues are direct descendants of the brutal attitude toward persons of culture that was a part of this country's founding. I am in no way seeking to diminish the fact that this was, first and foremost, a racially-motivated hate crime; nor (see yesterday's post) am I seeking to diminish the fact that it was committed against African-Americans who were practicing their faith in a church. The third part of the equation, though, is the weapon, as President Obama stated in his own remarks on the crime. Had the shooter not been able to easily obtain a handgun, there would have been fewer victims, more survivors; in fact, he might have completely reconsidered his decision to commit the crime in the first place.

I know there are far too many "might haves" in that conclusion. I know the reality of American culture is that we are addicted to our guns. (Disclaimer: I don't count myself among the addicts. I've only fired a gun once, on the shooting range at Scout camp when I was 16, and never had the desire to do it again; so 38 years later, I have yet to touch another gun.) One wouldn't know this to read the publicity around gun shops and shooting ranges, which make this out to be a harmless hobby, like home brewing, model building, or gardening. And I must admit that, in the hands of a careful, responsible enthusiast, a gun is unlikely to wind up in the hands of a toddler, resulting in a tragic kid-on-kid shooting, or of a racist psychopath, killing nine community leaders at a Bible study. But here's the thing: as long as gun ownership is a hobby, it's going to go on being far too easy for the irresponsible hobbyists to leave the gun safe unlocked so a child can get into them, or for the psychopaths to walk into a dealer's shop and pay cash for a deadly weapon.

I've been writing on this topic since I started this blog two years ago, but I've believed these things far longer. (As parenthetically observed in the previous paragraph, I already found guns distasteful when I was of the age to think them cool.) This has not, I must add, kept me from enjoying the presence of guns in entertainment: I'm as fond of Star Wars and Indiana Jones as any other man of my generation, and I've enjoyed many a spaghetti Western, as well. I just don't see the need for them to be so easily accessible to children and criminals, and if keeping them out of those hands means curbing the rights of ordinary citizens to own paramilitary arsenals, then so be it.

Of course, this is not going to change anytime soon. Standing firmly against gun ownership is politically dicey; being involved with legislation that takes even the smallest steps toward mandating sanity in the gun industry is politically suicidal. That it's difficult should not mean, however, that we give up on it altogether.

But what if we stopped looking at gun ownership as a hobby, and began referring to it as a habit, an addiction, like smoking, drinking, narcotics? I'm not sure how federal gun regulation got grouped with alcohol and tobacco (ATF stands for Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), but that should tell us something: in terms of commerce, firearms move in much the same way as alcohol and tobacco, feeding addictions through underground economies.

Alcohol consumption is not at any risk of becoming less popular, but at least in the Northwest, tobacco is fighting a losing battle to stay popular. I can go for weeks without smelling even a whiff of cigarette smoke. Somehow we've managed to make smoking far less cool without regulating it out of existence. It's still easily available in supermarkets, gas stations, and convenience stores. But it's far less tempting now than it's been in a very long time: people seem finally to realize that smoking causes lung cancer and, even if they're not worried about that, that there are so many people who'd rather not breathe those toxic fumes. Add to this public rebuke of the habit the growing number of municipalities and states that strictly limit public smoking, and the ever-increasing cost of purchasing cigarettes thanks to climbing "sin taxes," and it's become an expensive, inconvenient habit.

That could be the case with firearms, too. Second-hand smoke is an ugly inconvenience: it makes nonsmokers smell like ashtrays, exacerbates asthma, injures unborn children, and can cause cancer in non-smokers. For all those health concerns, second-hand firearm exposure is still vastly more deadly. Point your hobby weapon at me and I may wind up with a hole in my head. Leave it lying on the coffee table while you hunt for a snack in the kitchen and your toddler may kill one of her playmates with it.

I know there's no point in me, a lifelong nonsmoker, reminding a smoker of all the health benefits of quitting. Perhaps it's the same with those who have the gun habit. I have no personal experience of the agony of going cold turkey, the hollow craving to hold a piece of steel in one's hand, and I cannot say whether the less lethal substitutes--laser tag, paintball--are any more effective for curbing that craving than nicotine lozenges are for an ex-smoker. What I can say, and will not stop saying, is that the gun habit is a disgusting, filthy addiction, and that this country will be a safer, healthier, happier place once guns finally take their place alongside heroin and tobacco as a controlled substance we're better off without.

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