One Redneck’s Gun Stand

Joe McLean loves his old Hawken hunting rifle. He’s defended himself with a firearm against a burglar. His dad was a great quail shot. But assault weapons? That’s absurd.

Brennan Linsley/AP

Listening to President Obama on Tuesday night, I was struck by how the debate on guns has changed. Born and raised on a cotton farm in deep-red Tennessee, a son of the South, I grew up hunting and fishing with my father, who was reputed to be the finest quail shot in Crockett County. As a younger man, I was forced to defend my home in the middle of the night with a firearm. The burglar was a career criminal, just out of prison after robbing a liquor store with a sawed-off shotgun. The cops knew him by name when they came to get him. I was lucky.

I was also lucky because this was Washington, D.C., and I could have gone to jail for having that gun. The police didn’t care about the gun. They actually told me this creep would let all his criminal friends know about the guy with a gun in that house, so I would likely never have another problem. I lived there five more years and never did. I’ve been a member of the National Rifle Association almost all my life. So I should be a poster child for the NRA.

But gun violence is epidemic in America. Children are slaughtered while a small but vocal minority shouts about “freedom” and hides behind a skewed interpretation of the Second Amendment. There is also a hefty dose of Big Brother paranoia, backed up by the millions of dollars and political muscle of the NRA.

So let’s be clear: first, nobody is going to take our guns away. Not mine, and not yours. Nobody has even suggested that. Frankly, nobody thinks it’s possible anyway, with millions of firearms in circulation.

Second, this is not about the Second Amendment—it is about the safety of ordinary people in public areas and gathering places. When the leaders of the NRA claim the government just wants to take away your guns, they sound like they are the victims, not the 20 young children and 6 adults slain in Newtown, Connecticut; or the 12 people killed in Aurora, Colorado; the 6 in the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin; and a list of other victims of mass shootings dating back to Fort Hood, Virginia Tech, and Columbine.

Third, everybody understands this carnage isn’t just the fault of guns. Blood-soaked movies and videogames, mental illness, school bullying, and maybe even our national glorification of the lone cowboy dispensing frontier justice with his trusty six-shooter all have a role.

But regardless of the causes, the actual instruments of destruction are firearms, specifically assault weapons. These rifles are wonderfully engineered tools built for only one purpose: to kill and maim as many human beings on the battlefield as quickly and efficiently as possible. So we should not be surprised when they are used for the exact job for which they were created.

Americans overwhelmingly support our right to defend our own homes, but “assault” rifles are by definition offensive, military weapons. They’re not made for defense and, frankly, not terribly useful for that. Ask any police officer.

You could certainly hunt with an AK-47, but why would you want to? My hunting rifle, an old Hawken muzzleloader, is a beautiful thing, finely crafted and wonderful to shoot. Using a “smoke pole” makes you a better marksmen and a better hunter. Assault rifles are light and accurate, but no sportsman is going to pour a barrage of hot lead into a deer. And nobody needs a 30-round clip of high-velocity, steel-jacketed, armor-piercing ordnance for target shooting.

Most Americans understand all this. Public polling shows the majority of gun owners, and even NRA members, support reasonable changes to our national firearms policy. In denying this basic truth, the NRA has abandoned any constructive role in the coming debate, and that’s too bad, because with its expertise and political punch, the NRA could be a tremendous resource in crafting real answers to gun violence.

But by taking the most radical stand, the NRA has marginalized itself, abrogated any part in crafting actual legislation, and probably begun sliding down the road to irrelevance. Unless NRA leaders return to sanity, a once great national institution could wither to a ridiculed cult of gun nuts, paranoid militias, and loony survivalists.

Tuesday night, as wave after wave of applause rolled through the Capitol, you could almost feel the ground moving under the NRA’s feet. Today we have a real chance to enact effective background checks, limit magazines, and close the “gun-show loophole.” Maybe this morning Congress doesn’t fear the all-powerful NRA quite so much. The children of Newtown deserve a vote.