Refocusing on the human side of the gun debate
When my daughter was 14, she accompanied me to an FBI shooting range in Quantico, Va. An FBI SWAT team leader showed us how to fire a Heckler & Koch MP5 submachine gun. His safety regime was strict. The first time my daughter took a shot, in semiautomatic mode, there were four hands holding the gun — hers and his.
That experience, in 1992, came to mind after the tragic accident last week at a gun range in Arizona. A 9-year-old girl lost control of the Uzi submachine gun she was firing and fatally shot the instructor standing next to her. I can understand why so many people were appalled, but there are other lessons in the tragedy besides the common refrain: Don’t give a little girl a submachine gun.
A cellphone video released by police shows just how fast the fun turned fatal. It’s over in a flash. You have to watch closely to see what went wrong. Pay attention — that’s a lesson in itself and one not easily learned in our distracted, impatient, multitasking society. Giving my daughter car keys for the first time was far more worrisome than letting her fire a gun.
Important lessons about gun safety are also likely to be missed because of how we “debate” gun control vs. gun rights in this country, the winner being the side that makes the most political hay out of a killing before the TV cameras move on to something else.
The discourse this time was arguably worse than most because of how unfairly some have treated the families.
“The death has set off a powerful debate over youngsters and guns, with many people wondering what sort of parents would let a child handle an Uzi,” The Associated Press reported Aug. 27, two days after the shooting.
Charles C.W. Cooke, an Oxford-educated conservative columnist, took his shot in the National Review on Aug. 27.
“Contra the Piers Morgans of the world,” he wrote, referring to the former CNN talk show host, “I don’t think it tells us too much about the law, nor do I think it’s that relevant to the question of firearms in the United States. But it does suggest gross negligence on the behalf of the range, the instructor, and the parents.”
Some might even agree with him, but it takes a cold finger to point blame at a dead man and heartbroken parents as they try to console a traumatized girl.
A lesson: The family of the instructor who died — Charles Vacca, 39 — called the girl’s family a few days after the shooting to see how she was doing and to assure her that they knew she had done nothing wrong. Contrast to callousness.
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, was also gracious, writing on the MSNBC website, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the families.” But it wasn’t long before she launched into that dysfunctional debate format: making hay out of homicides.
“While news of the tragic Arizona shooting reverberated around the country yesterday, the NRA’s campaign to attract female members, NRA Women, sent an ill-timed tweet about how kids can ‘have fun at the shooting range,’ before quickly deleting it,” she wrote. “And the gun lobby supports laws that prohibit doctors from having life-saving conversations with patients about the risks of gun injury and how to avoid them.”
Watts had begun a lesson in gun safety with an appeal to “a society that regards itself as moral and ethical.” But she became preoccupied with the NRA, calling for a “conversation” about gun safety and then concluding in the same sentence that “it’s also a conversation in which the gun lobby refuses to participate.”
I’m a gun owner. I can’t speak for the other estimated 70 million gun owners, but my gun lobby is me. And I’m not refusing to participate in a conversation.
I visited the FBI outdoor training facility to learn more about automatic weapons, which were being used to devastating effect in drive-by shootings. The year before, 1991, there were 479 homicides reported in the District of Columbia.
My daughter just wanted a chance to shoot a gun, having declared her intent to join the Marines. (She became an acupuncturist instead.)
The instructor handed out eye and ear protection, put up some paper targets and slowly guided us through various shooting modes — from semiautomatic to three-shot bursts to a few blasts on full auto.
He also took our picture afterward. We were standing next to one of the targets. My daughter is smiling, having bested me two bull’s-eyes to none.
I wish it had ended that way for the 9-year-old girl and her family.
Of course, I don’t expect those for whom guns are anathema to understand the appeal of a firearm or a shooting range. But during my outings, I get to see the gun owners and not just the guns. The ones I know tend to be independent-minded and to place a premium on self-sufficiency, which includes self-defense.
Focus more on the people. Both sides should.
Everything else is just making hay.
Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist.