Photo-illustration Paul Karrer
By Paul Karrer
“A youth who can’t hit a cathedral at thirty yards with a Gatling gun in three-quarters of an hour can take up an old empty musket and bag his mother every time at a hundred.”
— Mark Twain
I confess I’m a gun owner. I also confess that I have been touched by gun violence. As an elementary school teacher of 27 years in tiny Castroville, two of my students’ moms were shot dead. Various students have been imprisoned over the years for shootings. A wonderfully optimistic, eternally smiling former student came back from Iraq and attempted to rob a local bank with an AK-47. He was shot dead by the police.
James Egan Holmes, the shooter at the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, was my fifth-grade student. I know the stats by heart — 12 killed, 70 shot, he received a life sentence of 1,500 years.
I’ve had a really good friend executed by military decree. Dr. Essad Sadicovic, a Yugoslavian U.N. doctor I met in Samoa; a peacenik, a writer, a humanist. He was assaulted, kidnapped, tortured in Omarska concentration camp in Yugoslavia and executed by Serbian military. Executed with a rifle on a cliff, body dumped in an unmarked grave.
A gun incident I engaged in as a sixth-grader inspired a yearly student survey of my fifth-grade students. As a child I was a well-behaved kid, growing up in Connecticut. My brother and sister were much younger than me.
One time when I had to babysit, I did what kids do. I went in my parents’ bedroom and looked through every drawer. (Note to parents…if you have porno, drugs, or weapons hide them really well — kids WILL find them.) Wrapped in a white cloth I found two tiny, double-barreled .22-caliber derringers.
At school I put feelers out for a .22 bullet. In two days I had a bullet. I couldn’t wait until the next time my parents wanted me to babysit. When the day came I loaded the derringer, stood in our open doorway, aimed the weapon at the sky and fired it. No horrible outcome – other than the abject cringing fear it registers in me now.
So, each year after sharing that story with my students I had them put their heads down and I asked:
“How many of you know of guns in your home? Not BB guns or pellet guns. Twenty-twos, .38s, 9mm, rifles, etc.?”
One of the kids asked, “What about shotguns?”
“Yes,” I replied. “Shotguns.” and I thought, damn they know too much. They always know too much.
Heads went down again. Second question.
“How many of you got your hands on the guns? You knew where the key was or somehow got your little paws on them.”
One kiddo, head buried in his arms, waved his hand like a flag in a hurricane. His question to me.
“You promise by the Great Wamboogie. You’re not gonna rat us out?”
The Great Wambuggie was my ethical and moral standard to the kids. If I swore on the Great Wamboogie it was death-vow-certain from me. No way to lie, dissemble, no trickery.
“Yes, on the Great Wamboogie!” I answered.
Each year it varied by a bit, but out of 32 kids in a class, it ranged from five to11 who knew of guns in their households. And that was only the weapons they knew about. So for sure the number of guns in their homes was much higher.
“Third and last question. How many of you have fired them when no one was around?”
Same kiddo, hand waving in the air. Another question from him, “What if we shot the gun with other kids?”
I sucked in my breath, stifled a desire to cry, “Yeah, yeah, that counts.”
Every year, one to five kids fired guns. That’s in one little town with a bunch of loving, affectionate, kind kids I’d walk through the gates of hell for. One town.
What to do? In my opinion, guns need to be better regulated. The Second Amendment doesn’t need to be overturned. No way. American citizens have the right to own and possess weapons. I just think this right needs to be treated the same way nuclear weapons are.
Nuclear weapons are scary – they are regulated. Not everyone should have them. Why is that? Because the more countries that possess them increases the likelihood they will be used. Pakistan, North Korea and, Israel, are prime examples of nations, that, if they believe they are up against the wall, it is likely they will use them. Or in Pakistan’s case it is possible some sub-group will get their paws on them and use them – like my students with guns at home.
Again, what to do?
I have visited New Zealand for many years and I find it in general a sensible, calm place. Citizens and even legal residents can own and use guns. It is a prime go-to place for exotic game hunting. So they have gun laws, and I’d say they are desirable ones.
To obtain a rifle license, a person has to apply with the local police. It is a long process, expensive, and complicated. As it should be. By design, the goal is to weed out a portion of the population who shouldn’t own guns (mentally ill, alcoholics, abusers, drug addicts, felons, gang members.)
The applicant must take a three-hour safety course. It ends with a written exam – which must be passed.
If passed, and I like this part, an interview takes place. The interviewer questions the applicant AND one’s partner or family members. Is the applicant inclined towards anger, outbursts, does he she have socialization issues? The applicant and partner/spouse/family members are interviewed separately.
The interview takes place at the applicant’s home. The interviewer notes the condition of the house. Is there a lockable place for the weapon? Is there a separate lockable place for ammunition storage? A main question: “What is the primary use of the weapon?”
The answer has to be hunting or target use. In New Zealand, self-protection with a firearm is not a viable answer. Such an answer gets the applicant rejected.
Handguns are allowed, but require a special additional endorsement. The applicant must be a member of a registered shooting club. Then there is a six-month probationary term.
Violation of any gun laws, storage, transportation or sales easily end up with loss of the right to possess a weapon, and possible arrest.
New Zealand is serious about her gun laws. The result is minimal gun abuse.
I will add the difficulty in legislating any reasonable gun laws in the United States is exacerbated by the National RIfle Association. It is, by all definitions, a defacto trade organization masquerading as a sports group. A hefty portion of its financing is from gun companies whose only goal is profit, predicated on the sales of more guns. The NRA stands in the way of nearly any restrictions of gun ownership.
But with the many new massacres, the mindset in the U.S. is changing. High school kids are on the forefront of this. If anyone can effect change, it will be them.They know they are in the front row trenches every day as they walk the halls of their schools.
Recently California passed a few logical gun laws:
- Ammo can no longer be bought online unless it is through a federally licensed dealer.
- Assault rifles must be registered and or altered to comply with weapon alteration regulations.
- It is illegal to open-carry rifles or shotguns in areas county supervisors have issued bans.
- High capacity ammunition is banned – a weapon may hold no more than 10 rounds.
- In January 2019 a background check will be required to purchase ammunition.
Senate Bill 1100 probably will pass, which increases the age of rifle and shotgun purchase from 18 to 21.Also, Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation on a trio of firearms bills that included a lifetime gun ban on those convicted of serious domestic crime,a ban on those who have been institutionalized for more than a year for mental health issues, and tougher red-flag laws – police and family members can initiate a process to take guns away from family members deemed a danger to themselves and others.
In the end, I think possibly it’s the kids, the same ones I worry about who will fix things. Like in the Parkland High School massacre. Those high school survivors have inspired so many to confront the fact they may well be the next victims and reasonable limits need to be placed on guns and who owns them.
An incident in class gives me a glimmer of hope. One time one of my fifth graders glanced around nervously and hung back in class. He waited until all the other kids left.
“You said we are supposed to tell you. So here.”
He opened his hand, out rolled an unfired 9mm bullet.”
“What’s the story?” I asked as I took it.
“My brother’s. But you can’t tell. They’ll hurt me.”
I made a person decision, an illegal one. I didn’t report the bullet incident. I couldn’t. They would hurt him, if he was lucky. And if he wasn’t… “They” being the local Norteno gang chapter.
It was a start. One kid knew kids shouldn’t have bullets and he acted.
LETTER: Article a ‘breath of reason’
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