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Editors' Picks National Opinion

The Original Design: Guns, Culture, and Violence

I first held a shotgun when I was twelve years old–a sleek, black 12- gauge Remington. It was made for the purpose of hunting small waterfowl, skeet pigeons, and assorted varmints. Remington describes the modern version of the firearm, the model 870, as the quintessential tool, a value-priced workhorse for the functional man: “At the heart of the ultra-reliable 870 Remington is a receiver milled from a solid billet of steel for maximum strength. 870 pump shotguns have great pointing characteristics. They come to the shooter’s shoulder and acquire targets instinctively, and swing fluidly on fast flying birds.”

Out in a field in East Texas, with my father and my grandpa a hundred yards to either side, I sat atop a lonely hay bale and popped doves out of the sky on a lazy September afternoon. I liked the gun, I took pride in it and cared for it. Every once in a while for the next five years, we’d still take guns out to go hunting–that was until I became aware of the broader reputation of guns that I hadn’t been privy to growing up.

At large, the United States boasts an unprecedented legacy of gun violence, with nearly fifteen mass shootings having occurred since I started this piece in early November. Still in recent memory, 13 people–including local Sheriff’s Deputy Sergeant Ron Helus–were killed by gunman Ian Long in a shooting in Thousand Oaks, California. Among the other victims of the California shooting were survivors of a previous high-profile shooting in Las Vegas in October 2017 that killed 59, committed by Stephen Paddock. A piece from the New York Times stated that: “As they raced for safety, many of them thought: not again.” They’d seen this kind of egregious violence before, they’d felt the fear and helplessness as they dived for cover, and for a few, they were unable to cheat a gunman twice, and died that night. Millions of Americans who woke up the following morning to read resulting articles and reports, and collectively let out a deep sigh of exasperation.

Another one.

One of the closest shootings to my hometown was committed by Dimitrios Pagourtzis, who, on May 18th of 2018, killed 10 people at his high school in Santa Fe, Texas. This suburban town is not unlike my own in size, layout, and culture, and just close enough down the highway to place a knot in my throat when the first reports of the violence came through. As details were uncovered in the shooting’s aftermath, the knot tightened.

The gun used in the shooting at Thousand Oaks was a Glock 21, .45 caliber, that the former Marine had allegedly been able to purchase legally. The guns used in Las Vegas included AR-15s, pistols, and various semi-automatic rifles, also purchased legally by Paddock, modified illegally with bump stocks to fire automatically. And in Santa Fe, Pagourtzis wielded a 12-gauge Remington Model 870–sleek, black, “instinctive,” “fluid,” “functional.” I recognized it from the photos.

The gun meant something very different to Pagourtzis than it did to me. I grew up with the perception that a shotgun, a rifle, or any gun was nothing more than a tool for hunting, the same as an axe or a hammer or saw would be for craft–only dangerous if handled improperly. Every time we went hunting, my grandfather would [consistently] remind me to point it towards the ground, always engage the safety, and yell “HOT!” before pointing it upwards, counting to three, and pulling the trigger on an overheard dove. Breathe in, HOT, 1, 2, 3, pull–and a dove glided to the ground. The gun did its job. But in a much darker context, the user-friendly and highly functional nature of this gun made it something much different for Pagourtzis–a weapon. Pagourtzis perhaps valued the gun for the very things Remington had originally advertised–it’s affordability, friendliness to inexperienced handlers, and its “instinctive” and “fluid” functionality. It’s easy to identify the similarities in the guns we both owned, they were virtually the same, the difference, therefore, must have lied in a choice of how to use it.

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What does it mean to own a gun in America? When countless victims of gun violence–whether that be in the form of mass shootings, interpersonal conflict, domestic violence, police shootings, or suicides– die every year. In 2018, there has been a total of 307 mass shootings, and possibly more undocumented, according to a database by the Gun Violence Archive. Survivors, as well as friends and families of those killed, have been bravely outspoken about the effects of gun violence on their lives– the pain of losing a loved one, the fear of living life under threat. Yet despite this, they’ve retained the courage to issue a simple and seemingly practical call to mitigate some of the gratuitous violence. And across the United States, there have been frequent political demands to pass gun control legislation, articulated through movements like March for Our Lives and the National Walk Out. Guns, or more accurately the accessibility of guns, has been the target of most of these outcries. When I think about the gun I owned, and the violence it’s capable of, I realize that there’s a greater meaning imbued into it than what I may prescribe. In the wake of countless atrocities, a gun is no longer a tool, but a weapon, and demands to be treated as such.

Guns are violent–regardless of the common argument that they’re harmless unless in wrong hands–they’re tools crafted for the directed and controlled application of violence. This is more apparent in some guns than others –the most infamous being the Colt AR-15 and its assault-style derivatives. After Colt’s patent on this style of rifle expired in 1977, a huge marketplace emerged for the AR-15 style, with many different manufacturers placing their own spins on the original design. Most AR-15’s feature a black carbon-fibre frame, extended magazine, and elongated 18” barrel. Most parts on the AR are interchangeable, leading gun magazines like Wayback Machine to describe it as the “Swiss Army knife of rifles,” or some very adamant gun enthusiasts to refer to it as “the Barbie Doll for men.” Collectively, these are all categorized as “modern sporting rifles,” according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. Yet, they’ve also been used in numerous high-profile shootings across the United States in the past few decades, mostly due to the AR-15’s relative availability and affordability. The New York Times refers to it as “one of the most vilified” rifles in the United States. The National Rifle Association upholds it as “America’s Rifle.”

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Pro-gun organizations, often under the guise of the second amendment, see the AR-15  and other guns as a testament to America’s culture of freedom and self-reliance. Charlton Heston, chairman of the NRA for decades, claimed that guns were essential for personal protection from the government or crime. In a speech in May 2000, he declared that Americans would give up their guns only when they’re pried from their “cold, dead hands.” Proponents of tighter gun regulations see the AR-15 as an unnecessary and dangerous weapon with the innate potential to cause violence, associating the idea of self-reliance with antiquated, and often ubiquitous ideas.

The debate over gun control and regulation has become heavily ideologized, with the gun in the center. After each instance of gun violence, menial if not ineffective measures are passed, most often on the state level, to regulate guns. Most often, these are immediately overturned in courts when groups like the NRA sue. Lawmakers at the federal level avoid the issue altogether. It makes it apparent that policymakers would rather accept ongoing human collateral from gun violence than risk taking a shot to their political careers.

The AR-15, the Glock 21, the Bump Stocks, and the Remington 870 are all entangled with violence, fear, and despair as they continue to take lives in incidents of gun violence across the United States, a circumstance that warrants immediate and deliberate action to prevent that violence. Legislation making it more difficult to obtain a firearm for those with mental illness, histories of violence, or criminal records are positive steps forward. In addition, current policies can be altered to close notorious loopholes in the regulations on purchasing a gun. One example would be the Gun Show Loophole, where in some states background checks for purchasing firearms can be avoided at specialty gun events like shows and expositions. Another would be the Boyfriend’s Loophole, where people who commit domestic violence aren’t barred from purchasing a weapon if that act was committed in a non-marital relationship. This is why many gunmen, Paddock and Long included, brandished records of domestic violence that weren’t uncovered or accounted for until after the shootings. And finally, legislation can be passed to encourage more cautionary and respectful handling of firearms, such as requiring safety training before obtaining a gun owner’s permit.

Even as someone who’s always lived in the context of guns, I don’t find it too difficult to align myself with policies that make gun ownership safer, and by extension make our society safer. No one should live with the fear of guns falling into the wrong hands when background checks are perceived as a tedious formality to be circumvented, and certainly, no one should live in fear of their ex-boyfriend returning to their doorstep with an 30-round extended magazine semi-automatic night-vision-enabled AR-15 (available as a “Top Pick!” on CheaperThanDirtGuns.Com).

However, when I think about the role guns have played in my life and the lives of those around me, it’s still hard to imagine a world without them. They’ve become a life necessity for many living in places like where I grew up. It’d be like living without an axe, a hammer, or a saw. And I imagine the typical scenario, the fear of being without a gun in a dire situation that may demand it for defense. But then, another one happens. Another shooting. Another life, or lives, taken by irresponsible, gratuitous, and wholly unnecessary gun violence. It’s then that the meaning of a gun becomes not just a privilege, but a deep and heavy responsibility, one unfortunately, but inevitably entangled with people’s lives.

Guns may not entirely go away–no one could imagine actually prying millions of them from those who rely on them for everyday life–as tools–but it’s become necessary that Americans learn to live responsibly, and indeed in some cases without guns, so that some may simply live.