The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I own guns. But I hate the NRA.

Most gun owners are not members of the NRA. Letting the organization pretend otherwise hurts the millions of gun owners who support some form of gun control.

David Fellerath on a hunting trip. Image courtesy of the author

Some time after I bought my first gun, I got a robocall from the National Rifle Association, asking me to join. After the customary “Please stay on the line…” from a pleasant but earnest voice, I recoiled from the barkings of an angry-sounding man.

Did I know that Barack Hussein Obama and European leaders are meeting on American soil right now, at this very moment, to plot the confiscation of my guns?

The caller continued with his insinuations of an imminent United Nations plot against America, but before I could be handed off to a live operator, I hung up the phone.

I was amused, and then insulted, that someone would think I was dumb enough to fall for such a pitch. But the sad truth is that there are enough people willing to open their checkbooks to make such a noxious fundraising appeal worthwhile.

The NRA claims to have five million dues-paying members (though there’s some reason to believe this figure is inflated). That sounds formidable, until one considers that there are approximately 50 million adults who own firearms. Still, the organization has successfully positioned itself as the singular representation of gun owners. For decades they’ve worked to defend and expand access to firearms in spite of polls showing that most Americans, including gun owners, favor laws that would limit access in various reasonable ways (even three-quarters of NRA households favor background checks prior to private gun sales). But when a U.S. congresswoman was shot in the face, the NRA made certain that no law was passed that would have made her safer. There’s no doubt that the NRA does have some grass-roots support, but it’s smaller than we think. The NRA does not represent all gun owners, and it certainly doesn’t represent me.

If I hate the NRA so much, why did I buy a gun at 37? As a meat eater with no particular desire to become a vegetarian, I wanted to confront the fact of killing animals for food. Once I took up hunting, I discovered that I relished the time I spent off the grid. Some might scratch this itch with a weekend camping trip. I chose to trudge into the woods before dawn, often in freezing temperatures, to keep a silent vigil in the trees as the morning light begins to filter through the branches. I rarely see a deer. Such a contemplative, frequently fruitless endeavor isn’t for everyone, but it suits me.

My guns are long guns, intended for hunting and skeet shooting. Relatively few crimes are committed with hunting weapons, which are designed to shoot animals, not humans. (In fact, knives are more commonly used to commit murder than long guns.) Meanwhile, the death toll from handguns is staggering, especially when we remember that the majority of gun deaths are suicides.

But as crucial as this distinction between hunting guns and handguns is, that fact that I am among America’s gun owners puts my conscience to the test, particularly when horrific, random and widely reported violence tears at the fabric of my own community, and my own social network.

Last Feb. 10 in Chapel Hill, N.C., 15 miles from my home in Durham, three young Americans of Middle Eastern descent were murdered by a home invader. The killer was their neighbor, notorious and feared around the apartment complex for flashing his perfectly legal concealed handgun. Without his weapon, he would have been an angry but perhaps harmless, crank. With it, he snuffed out three lives in a matter of seconds. The deaths affected our community profoundly — everyone seemed to know someone who knew the victims.

Handgun apologists see nothing wrong with this killer possessing both a gun and a carry permit, because he had no prior record. In the moral reasoning that NRA has honed to soundbite perfection, it was his choice to commit a crime. The gun didn’t shoot itself.

While we North Carolinians reel from the killing of Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, our legislators continue to chip away at gun laws, an anti-business, anti-faith agenda that has forced shopkeepers, restaurateurs, barkeeps, schoolmasters and clergy to post “no-gun” signs on their doors.

The NRA and its adherents want us to bristle with alertness to danger, keeping a loaded gun within reach at all times. But where is the concern for people who want to live without fear of guns entering their lives? The three students in Chapel Hill could not make this choice. They were in the shelter of their own homes, but random, shocking violence found them anyway.

In the mid-1990s, I went to New Orleans for the wedding celebration of a charismatic young couple committed to filmmaking and music, community health care, veganism and spreading joy everywhere they went. I knew them only slightly, but I was there as a guest of a close mutual friend. It was a joyous, slightly unhinged all-night affair with costumes, music and a parade that ended at  the banks of the Mississippi. It was unforgettable for the right reasons, and it’s unforgettable for a horrific reason.

One morning in 2007, as she let the cat out before daybreak, the bride, Helen Hill, faced the scenario that gun nuts dream about. As she stepped outside early one morning, she came face-to-face with an intruder. She had time only to scream a warning to her husband and child. Then she was dead.

Gun advocates will say that if she’d owned a gun, she would have survived. But in truth, the only way she possibly could have survived was to live in her own home with a gun on her hip, like a character in a Mad Max movie. To conjure such an image of this particular woman is obscene. Only a suspicious and hostile person would choose to live this way.

I agree with the NRA on one point: Tightening controls on gun ownership will not eliminate gun violence. And it may not do much to address the psychopathology of young men who commit mass murder. Timothy McVeigh and the Tsarnaev brothers committed their crimes with bombs, while Adam Lanza, with no criminal record, inexplicably stole his mother’s guns, murdered her, and headed off to Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But by filtering out at least some people who are poor candidates for responsible ownership, gun control will reduce the steady bloodletting of everyday life in our cities, a pervasive environment of danger that police departments around the country have decried, calling for greater handgun controls.

Rather than being our American birthright, gun ownership should be a privilege earned after thorough examination and training, like driving a car. But in 21st-century America, arms-bearing is an inalienable right, thanks to 27 anachronistic words of a constitution ratified in an 18th-century world of slow-loading muskets.

But something interesting has happened in the wake of the racially motivated massacre of nine African Americans in Charleston, S.C: Republican politicians in the South have found that it isn’t so hard to push for removing the Confederate flag from public places, and here in North Carolina, license plates. Like public acceptance of gay marriage, this development was once unthinkable. Could gun policy face the same disruption?

There are some signs that this could occur. Thanks to the decline in hunting and in violent crime, the percentage of homes with guns has been waning steadily since the 1970s. In 2014, the figure was reported to be 31 percent. Although there are believed to be about 300 million guns in the United States, they seem to be concentrated in fewer, undoubtedly more fervent hands: aging hands, perhaps. Millennials and guns? Not so much.

The Charleston massacre probably won’t result in gun reform, but its survivors have challenged the NRA’s bleak, seething worldview by suggesting that kindness can be the dominant mood of our public life. By offering perhaps premature forgiveness to the young man who killed their loved ones with a legally purchased Glock semiautomatic, they have shown us the possibility of living a more open, less timid existence. They imagine a world of joy, community and shelter, not fear, hatred and violence.