I am a responsible gun owner.
I bought my first gun when I was 12. It was a Browning 12-gauge shotgun, and I saved money from my paper route and cleaning a drive-in restaurant to buy it in time for dove season. In the years before I could legally drive, I’d tie the Browning across the handlebars of my bike and ride to the fields outside town to hunt.
I’ve owned several guns since — deer rifles and target rifles, shotguns and a handgun. I bought that gun, a semi-automatic Ruger, to keep my family safe, and locked it up to keep them safe from it. Like I said, responsible.
Although I’d like to believe I’m not party to the gun violence that stains the United States, I can’t. My grandmother shot and killed herself with a gun, and a few years ago my father shot and didn’t quite kill himself with one. A family friend lost a teenage son in an accidental shooting while he and his friends were playing with a gun. My stepbrother died in a murder-suicide with a gun, and the husband of one of my sister’s co-workers was killed in a mass shooting by a guy carrying three of them.
None of that happened with my gun, of course, but after every new mass shooting, I’m reminded that I, as a responsible gun owner, bear a portion of the responsibility for our nation’s gun violence.
After the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon — after every mass shooting on a college campus, movie theater, elementary school or wherever — someone from the National Rifle Association or some other gun-rights group, or someone in Congress or running for president, goes on television and says we can’t fund federal studies on gun violence or have universal background checks of gun buyers or do anything that even hints of gun control because it infringes on the rights of responsible gun owners.
My gun is being used to argue against doing anything to even try to reduce gun violence in our nation. That’s what being a responsible gun owner means now — I’m responsible.
I’m a bit ashamed how slowly I came to that realization. For most of my life, I never thought about guns, and certainly didn’t weigh in on the gun control debate. Until recently, I didn’t even connect the personal tragedies in and around my family to guns.
I was at a restaurant when I first learned about the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., watching news reports on the television over the bar. Like most of America, my reaction was horror and disgust. But I could also overhear a guy talking at the bar, and his first reaction was, “They’re gonna use this as an excuse to come after our guns.”
The authorities were still trying to figure out how many 6- and 7-year-olds had been killed, and he was worried about his guns.
I thought Sandy Hook might prompt a sober discussion about gun control or even legislative action, but that didn’t happen. The NRA’s proposed solution was more guns — arming teachers and guards at every school. The church shooting in Charleston, S.C., happened about a week after I’d visited that city for the first time, and again, the gun lobby opposed any hint of gun control, ostensibly on behalf of responsible gun owners.
I thought about giving up my gun then, but I didn’t. In the face of so much gun violence in our society, disarming is bit frightening (even though I know statistically I’m safer without a gun in the house than with one). I still told myself I wasn’t part of the problem.
That ended a week ago.
After the Umpqua shooting, and the gun lobby’s predictable response, and a visibly angry President Obama admitting there’s no political will to try to solve our country’s gun violence problem, I realized it’s not their problem. It’s mine.
The Monday after the shootings, I disassembled my Ruger, clamped the pieces in a vise and cut them in half with an angle grinder. I sent the proper paperwork in to the state to report it destroyed. And then I wrote about it on Facebook, and included a hashtag: #ONELESSGUN.
I’m not an activist, I’m an angry American. I’m angry about the senseless killings, and the more senseless “stuff happens” response to them. I’m angry that the gun industry’s special-interest spokesmen claim to speak for me, and that politicians believe them.
Mostly, I’m angry about what it says about the United States. The idea that kids getting slaughtered at school is too big a problem for us to solve infuriates me. If there is truly nothing we can do, nothing we can try — if we just have to accept it — then we have failed as a nation and as a culture. I don’t want to believe that.
Instead, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans — including American gun owners — want to reduce gun violence and are open to solutions: policing, education, training, technology, mental health, media and yes, gun laws.
I believe claiming the NRA speaks for all gun owners is like saying the Westboro Baptist Church speaks for all Christians. It doesn’t. The gun lobby in this country is considered an all-powerful political force, but it is a narrow special-interest group, same as any other. It has exactly the amount of power we give it.
And I believe people are ready for change.
More than 46,000 strangers shared my post and picture of my destroyed handgun with their friends and networks. A few mocked it, but the overwhelming majority of the messages were positive. Some of those comments came from other gun owners. Some came from men and women who had gotten rid of their firearms, or are considering doing so or who support my decision but aren’t going to part with their guns. That’s okay. At least they’re in the conversation.
None of us individually can stop gun violence in America, but responsible gun owners can change the debate, and individuals can act when politicians won’t. I know I will no longer allow myself to be used as a justification for doing nothing.
Maybe cutting up a perfectly good gun is just a symbolic — some say stupid — gesture that will accomplish nothing. Maybe. But at the very least, there is #ONELESSGUN.