A Time to Talk, Listen, and Act

While the issue of gun violence has weighed on my mind for some time, the horror of the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, has caused me to write this article.

For too long those who staunchly defend the right to bear arms and those who advocate for gun control have, to my mind, been talking past each other. The time has come — indeed, it is long overdue — to have a meaningful discussion about how to properly balance the right to bear arms with the need to reduce gun violence in this country. Because of my life’s experiences, I believe that I owe an especial duty to have my voice heard because I understand well both sides of the debate.

I believe in the right of law abiding citizens to bear arms. I grew up with guns. I was in the woods and fields with my father hunting before I was ten, and Dad gave me my first shotgun for Christmas when I was twelve. Some of my fondest, most powerful memories involve my being with Dad as he instilled in me an appreciation for nature and his spending countless hours teaching me not just how to hunt, but the importance of firearm safety.

I cherish those times. To this day, I own guns and remain a hunter. I also find that while my father died so many years ago, I am never alone when I am in the woods or fields because his memory and spirit are with me. I will always defend the right to bear arms of law abiding citizens.

On the other hand, I am no stranger to the irrevocable grief that strangles the heart when you lose a loved one to a senseless act of gun violence. My older brother, Luke, and I were beyond close. Words cannot convey what my brother meant to me. Although decades have passed since Luke’s death, the moment that I received the call that a woman had purchased a handgun and assassinated my brother is seared into my being. To this day, I can see my sister as she collapsed and hear the wail from the depths of her soul as I told her our beloved brother had been murdered, and I will never forget the agony when I broke the news to his children that their father had been taken from us.

As those who know me well can attest, Death and I have been acquainted from an early age. I know that the death of a loved one is always difficult, but the pain caused by the unexpected, senseless death of a loved one who is gunned down has a bottomless depth to it. It is a loss that wracks the soul.

I pray to God that he takes me before I ever have to endure something like that again. Thinking about it now, I am reminded of what I heard a severe burn victim once say. He was thankful that he survived, but he would rather die than go through the agony again.

I think of the families of the victims from yesterday’s massacre, and my heart absolutely breaks for them because I know exactly what they are going through.

I do not pretend to have the answer on how to eliminate gun violence, and I do not believe that we will be able to prevent all gun deaths. Just as there will be highway fatalities as long as cars are driven by people, there will be gun deaths as long as there are guns. We should not ban cars, and we likewise should not ban firearms. But just because we cannot prevent all gun deaths does not mean we should do nothing.

Most people are not on either extreme of the gun control debate. Relatively few people want to ban all guns, and few believe there should be a complete, unfettered, secret right to all weapons on the grounds that it helps us respond to a Red Dawn scenario or enables us to openly revolt against our government if it becomes tyrannical. So where can reasonable people of good faith meet on the issue of guns? Here are three suggestions to start the conversation.

The first suggestion is the most obvious: universal background checks on all gun sales. The mantra of most gun right advocates is that we should keep guns out of the hands of criminals while protecting the right of law abiding citizens to own a firearm.

With that premise in mind, universal background checks for all gun sales should be an easy step when you think about it. It allows law abiding citizens to buy guns while making it at least a little more difficult for criminals to acquire a gun. Indeed, the public overwhelmingly agrees that universal background checks represent a common sense measure. By one poll, some 83 percent of all gun owners support a universal background check for gun sales, and more than 70 percent of all NRA members do as well.

The second suggestion is perhaps more controversial but enjoys considerable evidence that, if enacted, it could significantly reduce firearm homicides as well as firearm suicides: some form of a license to purchase that requires the purchaser to have had basic training in gun safety.

Let me explain why I think a license to purchase in Virginia represents a common sense approach that does not infringe a person’s right to bear arms yet provides us a measure of safety protection.

When handled improperly, a gun is a dangerous instrument. Any responsible gun owner will tell you that when handling a firearm, safety must always remain the highest priority. In order to ensure that safety, training is essential. My father spent hours teaching me gun safety.

Unfortunately, the days are long gone when we can depend on a parent to teach their children all about gun safety and proper protocol. That is why, for example, Virginia requires new hunters pass a safety course before they can be issued a hunting license. I fully support that program. I do not want a bunch of yahoos with rifles and shotguns traipsing in the woods who have no hunter safety training. I am safer because of that program.

Likewise, Virginia requires basic gun safety training for anyone who wants a concealed weapons permit. There have been hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia with a concealed weapons permit who have received basic gun safety training. Once again, we are safer because of that requirement.

So in Virginia, we do recognize that gun safety training is important, and there are times that we require that training. My question is this. If safety training is important to obtain a concealed weapons permit, why should it matter to me whether the person is carrying his gun under his coat instead of displaying openly on his hip? Regardless of where the gun is on his or her body, I want the person to have received some basic gun safety training.

Thus, our requiring a person who buys a gun to have training similar to that required to obtain a concealed weapons permit does not strike me as onerous. You take the course, have a background check, and are given a license to purchase firearms.

Such a requirement also serves the avowed purpose of those who deeply and legitimately believe that people have a right to defend themselves and their families. If you are confronted with a life threatening emergency, it is beyond cavil that you are far better off having had some training than trying to figure out what to do in the midst of one of the most stressful, frightening times of your life.

In addition to all the training my father gave me with long guns, I have also sought and received professional gun safety training in connection with handguns. Moreover, I have many friends who own handguns, all of whom have received training and passed a gun safety course. Responsible gun owners recognize that such training is invaluable.

Just as important, we have evidence that some type of license-to-purchase requirement has a measurable impact on gun related deaths. After Connecticut passed a license-to-purchase law, firearm homicides in that state dropped 40 percent and gun related suicides dropped 15 percent. Conversely, after Missouri repealed its license to purchase law, firearm homicides increased 25 percent and gun related suicides rose 16 percent.

To be sure, a license-to-purchase law is not going to stop every evil person who is intent on mass murder, but it is a definite barrier for them. Statistics reflect that those who take the time to receive training and obtain a concealed weapons permit are far, far less likely to commit a violent crime than those who do not have such a permit.

I of course think that any license-to-purchase law should be carefully tailored. For example, I am not in favor of gun registration, and the license to purchase should be for prospective purchases and not those already acquired. Nor do I propose that it prevent a family member from giving a gun to another family member (this mostly occurs when a parent gives a hunting weapon to his or her child, and I would note that the child will have to pass a hunter safety course before being issued a hunting license).

Further, I am certainly open to a ten-year sunset clause for any license-to-purchase law. If gun deaths do not decline then you let the law expire. If they in fact decrease as I suspect they will, then reenact the law.

My third suggestion is that we repeal the federal ban on funding gun violence research. We need answers, and we should not be anti-science in trying to figure out how best to address the scourge of gun deaths and injuries. We do not want to proceed blind. Knowledge is power. Even the lead sponsor of the legislative ban on research funding now recognizes that the ban was a mistake and represents bad public policy.

I hope that this opinion piece contributes in some small way to a thoughtful discussion on the issue of how to balance second amendment rights with public safety, and does not simply provoke knee jerk reactions. Like I stated earlier, the time for Pavlovian responses has passed.

In closing, I would make two final observations. I know that to the loved ones of gun violence victims, there will be solace in knowing that even if the steps taken could not save their loved ones, at least society tried to do something to curb the carnage. Having the grieving loved ones believe that we remained callously indifferent would only add to their already immeasurable grief.

To my fellow Republicans, I would say this. I urge you to reject an absolutist position but instead, to use a football analogy, adopt a bend-but-don’t-break strategy vis a vis the gun debate. I predict that within the next ten to fifteen years, there will be a time when the Democrats control the Virginia Governor’s Mansion as well as both houses of the General Assembly. If we have not reached a good faith compromise on the issue of gun control by then, I doubt you will like what the future holds when the day comes that Democrats can ram through anything they want.

Also from Bearing Drift: The Names We Didn’t Hear on August 3rd by Kristine Nohe.