Speaking for My Tribe

At Ade's Gun Shop in Orange, Calif., Emily Atkinson demonstrates how the 10-round magazine can be removed from a Stag Arms AR-15 type rifle using the tip of a bullet to depress the bullet button.
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I’ve been thinking of writing some version of this post since the days immediately after the Newtown shootings. It overlaps with but is distinct from the division between people who are pro-gun or anti-gun or pro-gun control or anti-gun control. Before you even get to these political positions, you start with a more basic difference of identity and experience: gun people and non-gun people.

So let me introduce myself. I’m a non-gun person. And I think I’m speaking for a lot of people.

It’s customary and very understandable that people often introduce themselves in the gun debate by saying, ‘Let me be clear: I’m a gun owner.’

Well, I want to be part of this debate too. I’m not a gun owner and, as I think as is the case for the more than half the people in the country who also aren’t gun owners, that means that for me guns are alien. And I have my own set of rights not to have gun culture run roughshod over me.

I don’t have any problem with people using guns to hunt. And I don’t have any problem with people having guns in their home for protection or because it’s a fun hobby. At least, I recognize that gun ownership is deeply embedded in American culture. That means not only do I not believe there’s any possibility of changing it but that I don’t need or want to change it. This is part of our culture. These folks are Americans as much as I am and as long as we can all live together safely I don’t need to or want to dictate how they live.

I’ve never owned a gun. I’ve never shot a gun. (I’m not including the bb guns I shot a few times as a kid.) Once about ten years ago, my friend John Judis and I were talking and decided it would probably be educational for us as reporters and just fun to go to a firing range and do some shooting. For whatever reason it never happened.

I also have a random and kind of scary experience from childhood. I’m probably or 4 or maybe 5 years old. We’re visiting someone’s house in St. Louis where we lived at the time. I’m off in some part of the house away from the parents playing with the little girl my age in the family. And I see a gun. Looks like a rifle or shotgun (I was too young to know which.) I pick it up, aim at the little girl and jokingly go ‘pow!’. And when I say ‘go pow!’ I mean I said ‘pow!’

But that’s when things got weird. Basically all the blood ran out of this little girl’s face at once, which was totally weird to me. And she said in something like shock, that’s a real gun.

Now, this is just an artefact of my memory. I can’t remember precisely what she said — particularly whether the gun was loaded or whether she thought it was. But her reaction made it very clear that it could have been.

The point, though, is that it was totally outside of my experience that a gun I might find in someone’s house might be a real — possibly loaded — firearm as opposed to a toy. The fact that I didn’t pull the trigger when I said ‘pow!’ was just dumb luck.

Again, I’m not a gun person. My parents weren’t.

Needless to say, this experience made an impression on me. And it sticks out as one of relatively few early childhood memories going on 40 years later. How would my life have been different had I pulled the trigger? I pointed the gun basically point blank at the little girl’s face. (Now, why the hell did I do that? No idea. Little boys are idiots. But it sounds a lot less dramatic if you think it’s a toy.) I’d have been a murderer at age 4 or 5. Be stigmatized and traumatized for the rest of my life. Probably spend at least some time in the juvenile justice system, if only to adjudicate the fact that it was an accident. Of course, the girl’s life would have been snuffed out before first grade.

Now, that’s a pretty heavy story. And you’re probably thinking, wow, no wonder Josh isn’t a gun guy. He was totally traumatized by a near-miss horrific incident as a child.

I don’t think that’s it though. It’s something I only think about once in a blue moon and obviously nothing actually happened, though I can’t deny that it’s part of my life experience.

More than this, I come from a culture where guns are not so much feared as alien, as I said. I don’t own one. I don’t think many people I know have one. It would scare me to have one in my home for a lot of reasons. Not least of which because I have two wonderful beyond belief little boys and accidents happen and I know that firearms in the home are most likely to kill their owners or their families. People have accidents. They get depressed. They get angry.

In the current rhetorical climate people seem not to want to say: I think guns are kind of scary and don’t want to be around them. Yes, plenty of people have them and use them safely. And I have no problem with that. But remember, handguns especially are designed to kill people. You may want to use it to threaten or deter. You may use it to kill people who should be killed (i.e., in self-defense). But handguns are designed to kill people. They’re not designed to hunt. You may use it to shoot at the range. But they’re designed to kill people quickly and efficiently.

That frightens me. I don’t want to have those in my home. I don’t particularly want to be around people who are carrying. Cops, I don’t mind. They’re trained, under an organized system and supposed to use them for a specific purpose. But do I want to have people carrying firearms out and about where I live my life — at the store, the restaurant, at my kid’s playground? No, the whole idea is alien and frankly scary. Because remember, guns are extremely efficient tools for killing people and people get weird and do stupid things.

A big part of gun versus non-gun tribalism or mentality is tied to the difference between city and rural. And a big reason ‘gun control’ in the 70s, 80s and 90s foundered was that in the political arena, the rural areas rebelled against the city culture trying to impose its own ideas about guns on the rural areas. And there’s a reality behind this because on many fronts the logic of pervasive gun ownership makes a lot more sense in sparsely populated rural areas than it does in highly concentrated city areas.

But a huge amount of the current gun debate, the argument for the gun-owning tribe, amounts to the gun culture invading my area, my culture, my part of the country. So we’re upset about massacres so the answer is more guns. Arming everybody. There’s a lot of bogus research (widely discredited) purporting to show that if we were all armed we’d all be safer through a sort of mutually assured destruction, pervasive deterrence. As I said, the research appears to be bogus. But even if it was possible that we could be just as safe with everyone armed as no one armed, I’d still want no one armed. Not at my coffee shop or on the highway or wherever. Because I don’t want to carry a gun. And I don’t want to be around armed people.

About a week ago there was a story out of Oregon of a couple young men who went into a generally liberal non-gun owning type neighborhood with semi-automatic weapons legally on their persons — clearly for the purpose of making a point that they can carry anywhere. We wrote it up and we got this email from TPM Reader AA

The recent Good Times piece had far more slanted commentary than I’m used to from you. I understand that it may be bad taste to open carry rifles right now but there is no need to demonize people for it. You must understand the folks who are open carrying are not the ones causing the trouble. If they are about to do something bad, they will be hiding anything and everything. I don’t carry but see it all the time in my area and never think twice about it. You must acknowledge that they have some level of a point to what you consider madness.

I wrote back the following …

I really don’t. It was clear from the piece that they were in a neighborhood that is not used to seeing people carrying guns, let alone assault rifles. And they were indifferent to the fact that they were scaring people. Indeed, they said that their whole point was to demonstrate their right to do it. A school went into lockdown. I think it’s far more than in bad taste. What possible justification is their for that? Why do you think they did this?

And he replied …

My point is that regardless of how we feel about the law, that it was legal for them to do what they did but the tone I read was illustrating criminal behavior. I liken it to people obnoxiously purposely coughing and giving the stink eye to others who are smoking outside, well away from a door, in an allowed smoking area. Obviously less severe but an example of frankly, being pissy about others’ non criminal choices.

I can only infer on their motives in this case, and yes there are some idiots who just want attention; but from knowing others who open carry they believe that they must show that there is nothing to fear, to show the community the difference between psychopaths, real or imagined, and normal people who choose to carry. The first time you see something scary, that you may not understand completely, are you less afraid when nothing bad happens? The second time, third time? I believe that is what is meant by ‘educate the public’ and is not meant to be derogatory.

I wrote back at more length. But at this point I was already starting to see red. I don’t pretend that AA is representative. But it captured a mentality that does seem pervasive among many more determined gun rights advocates — basically that us non-gun people need to be held down as it were and made to learn that it’s okay being around people carrying loaded weapons.

Well, I don’t want to learn. That doesn’t work where I live — geographically or metaphorically.

So, to the non-crazy gun owners (who I know make up the vast majority of gun owners), I’ve put out my experience and my take. Now I’m ready to talk.

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