Author's note: This column was updated and clarified on Dec. 1, 2014.
OPINION AND COMMENTARY
By Darren Richardson
Special to The Punditty Project
In light of today’s 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Chicago’s gun ownership law, thoughts about the proverbial Big Picture have been impossible to ignore. Firearms are a fact of life, just like drugs, and like drugs they can be abused or used in beneficial ways. Just as some drug education programs have been shown to be effective in preventing drug abuse, could it be that smart firearms education programs can prevent problems associated with guns?
I didn’t fire my first real weapon until the fall of 1984, during U.S. Army basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. Careful readers and Army veterans will notice that I made reference to a weapon, not a gun.
One of the first things new recruits learn is that firearms are always to be thought of as weapons. Unfortunately, in the civilian realm, that is not always the case.
As a child in the early 1970s, I remember looking forward to getting new, hard plastic machine guns for Christmas, the kind that made rat-a-tat-tat noises and disrupted adult conversations. My best friend also enjoyed the thrill of mass-produced toy guns, and we wasted no time in playing “Vietnam” on the playground of a nearby Lutheran School as soon as our parents let us break away from in-house family activities. We might have died a hundred times between Christmas and New Year’s, but we always got back up to fight again.
Kids will be kids, of course, and they should be allowed to be kids without calling in psychiatric experts, social scientists and media wonks to tell us whether or not a particular kiddy behavior poses a grave danger to people who tend to be afraid of too many things in the first place. Still, thinking back on the glee I felt at taking part in childhood war games is a bit disconcerting. What was so exhilarating about pretending to be in the thick of things, mowing down the enemy as though I were John Wayne or Steve McQueen or some nameless Joe from a war movie I’d seen in the past few months?
Could it have been that I didn't understand the real world consequences of following though on my childhood fantasies?
What if, instead, I had been conditioned not to glorify firearms but to respect their potential for both good and bad uses?
“This is your weapon, this is your gun…”
My father, a Word War II veteran, has never been much of a hunter. He no doubt saw enough weaponry to last a lifetime during the Battle of the Bulge and elsewhere. The closest I came to handling firearms before my military training was my older brother’s pellet gun and a few cap guns here and there in addition to the heavy duty artillery my pals and I would get at Christmas.
But within minutes of being issued an M-16 at Fort Dix, I never thought of guns as toys again. I don’t remember if it was a drill sergeant or a particularly clever recruit who first uttered the rhyme, “This is my weapon, this is my gun; this one’s for fighting, this one’s for fun," but it stuck. If the reference to the fun gun confuses you, then you probably have no business watching NC-17 films.
I learned more about the reality of weaponry in those nine weeks in New Jersey than a large portion of the American population, perhaps even the majority, learns in a lifetime. And it has served me well on many occasions, including an incident at a college party back in the late 1980s. A friend of a friend showed up somewhat drunk and began showing off his Smith & Wesson .45. I was intoxicated as well, but when I suddenly saw this idiot trying to twirl his gun like he was back in the Old West, I had enough sense to walk away from the party. I later learned that the wannabe gunslinger may have fired a shot into the air after leaving the scene and heading out into the country. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but his actions at the party serve to reinforce the message that guns are not toys.
And if I still had been thinking in terms of guns as toys, I might even have wanted to give it a twirl myself.
Education is an ally, not an enemy
Driver’s education. Sex education. Anti-drug education. We can argue the pros and cons of particular curriculums, but few would argue that these are not important topics. In the case of driving, many courses are still optional. Regarding sex education, some would say it should be bypassed entirely. And some research indicates that programs like D.A.R.E. actually lead to increased drug abuse.
But does that mean it is smarter to ignore all these facts of life while ostensibly providing an education that will prepare children and teens for adulthood? No. Wishing the trees would stop burning won't reduce the number of forest fires; teaching people not to smoke or light campfires in certain situations will. Similarly, teaching responsible gun ownership safety as well as basic firearms facts to those who choose not to own them will go a long way toward reducing the number of homicides and accidental shootings.
It is long past time for additional firearms education courses in public schools and communities nationwide. Today’s Supreme Court decision recognizes that guns are a fact of American life. It would be beneficial for the nation as a whole if our public education system did so as well.
“Supreme Court Upholds Broad Reach of Gun Rights,” CBS News, June 28, 2010
“To Teach or Not Teach Gun Safety in Schools?” ABC News, Aug. 20 (year not displayed on story)
“Teaching Gun Safety in Schools?” The Spectrum (Southern Utah), June 28, 2010
Drug Abuse Resistance Education: The Effectiveness of D.A.R.E. – alcholfacts.org