Maneuvering in a World of Guns

The deadly gunfire at a high school here in Oregon has already been pushed off the front pages by the fatal shooting of comedian Phil Hartman and his wife. Each new incident causes more arguments about gun control. But I don't think the ongoing debate about the Second Amendment is useful for average Americans who are worried about keeping themselves and their families out of harm's way.

Tinkering with current gun laws won't affect the arsenal that already exists. Guns are part of American life, and they're so numerous that accidental and criminal misuse have become a statistical reality, like car accidents. But while cars were invented to make life more enjoyable, guns have a much different history.

Firearms were developed as weapons of war. They allow armies to inflict maximum damage on the enemy without hand-to-hand combat. Because every soldier knows this danger, use of rifles and pistols is carefully supervised and monitored on military bases.

But across America, tens of millions of guns are stashed in closets, garages, and desk drawers. And it's not enough to know who owns firearms in your neighborhood. The more important question is who, besides the owner, might have access? Could a burglar find it, or the kid next door, or a hostile family member?

The last possibility is one that shows up in a lot of news stories. Pulling a trigger is an easy way to express impulsive anger. Some gun advocates claim that when people really wants to hurt someone else, they'll find another weapon if a gun isn't available. Maybe. But the physical and mental effort required to pick up a baseball bat and use it might also provide the extra seconds to cool down. If a person swings and misses, it's unlikely a bat will hit and kill a bystander.

I'm also wary of people who claim that universal gun ownership will deter crime, and cite towns of the Old West as places where armed citizens provided effective law enforcement. From what I've read, most pioneers brought in sheriffs and judges as quickly as possible, so honest folks didn't have to strap on a six-shooter.

Regardless of my opinion about the need to own guns, I know they won't go away. And, as with cars, everyone should be aware of how to maneuver through traffic.

Let's lose the "us versus them" attitude. I have friends who go hunting and target shooting, and they're responsible people. We're all inside the same circle. It's possible the collective firepower will be needed someday, under extraordinary circumstances. As a writer, I can easily visualize sudden social anarchy, or an attack of killer tomatoes. No scenario is too far-fetched.

I know that different lifestyles have their own special conditions that affect our feelings about guns. I can't speak for people who live in remote, rural areas or high crime neighborhoods. And I realize that my friends and neighbors don't all agree with my theories about the rights and wrongs of modern society. But if I found myself in a tight spot, threatened by a mugger or chased by an angry pit bull, I'm confident that somebody who knows me would come running to help. And having that confidence makes me feel safer.

* Jeffrey Shaffer, a regular Monitor contributor, lives in Portland, Ore.

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