Reflections Blog

Road Rage and the NRA

Recently, I was driving into town and came to a red light at an intersection between the road I was on and a major highway.  My side of the intersection had four clearly marked lanes—one turning right, one going straight across the highway, and two left-turn lanes (which led into town).  I had pulled into the rightmost left-turn lane because after I turned onto this major two-lane highway I needed to turn right not far ahead.  To my left was a white pickup, which had pulled into the leftmost left-turn lane.

When the light turned green, I started across the intersection and began turning into the right-hand lane.  Midway through my turn I sensed the white pickup coming uncomfortably close to my car.  I glanced at this vehicle and saw that the driver was not heading into the left-hand lane, which he was required to do, but was heading into my lane.  I honked my horn to let him know I was there, but he kept turning into the right-hand lane.  I honked again but he ignored me, so I was forced to drive onto the shoulder to avoid a collision.  Then, as he drove off, he turned and looked at me through his rear window and gave me the finger.

Although he was clearly in the wrong (Colorado Driver Handbook, p. 18), something about our encounter enraged him.  I didn’t care about his rude gesture.  My only thought was, thank God he didn’t have a gun.

Since the Newtown school massacre, which so closely followed the Aurora theatre massacre, much of our national dialogue has been about gun control.  And, predictably, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has announced that they strongly oppose any new gun legislation, including universal backgrounds for gun purchasers and a ban on assault weapons, which the perpetrators of the Newtown and Aurora tragedies both carried.  The NRA’s Holy Grail is the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

When James Madison drafted this article of the Bill of Rights, Eighteenth-century America was substantially different than it is today.  In Madison’s day, we had recently won independence from a British government that had sought to disarm citizens and abolish citizen militias prior to the Revolution, and the right to keep and bear arms was understandably viewed as a defense against tyrannical governments.  It was also viewed as a citizen’s natural right to self-defense and as a way to ensure that an armed citizenry could help repel invasions.  Moreover, in early America many people, perhaps most, hunted game in order to put food on the table.  Guns were a necessary part of colonial and frontier life.

But the world in which Madison wrote the Second Amendment no longer exists.  The America of 2013 has the world’s finest, best trained and equipped armed forces.  We have a National Guard (the equivalent of yesteryear’s militias).  We have well-armed and regulated police forces, as well as fire departments, search-and-rescue teams, medical emergency squads, and private security companies, all of whom aid to one degree or another in our collective safety and security.  One could argue that the Second Amendment should be revised to reflect the reality of the modern world, which is substantially different from Madison’s colonial America.

However, I’m not advocating that.  I don’t think we should abolish or rewrite the Second Amendment and infringe upon people’s rights to own guns.  Although we do have modern, well-equipped police forces to safeguard us, they can’t be everywhere all the time.  If only the bad guys had guns, they would act with greater impunity, and we would all be at risk.  Homeowners who want to own guns to defend themselves should be allowed to do so, and I agree with the laws that give people the right to defend their homes against intruders even if it means shooting and killing those intruders.  The right to defend your home and your loved ones is a sacred and necessary right.

But does this mean that people should be allowed to own any weapons?

I have always been puzzled by the NRA’s defense of private ownership of semi-automatic assault rifles.  You don’t use them for hunting, and you don’t need them to defend your home.  Indeed, the only private citizens who use them outside of firing ranges are gang members, bank robbers, and lunatics like Adam Lanza and James Holmes, the mass murderers at Newtown and Aurora.  The right to keep and bear arms doesn’t mean private citizens should have the right to own any weapons.

If your local laws do not prohibit it, it is legal for you to own handguns, normal rifles, and shotguns.  However, it’s illegal for you to possess live hand grenades.  Imagine the damage they could do in a crowded theatre or elementary school classroom!  You can’t legally own grenade launchers, M-60 machine guns, or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.  Nor can you own medium battle tanks, fighter jets, smart bombs, cruise missiles, or nuclear attack submarines.  And this is an important point:  We already have laws prohibiting citizens from owning weapons of significant lethality—those with the capacity to harm many people at once.

Despite the Second Amendment, Americans are already prohibited from owning many types of weapons.  Then why not ban semi-automatic assault rifles?  The question is not about society’s right to ban weapons.  That is already being done and is not in dispute.  The question is where to draw the line.  The only purpose of a semi-automatic assault rifle is to increase the weapon’s lethality and enable the shooter to cause greater harm in a shorter period of time, especially if he uses high-capacity magazines.  Why not ban both and make it more difficult for bad guys and lunatics to cause greater mayhem than they already do when they decide to take lives?  Maybe if a mass murderer had to stop to reload, some innocent people might escape, or the closest authorities might have more time to respond, or some brave souls on the scene might be able to tackle the gunman before he starts shooting again.  But this is a moot point if the gunman is able to fire fifty rounds in 30 seconds.

The Newtown tragedy has intensified the public debate about gun control.  It’s difficult not to be moved to action when you learn that twenty first graders have been murdered in their classroom.  But I can’t imagine that much will change.  The NRA is too powerful, and they have too many friends in Congress.  The irony is that the NRA represents only a tiny fraction of Americans.  The group has 4.5 million members, but in a country of 314 million, that is only 1.4 percent of the population.   What they lack in size, however, they more than make up for in money and influence.  The NRA contributes to and therefore owns many politicians, enough politicians to prevent significant movement on gun control legislation, no matter what the majority of Americans might want.  It is a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

I think it would be sensible to treat guns the way we treat motor vehicles.  Both can be lethal in the wrong hands and can cause harm if not used properly.  Had automobiles existed in James Madison’s time, he might very well have authored another amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing people’s rights to own and operate motor vehicles.  Private transportation would seem to be a natural human right and is also necessary to the security of a free state.

We recognize that chaos would ensue if we didn’t regulate motor vehicle use, so we have traffic laws, and we require that people know how to operate vehicles properly before they are allowed to drive.  Moreover, we license the vehicles and ensure, through safety inspections, that they are safe enough to be allowed on the road.  People can drive freely if they are licensed to drive, obey the laws, don’t endanger others with their driving.  But we take driver’s licenses away from people too infirm to drive and those who have been convicted of certain offenses, like drunk driving.

Why not do the same with guns?  Why not require gun owners to have and carry a gun ownership license, which they could receive only after completing a gun safety course and taking a gun use and safety exam?  Why not license every gun, just as we license every vehicle?  Then make it illegal to own or carry an unlicensed gun or to own a gun if your gun license has been revoked because of a felony conviction or some other offense?

After the Newtown tragedy, the NRA’s Executive Vice President, Wayne LaPierre, argued that we should have armed guards or teachers in all schools.  The NRA believes that the way to prevent tragedies like Newtown is for more people to carry guns so that when a lunatic starts shooting, someone present—a guard, a teacher, a parent, a passer-by—can shoot back.  That sounds to me like the Old West, and I don’t want to live in a place where everyone carries guns.  I can’t imagine having armed guards in every school (or armed teachers in every classroom!).  How could we afford it, for one thing?  Education is already expensive enough.  How could we afford armed guards in every school?  And if we armed teachers, shouldn’t we also arm theatre attendants, janitors, waiters, receptionists, hairdressers, auto mechanics, and the guys selling hot dogs and cotton candy at baseball stadiums?  After all, a James Holmes could show up anyplace.  If the NRA had its way, everyone would be packing and we would all be “safer through shootouts.”

If only we could trust that everyone who would be carrying a gun is sensible, law-abiding, calm in stressful situations, and not prone to road rage.  Unfortunately, carrying a gun makes some people more likely to use it—not when they’re being level headed, mind you, but when they’re angry, or when someone crosses them, or when another driver honks his horn to avoid a collision.

I am not a pacifist or a gun-hating liberal.  I grew up with guns.  My father and grandfather taught me to hunt and gave me guns as gifts.  I served in the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War and was well trained on the use of automatic weapons.  Like many young men of my time who grew up watching John Wayne war movies, I had a romantic image of fighting in combat.  But the actual experience of combat was much different than I imagined.  It is louder and more chaotic than anything most of us have ever experienced.  The mix of adrenaline and fear can be paralyzing, and no matter how brave you are, you can’t help being scared, if not downright terrified, when the gunfight could lead to your own death.  But most of all armed conflict is confusing.  When guns are firing all around you, it’s hard to tell what the hell is happening.  You can’t just pull the trigger and fire blindly.  You have to figure out who the enemy is, and where they are, and what they’re doing, and where your own guys are, and who’s shooting, and where incoming shots are coming from, and whether you’re in imminent danger, and what you need to do to stop it.  The whole cacophonous mess is happening in real time, usually very quickly, more quickly than your mind can make sense of, especially when you’re frightened and not completely sure what’s going on.

We train soldiers and police officers so they will be better equipped to handle the chaos and terror of armed conflict, yet we still have friendly fire incidents like the one that killed former NFL player Pat Tillman in Afghanistan (for a listing of friendly fire incidents, see  Real combat—not fantasy combat, like in video games—is confusing.  And no matter how well trained you are, being shot at is terrifying.  Now imagine transporting all that chaos and terror to a school setting where, if the NRA had its way, a lot of people might pull out guns when shooting starts.  How would you tell the good guys from the bad guys?  If you were there and had a gun, and you saw a stranger slinking down a hallway carrying a gun, would you shoot?  What if that person turned out to be a teacher?  Or a janitor?  Or a parent?  Or a plain clothes cop responding to the shooting?

Having a great many more people armed will not reduce gun violence.  It will only increase the number of accidents and “friendly fire” shootings and incidents where people settle their disputes with gunfire rather than other  non-lethal alternatives.

Do we really want a society where everyone walks around with guns?  Where it’s easy for just about anyone to own a semi-automatic assault rifle?  I’m not opposed to the Second Amendment or to people owning weapons that are not significantly lethal, but I think we need to balance “the right to keep and bear arms” with the even greater right to life!   People should be safe and secure in their homes.  And when they go to theatres or other public places.  And what our six-year-olds should be doing in their classrooms is learning, not dying.

I’m alive to write this article because the guy who forced me off the road recently did not have a gun and had to express his road rage with his middle finger instead of something more lethal.  Sensible gun control is in all of our interests, and it doesn’t have to infringe on Americans’ right to keep and bear arms that are not significantly lethal.  But try telling that to the NRA.


Photo credits:

Man firing assault rifle ©Keetten Predators; assault rifle ©Peter Kim; Wayne LaPierre speaking at CPAC ©GYI NSEA.

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