Paul Begala: Me and a Gun

Family on coyote hunt
Brandon, Vt. family participating in annual coyote hunt as part of the Howling Hills Coyote Hunt, an organized coyote hunting derby, Feb. 2005. Alden Pellett/AP

A hunting buddy of mine emailed me from the waiting room of his doctor’s office in Columbus, Ga., a few days after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He was cringing in embarrassment as an old redneck spewed racially divisive rhetoric in front of African-American patients. Then my friend’s embarrassment turned to astonishment as that same redneck (almost certainly a gun owner, given the region and his demographic profile) said, “I never cared much for Obama, but that speech he gave about those little kids—I give him an A for that. He’s gonna try and get more gun control, and I hope he gets it.”

News flash: most gun owners support common-sense gun-safety laws. I should know; I’m one of them. I own so many shotguns and rifles it’s a veritable arsenal. I used to hunt with my father and grandfather as a boy, and now I love taking my sons hunting with their grandfather and uncle. When I hear the words “gun culture,” the first image that comes to mind is not a crazed loner. I think of cold, crisp mornings riding a horse out into a Georgia field, feeling the thrill as an English Pointer snaps to attention at the scent of a bird. Or long hours sitting in a Texas deer stand with one of my sons, waiting, wondering if a big buck will arrive before the dying of the light. I taught each of my boys about the birds and the bees in a deer stand. Taught them how to respect God’s creation, honor the wild things we harvest, and thank the Creator humbly for our place in the food chain and the ultimate free-range, organic meal.

Before the slaughter in Aurora, Colo.—and long before Sandy Hook—a survey of gun owners found that nearly 9 out of 10 of us support criminal-background checks of anyone who seeks to buy a gun. (Currently only in-store purchasers are checked; there’s a loophole for gun shows.) Eight in 10 gun owners support background checks for employees of gun sellers, 7 in 10 support banning gun sales to anyone under 21, and more than 6 in 10 would prohibit violent offenders from obtaining a concealed-handgun permit.

We should enact all those common-sense gun-safety laws and more. We should reinstate the Clinton-era ban on assault weapons, like the AR-15 used in both Aurora and Sandy Hook. And I don’t know a single hunter who supports the legal purchase of 30-round clips. I have hunted for decades, and have rarely gotten off even a third shot at a deer, much less an 11th or a 29th. Those massive ammo clips are useless for target practice, and pointless for personal protection. If you can’t protect your home with three shots, you’re not going to be able to do it with 30. Their only purpose: to abet mass killing. They must be banned.

Like so many gun owners, I am fanatical about safety. All of my guns have trigger locks, and the ammunition is under lock and key. Alcohol is forbidden during a hunt. Before a bird is felled, the hunter must be sure the dogs are safe, his compatriots are in position, and the shot is prudent.

When my kids were little I did not allow them to even point toy guns at the dog, much less at another human being. And I will never allow point-and-shoot videogames in my home. It is appalling to me that parents would allow their children to play a game in which simulating the killing of another human being is the goal. I’d much rather have my sons shoot a deer once, and spend the rest of the day cleaning the carcass and handling the meat, than “kill” hundreds of people in a videogame.

People who own weapons should know their terrible, lethal power far better than non–gun owners. Once you pull a trigger in a vacant field and see a beer can instantly explode, you know there is no force on earth that can undo that destruction. Sure, shooting brings a rush—but it should also spur humility. At least in the gun culture I know, it does.

My gun culture emphasizes tolerance. As a pro-Obama, pro-gay-rights progressive whose boys share the same political views, we are frequently in the field with ultra-conservative Republicans—and yet we hunt together, swap lies around a campfire, and depart with mutual respect. I ask the same of folks who do not appreciate gun culture. I know lots of liberals who would never pass judgment on someone’s sexual habits or faith choices or cultural preferences but who sneer at the thought of armed, ignorant rednecks tromping through the woods to murder Bambi. The left should not turn common-sense gun safety into a gratuitous attack on a culture they don’t understand.

As strongly as I support gun safety—a term I prefer to “gun control” since it is both more accurate and less threatening—restricting access to guns alone will not solve the problem. Which is why President Obama was wise to charge Vice President Joe Biden with looking at the entire toxic, tragic stew that allows mass killings to occur—not just guns, but also the inadequacies of our mental-health system and the celebration of killing in our culture. The media could do its part as well: given the evidence that some mass killers seek fame, would it be so hard for journalists to refuse to publish the names or images of mass murderers going forward?

I want to prevent would-be killers from having access to weapons of war. I want to stop them from teaching themselves to kill through videogames. I want mental-health services to be more easily obtained. And I want to deny murderers the notoriety they seek. Our leaders must attack the entire problem—and if they do, I believe my fellow gun owners will have their back.