Soldiers Don't Vote for Democrats Because Liberals Don't Know Anything About Guns | Opinion

I am a Marine veteran, an infantry officer who carried an M4 in a combat zone. I am also a Democrat from San Francisco, who lived in New York, and believes in gun control. And as mass shooting follows shooting, I am frustrated by the paralysis on gun control. I am frustrated by the National Rifle Association (NRA), by hollow 'thoughts and prayers,' and by moments of silence. Yet as a Democrat, I am also deeply frustrated by my party's approach to guns. My party's positions are ineffective, unlikely to achieve policy changes, and politically short-sighted because they are fundamentally illogical.

I did not grow up with guns—except for Boy Scout camp, I'd hardly touched a gun until the Marines. Like most people from coastal cities, I found guns scary and off-putting, and wondered why, even given the right, anyone but the military or police would ever own guns.

Fundamentally, I maintained the irrational belief that guns somehow just go off and hurt people—all by themselves. I used to think of gun control—and especially measures aimed at seemingly military 'assault rifles'—as such an obvious public good that I couldn't help but see opponents as being intentionally perverse.

Three years and thousands of rounds later, I was in a sandbagged bunker in northern Syria. Between posts we spent our hours talking, about everything from Beyoncé to post-deployment plans. At the uncomfortable end of the 'pointy end of the spear,' we also talked a lot about politics.

It isn't surprising that Marines lean conservative. The military is a conservative place, from its focus on honor and patriotism to its haircut regulations. I expected the Marines from traditionally "red" states, who had pickups and parents in oil and gas, to vote for Trump. But the Marines whose parents were undocumented immigrants, whose pre-military insurance was Obamacare, who hoped for financial aid for college so they could transfer their G.I. Bill to their children? They all leaned right, too.


Gun control. Not because my Marines were die-hard Second Amendment types, the type the Democrats can't and shouldn't court. But because, as infantrymen, we lived and breathed guns, because our lives depended on them. We attended schools on their functioning, maintenance, safe operation, and employment. We trained for months to develop the proficiency and confidence to fire machine guns in support of our friends, our rounds impacting just 50 meters in front of our fellow Marines.

My Marines were Republicans because on the issue they are true experts, the Democratic position just doesn't make sense. Logical gun control would consider weapons based on how they function, how deadly they are, and how they could be used to commit mass murder. This is not the approach the Democratic Party has taken. Instead, Democrats have pursued measures to control weapons based on how they look.

The intent isn't bad—we want to stem the tide of gun violence sweeping across America. It's a necessary and noble goal. The prevalence of mass shootings in America, especially those targeting schools and children, is a horrifying trend. Gun control is part of the answer.

However, in doing so, we have attempted to distinguish between murderous 'assault weapons' and 'reasonable weapons' owned by recreational gun owners and hunters. The Assault Weapons Ban of 1994 was such an attempt. It identified features to classify a rifle as an '"assault weapon"'—not one of which has anything to do with the weapon's function. Two are ergonomic (adjustable stocks and pistol grips), one is irrelevant (bayonet lug), one is insignificant (flash suppressors), and one is already regulated (grenade launchers).

M4 Carbine assault rifle. MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

The M4s carried by my Marines in Syria had all of these features. If they had been modified to be compliant with the ban—with fixed length stocks, traditional trigger grips, no bayonet lugs, no flash suppressors, and no under barrel grenade launchers—we would have been, while slightly less comfortable using the weapons, no less deadly.

Looking domestically, the mass shootings with 'assault weapons' that rocked our country could just as easily have been committed with ban-compliant weapons.

There are obvious improvements—requiring universal background checks and making bump stocks as illegal as fully automatic sears. Most Americans agree on these reforms, and they should be enacted into law—yesterday.

The real conversation, though, isn't so obvious. The hard, honest truth is that real gun control—if we care about reducing access to weapons that enable mass murder—will require us to target weapons based on how they function. Unfortunately, there is no simple functional distinction between 'assault weapons' and the rifles used by responsible shooters. What makes an AR-15 deadly for a mass shooter—that it is a semi-automatic, detachable magazine rifle firing a medium-power centerfire round—are also likely characteristics of your grandfather's wooden stock deer rifle. Gun control isn't just difficult because of the corrosive role of the NRA and the gun industry in politics. Gun control is hard because it requires real trade-offs between the rights of responsible individuals versus the access of criminals to murder weapons.

We must stop hiding from this hard conversation. We should talk about regulating semi-automatic rifles more stringently than bolt-action rifles. We should talk about different regulations for weapons with detachable or high-capacity magazines. We should talk about these things—even when they impact hunters or recreational shooters—because they affect how weapons function.

We will face opposition, not just from the NRA and the industry, but also from responsible Americans who own guns. My Marines might be among them. But we don't need to convince them to accept our position on gun control—only to recognize that our approach is honest.

America already has a party that dissembles about the impact of its policies, deflects hard decisions by grandstanding, and panders to special interests. That's Donald Trump and Paul Ryan's party. We must be better than that. The recent Special Elections—Doug Jones in Alabama, Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania—prove that Americans reward us for being better than that. Let's be the solution to the dysfunctional debate. Let's stop pandering to a base that is unfamiliar with weapons by claiming a distinction that does not exist. Let's stop pretending that we can enact gun control without impacting responsible gun owners. Let's ask Americans, honestly, to bear the real costs of reducing gun violence.

This is an opportunity for Democrats. There are too many single-issue Second Amendment voters in this country, and we have the opportunity to fix that. If we take a logical position on function-driven gun control, we can convince those voters that, while we might differ on gun policy, our position makes sense. Then we can move the conversation to the economy, education, immigration, trade, healthcare, unions—all the other challenges that we face today. Because based on what my Marines said about these issues—they would have been Democrats. Let's make that possible.

John Vrolyk is a former Marine infantry officer, who deployed to Northern Syria as part of Operation Inherent Resolve​ to support the clearance of ISIS from Raqqa.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​

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