Politics & Policy

Working with the NRA

Instead of demonizing gun owners, the government should help them promote safety.

As a gun owner I am frustrated that some positive ideas for helping stop mass murders are being left out of the conversation. As we again search for ways to prevent the deranged from slaughtering people in malls, schools, and churches, we find we have had this debate before. It’s like watching a shouting match between partisans on a cable show. One side wants more gun control. The other side points out that more guns mean less crime. One wants a new “assault-weapons” ban. The other points out that the one that was on the books from 1994 to 2004 didn’t reduce crime. One wants something, anything, to be done to make them feel safer. The other wants to keep their constitutional freedom to protect themselves and their loved ones. One says the authorities can protect us. The other points out that even if a police officer could always be on the scene within two minutes, two minutes is a long time when someone is trying to shoot you.

Armed citizens, of course, do prevent crime. For example, just last week at the Clackamas Mall in Oregon, Jacob Roberts murdered two people before his gun jammed. As Roberts tried to clear the jam he saw Nick Meli, who has a concealed-carry permit, pull out a handgun and aim it at him. Meli says he didn’t fire because he was afraid of hitting someone behind the murderer. However, he is certain that Roberts saw his handgun. He is also sure that this is what prompted Roberts to use his next shot to kill himself.

Anti-gun advocates counter that they don’t want Wild West–style shootouts. So the debate stagnates. The gun-control advocates are emotional for good reason — they want the killings to stop. The gun-rights advocates are just as emotional — they too want the killings to stop. Meanwhile, gun owners want to be able to protect themselves not just from armed thugs, but also from other aggressors who are stronger than themselves. As Colt’s ads said back in the mid-19th century: “God made men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.”

So let’s step forward right out of these points of view for a moment and onto common ground. Consider what President Barack Obama said in Newtown: “In the coming weeks, I’ll use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement, to mental-health professionals, to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this, because what choice do we have?”

What about engaging gun owners? The National Rifle Association (NRA) estimates there are 100 million gun owners in America. An October 2011 Gallup poll found that 47 percent of American adults keep at least one gun in their home. Americans own more than 300 million firearms. In both recent shootings — in the Oregon mall and the Connecticut school — the killers used stolen guns. How about working with gun owners to make sure guns are stored safely? How about allowing those with concealed-carry permits to defend fellow citizens? Aren’t these choices? After all, currently more than 8 million Americans have concealed-carry permits.

When gun-control proponents feverishly demand that law-abiding Americans give up their right to self-defense as the price for a disturbed person’s heinous act, then free, law-abiding gun owners necessarily find themselves on defense, as they’d rather not be left defenseless. There is a better way.

As gun-control advocacy groups and politicians focus solely on gun control, the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), and others have been left with the task of teaching firearm safety. While Hollywood and the video-game industry sell gun violence, somehow those preaching gun safety and self-defense have become the bad guys. This demagoguery is counterproductive.

Here are five things gun-control advocates and gun-rights groups should be able to agree on to help prevent a future Columbine or Sandy Hook.

1. A national campaign for gun safety. When an epidemic of drunk driving bloodied our highways, we didn’t demonize car owners and pass bans on automobiles. We worked with the American people, stiffened penalties, and had national campaigns explaining the problem. We talked about designated drivers and hotlines for alcoholics. We treated the American people as adults. We showed a good, moral path to follow.

We need to work with gun owners in the same open, honest way. The NRA, for example, has training programs for law enforcement and teaches children what to do if they encounter a gun. The NRA also maintains rules for shooting safely and storing firearms responsibly. The NRA is a large membership organization because of all the good it does. For example, it isn’t difficult for anyone to find NRA-certified shooting-safety courses. Just go to nrainstructors.org and use the website’s search tool to find courses near you. The NRA Training Department has a network of more than 65,000 instructors, 3,800 coaches, and 1,700 training counselors spread out across the nation. Presumably this has contributed to the fact that gun accidents are rare and have been declining for decades.

Instead of demonizing the NRA, the government should work with it on a national campaign to encourage gun owners to store their guns safely. A trigger lock, for example, prevents the trigger from being squeezed until the lock is removed with a key. Gun owners can also store their guns in safes or in “quick-lock” safety boxes with combination locks. They can store their guns separately from ammunition or with a component (such as the bolt) removed. Current NRA safety training urges that any gun kept only for sporting purposes be rendered temporarily inoperable before it is stored.

It isn’t now known how Nancy Lanza stored her guns, but it’s reasonable to assume that if they were stored safely in any of these ways, her son, Adam, might have been stopped before he ever acted.

This solution has been suggested before. The problem is that anti-gun groups and many politicians want to mandate that firearms be stored so that they can’t be readily accessed in an emergency. Such legislation would prevent gun owners from using their firearms to protect themselves and their loved ones.

Mandates that firearms be kept inoperable aren’t even constitutional. In 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Washington, D.C., law (Heller v. D.C.) requiring that all guns be kept locked or otherwise inoperable. The Court found that such regulations make “it impossible for citizens to use them for the core lawful purpose of self-defense.”

The public education I am advocating is, as I say, something the NRA, the NSSF, and other groups have already been doing on their own. For example last July the NSSF put out a press release that said, “NSSF reminds firearm owners that on returning home after spending a fun day at the shooting range [they should] immediately secure firearms so that a child or other unauthorized person cannot access a loaded gun. . . . Putting firearms away unloaded and storing ammunition separately — both in locked locations — can prevent a tragic accident from happening. Gun cabinets and gun safes are excellent locked-storage options, and adding a gun lock to a firearm provides an extra level of safety.”

The NSSF also has a lot of literature available for gun owners. This includes safety brochures such as “Firearms Safety Depends on You” and “Firearms Responsibility in the Home.” You can see these brochures and more at the NSSF’s websites. (There are also Spanish-language versions available.) The NSSF also has a Firearm Safety DVD. In fact, through its Project ChildSafe, the NSSF provides firearm-safety kits that include a gun-locking device and a safety-education brochure; these are available free of charge through law-enforcement agencies.

The point is that those who keep a firearm for home protection should develop safety procedures to make sure criminals don’t steal and then use their guns. Let’s help them do so with public education. Friends of Nancy Lanza say she was new to the shooting sports and saw them as a way to bond with her troubled son. It isn’t clear whether she had ever been taught proper procedures for using and storing firearms.

Many of the recent mass shootings could have been prevented by these simple measures alone.

2. If a gun is stolen . . . Gun owners should be encouraged to write down and keep track of their firearms’ serial numbers, makes, and models. This way, law enforcement can be properly informed if a gun is stolen. The information could then be added to the National Crime Information Center’s database, which is available to law-enforcement agencies.

Instead of educating law-abiding people to be responsible, anti-gun groups want mandatory gun-owner databases. The NRA, the NSSF, and others see this as a massive invasion of Americans’ privacy. They note that gun-owner lists have historically led to gun confiscations in other countries. Then there is the fact that such databases don’t work very well. Canada recently decided to unravel its expensive attempt to register all guns.

We should give gun owners hotlines to call if a gun is stolen. It would then be up to the gun owner to reveal the serial number if he chose to — and most would, if only in hopes of getting the gun back. This policy would be in keeping with the civil liberties of our republic.

3. Teach the NRA rules of gun safety. If the Brady Campaign really wants to reduce gun violence and accidental injuries, then it should back courses in our schools that teach kids what to do if they encounter a firearm. The NRA’s Eddie Eagle GunSafe Program has already developed methods for accomplishing this and has been used to teach millions of children. If the gun-control groups resist these simple safety courses — and they have — doesn’t that show who the extremists really are?

Beyond teaching children not to pick up firearms unless an adult is instructing them, and how to store firearms safely, we should all learn the NRA rules of gun handling. They are simple and important: 1. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. 2. Keep guns unloaded until you need to use them (a personal-protection gun counts as being needed for use, provided that it is stored or holstered safely). 3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you have identified a target, determined that the shot is safe, and decided to shoot.

4. Pass laws to allow gun owners to protect others. At the very least, we need an exception to our make-believe “gun-free” zones. We should give teachers and other school officials who have concealed-carry permits a way to utilize their guns in schools. Such a program could be modeled on the Armed Pilots Program instituted by Congress after 9/11. These teachers and officials would have to pass shooting-safety courses, have background checks, and so on to make certain they’re responsible citizens who are suited to taking on this burden.

President Obama might disagree. The federal government has budgeted $25 million a year to deputize and train volunteer commercial pilots to carry firearms in the Armed Pilots Program (officially called the “Federal Flight Deck Officer Program”). In his 2013 budget, Obama proposed cutting the program’s funding to $12 million. Also, many on the anti-gun Left are opposed to giving people who aren’t law-enforcement officers the ability to act for our common defense. It’s time the Left was called out on this unreasonable stance.

After all, if anti-gun groups’ position is that a civilian acting as a good Samaritan to stop a crime might shoot a bystander, ask yourself: If a killer was shooting people around you, would you consider it a reasonable risk that a private citizen might hit you by accident as he or she tries to shoot the sociopath?

School officials have successfully stopped killers before. In 1997 a student named Luke Woodham shot two people at Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss. He then headed for a nearby junior high school but was stopped by Joel Myrick, the assistant principal of the high school. Myrick retrieved a handgun he kept in his vehicle and used it to disarm Woodham. There are many other examples of armed citizens stopping murderers.

So, given the right safeguards, teachers and administrators with military or law-enforcement backgrounds or other shooting experience could be another line of defense if the Left would be willing to trust individuals, not just the state.

5. Revamp mental-health legislation. Many of the people who decide to commit mass murder turn out to have severe psychological problems. More than hindsight shows us that this was the case with Seung-Hui Cho (Virginia Tech), Jared Lee Loughner (Tucson), James Eagen Holmes (Aurora, Colo.), and now Adam Lanza. Though all these cases are different, friends and family were aware of each of these people’s illnesses. Our mental-health community needs to be given the job of coming up with ways to find and help these troubled individuals before they act.

This has been debated recently. After the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007 a federal law was passed to help states report individuals who should be banned from buying guns because of mental illness. Unfortunately, many states are not doing a good job of updating the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) system. (The lack of proper reporting by Virginia had allowed Seung-Hui Cho to purchase a firearm even though a judge had found him to be a danger to himself.) This issue needs to be addressed again.

In sum, America’s 100 million gun owners are just as outraged by the Newtown killings as those who choose not to own guns. If the government was willing to work with them, these and other common-sense strategies could help prevent mass shootings in the future.

Frank Miniter is the author of The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide: Rediscovering the Lost Art of Manhood.


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