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Confessions of a (Liberal) Assault Weapon Owner 


Guns fascinate me, always have. The house where I grew up contained some guns, locked away except for rare, thrilling viewings. I didn't shoot often in my youth, but I always found it exciting, dangerous and transcendent in its contained chaos.

As I've aged, and as my politics have become increasingly left-leaning, my interest in firearms has grown. I own three guns now, and I use them only for making holes in paper. One of them is an assault rifle -- the same type that killed 12 people in a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., just this last summer.

I keep thinking about getting rid of it, and then I keep discarding the idea. And I keep thinking about my relationship with guns, a relationship that's big and complex and roiling with conflicts I haven't resolved.

Guns retain a near-mystical romance for me. They're one of the few things left in my adult world that inspire simple, basic excitement. It probably sounds silly or irresponsible to admit, but guns bring out an innocent, childlike wonder tinged with fear, at least in me. And I'd venture to bet that almost every gun owner, especially the vocal ones, likes their guns for the same reason. I very much doubt that many of them would admit it, but I'm confident that it is true. Gun ownership in adulthood is a shortcut to a simpler time, an indulgence in boyhood fantasy and fetishistic gear worship. To a lot of people, I would imagine this is a horrifying idea. But in my mind guns are in the same school of fetish item as cameras, pocket knives, cigarette lighters or flashlights. Carried to a lethal extreme, admittedly, but cool gear nonetheless. And regardless of how we worship, lots of us have a gear-altar somewhere in our lives.

Guns can also be immensely satisfying. There is something innately human in the mastery of a mechanical device. To hold and understand a purpose-built machine, composed of so many moving parts, is fascinating. The fact that the machine contains explosions and emits such light and noise is pretty amazing.

Then there is the practice of target shooting. It is deeply meditative. To be done well, it requires singular focus, a clear mind. I've found that my shooting performance deteriorates significantly the more I think about it. It improves equally dramatically when I can compartmentalize and put away extraneous thoughts. When everything's working, there is a deep, quiet harmony of hands, eyes and breath. Shooting becomes an apolitical practice.

Trouble is, the politics come crashing back as soon as I step away from the firing line.

As I mentioned, I'm turning into a liberal as I age. I think we should all have access to health care and food and, most importantly, education. I'm also a big fan of the Constitution. I like the fact that I'm allowed to own guns. I don't like the fact that people go to prison for nonviolent drug offenses. I don't support the NRA. I voted for Barack Obama twice. If the government wants to take my guns away, I will give them up.

In the wake of our two most recent horrific mass shootings, and the death of my childhood friend Kevin Ebbert in Afghanistan, I've thought more than a little about surrendering my guns voluntarily.

I have two semi-automatic pistols. I bought the FNP-40, a black plastic and steel handgun that looks like one you might see on the hip of a police officer, in 2009. At that point, I had finally negotiated a fragile truce with my wife, who grew up decidedly anti-gun. I settled on the .40-caliber mainly for its ubiquity, but also for its stopping power (read: lethality) as a personal defense round. I bought an FN because it is an old, storied brand, it has clean, balanced lines, and it's less common than a Glock, Beretta, or Sig-Sauer. (I occasionally nerd-out on esoteric things.)

The next year, I bought a 1911-A1, chambered in .45 ACP (Automatic Colt Pistol) because I wanted to own such an iconic weapon, and I knew it was extremely comfortable to shoot. This gun was the standard-issue military sidearm for decades, and it has been made culturally indelible in print, movies and television. Anyone who has seen a gun depicted in media in the last 100 years has likely seen a 1911. Mine is stainless steel, bright silver with a dulled shine. 

My third gun is the hot-button, the one that has given me the most pause. I built it in 2011 with components from Smith & Wesson, Alexander Arms, and the now well-known Bushmaster Firearms. It is an AR-15 clone chambered for a weird round called the 6.5 Grendel. It looks every bit what it is. The gun lobby prefers to call these guns "Modern Sporting Rifles," but that's a semantic dodge. It is an assault rifle. Contrary to popular perception, my version is completely legal in the state of California. Californians can build, buy, sell and own AR 15s, AK 47s, and a wide array of other military-type rifles, provided they are equipped with a "bullet button" (a mechanical device designed to limit reload speed) and are registered with the state Department of Justice. It is illegal to own magazines with a capacity higher than 10 rounds, which applies to pistols as well. My rifle has an element of practicality, as the high-velocity 6.5 millimeter round could conceivably be used for medium-sized game hunting. But really it's a pure indulgence: It looks mean and makes astounding amounts of noise. That's why I wanted one.

With all of these weapons, and with any others that have passed through my hands since childhood, I've never fired a shot in anger. I've never put a bullet in a living thing. I could and would defend myself with a gun as a last resort, but to me that's a tertiary benefit.

If giving up my three guns would arrest the despair and violence that are coming to characterize modern America, you can have them. I'll concede that in Australia, the absence of assault rifles (and all other semi-automatics) seems to have curbed mass killings. But I worry that scapegoating the guns is a dangerous oversimplification. Getting rid of them is a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound that we as a society need to address immediately. There is a sickness, an infection of ignorance, at work here that is uniquely American. And it will continue hurting us, even if getting rid of all the guns slows it down.

I'm not an apologist for the notion that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." High capacity rifles with rapid rates of fire are made for killing people. I've got one, and I don't use it to kill, but that doesn't change its intended purpose. I've sat with that for a long time, and I'm still not sure I've arrived at any sort of conclusion.

I feel torn about owning an AR 15 because it will always be the rifle of killers, plain and simple. But I also feel torn about a national media that makes celebrities of cowards who kill innocents. And I feel torn about a country that actively ignores the rampant depression, anxiety and mania that are consuming its young men.

Gun prohibition may be the answer to our violence problem, but only if it is part of a sweeping reform in education, mental health care and looking out for one another. Without those improvements, we're treating symptoms and not actually addressing the deadly, sinister ills at their root.


John J. Bennett, who owns a car repair shop in Eureka, reviews films for the North Coast Journal.


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John J. Bennett

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