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Opinion

Op-Ed: As long as handguns are easily available, we’ll have gun violence

NRA Gathers In Houston For 2013 Annual Meeting
An attendee inspects a handgun during the NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits in Houston, Texas on May 3, 2013.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Several years ago I was midway through writing a piece of fiction that involved guns when I realized I didn’t know what I was talking about.

I had never handled a pistol. I hadn’t touched any kind of gun since the day at Boy Scout camp, 40 years prior, when I’d shot a .22 rifle to earn my Marksmanship merit badge. The last time I’d even seen a real handgun was the night, nearly 20 years earlier, when a man stepped out of the shadows as I left a Hollywood movie screening and stuck a pistol in my belly, barking: “Give me your wallet or I’ll shoot you.”

That incident cost me $100 and a wristwatch, and it strengthened my hatred of gun violence. So, it was only when it felt necessary for my work that I asked a friend who belonged to a gun club if he’d take me along for a lesson.

Now, with the Democratic Party flexing its newfound muscle with talk of sensible limits on gun ownership, I am heartened — and worried.
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The club was in a downtown facility in a gritty neighborhood. The interior was brightly lit, smelled of disinfectant and was busy with high-energy customers, all male, many of them off-duty law enforcers.

I filled out some paperwork, showed my ID, rented a 9-millimeter Glock and bought a box of ammunition and a sheaf of “training silhouettes.”

After a brief set of safety instructions, I was escorted into the wretchedly loud shooting gallery, where my friend and I put on protective headphones and took our places alongside a dozen other shooters.

I lifted the Glock, breathed evenly, sighted on the silhouetted paper bad guy facing me, and began firing.

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Though I have poor eyesight and unsteady hands, I put six of the first 10 rounds into the torso of the target, three of them in the center of the chest.

My friend was delighted for me, but I had no sense of exhilaration. I felt unsafe. I was in a confined space with a load of loaded handguns. One twitchy finger, one guy off his meds, and I was a dead man.

I also felt dangerous. I knew nothing about guns, and had no training or experience. But I had just put several possibly fatal bullets into an imaginary thug. As we reloaded and hung new targets, I kept thinking: That’s how easy it would be to take a life.

I went home drained and depressed, and was gradually haunted by a disturbing revelation. Somewhere inside, at some dark, subterranean level, I had liked shooting that gun.

For days afterward, I found my mind drawn back to the gun club. I imagined pulling the trigger again, improving my skills, putting all 10 rounds into the target.

Though it shamed me, I found myself wondering what it would be like to own a Glock. I imagined having the opportunity to settle the score with the robber who shoved his pistol into my belly.

I know better than that. The statistics on gun violence are perfectly clear. If I am an average American, and own a handgun for protection, I am many times more likely to use the gun on my wife, child, neighbor or myself than on a bad guy. Some data show I am more likely to be shot by the bad guy with my own weapon than the other way around.

And because I am an average American, and male, I have been subject to fits of anger and depression. My thoughts have rarely turned to harming myself, and never to harming others. So I don’t believe having access to a handgun would have sent me on a crime spree, or found me shooting up a schoolyard.

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But have I ever felt my safety or that of my wife and daughters was threatened enough that I would have drawn a gun if I had one? Have I ever been depressed enough to consider turning a gun on myself? Could I use a handgun to do the only thing it’s designed to do and take a human life?

Absolutely. There is no other honest answer to those questions. If the right set of factors had gone wrong in the right order, I could have done any or all of those things. So, I believe, could many perfectly sane people I know.

Now, with the Democratic Party flexing its newfound muscle with talk of sensible limits on gun ownership, I am heartened — and worried.

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So far, the primary gun-control legislation advancing in Congress is HR 8, which would extend mandatory background checks to almost all gun acquisitions. The bill would require that all gun sales and transfers, including gifts, be processed by registered gun stores, and it would effectively prohibit handgun ownership by those under 21 — the cohort with the highest suicide rate.

These are good steps, but are they enough? There is nothing in my background that would prevent me from buying a gun. And though it’s a long time since I was under 21, my cohort has a pretty high suicide rate, too.

Perhaps, energized by newer, younger members of the House, Democrats can turn HR 8 into law. Better still, they may build on its success by enacting even more comprehensive limits on gun use that will, finally, have an impact on gun violence.

Charles Fleming writes about cars and motorcycles for The Times, and is the author of the urban hiking guides “Secret Stairs” and “Secret Walks.”

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