Gun lore runs deep in my family. My great grandfather, Colonel Sam Kimzey of Habersham County, served a brief stint as a state legislator during the 1917-1918 Georgia General Assembly. Colonel Sam was a bit of a character and was once censured for calling a colleague a “son of a b****” in open session. An apology was demanded and he acquiesced by assuring the chamber he meant no harm to the man's dear mother and what he'd meant to say was that the gentleman was a “self-made son of a b****.” This perhaps explains the brevity of his tenure. Things were different then.
During this time Sam's mother was hospitalized at Grady Hospital and he would walk the few blocks from the Capitol to visit. One afternoon while walking down Decatur Street a robber jumped from a high wall onto his back and began slashing at the scarf protecting Sam's throat with a razor saying, “Gimme all you got." Sam obliged by pulling the pistol from his waistband and shooting the assailant from his back. That pistol, a Smith & Wesson .32 “Lemon Squeezer,” remains a prized possession in our family.
My father, Sam's grandson, kept a gun box that he had made in his workshop under his bed. It contained several WWII era rifles used for deer hunting and assorted Colt style revolvers that had been passed down through the family as well. The revolvers were never fired. A 12 gauge shotgun stood in his closet and my mother kept a .22 pistol in her nightstand drawer. There was also a French Berthier Carbine my grandfather had brought home from a WWI battlefield. I still have its bayonet.
My childhood was filled with cap pistols and BB guns and my afternoons were spent with my boyhood pals battling the imaginary Germans and Japanese launching beach heads in the hills of North Georgia. The heroics of WWII and Korea were still fresh in the country's memory and the futility of Vietnam was yet to fully unfold. Every now and then my buddies and I would sneak a peek in that gun box, which was never locked, and dream of the day we would control all of that fire power. When I turned twelve I inherited my great grandfather's 410 shotgun and became the menace of the local squirrel population.
About that time my father began taking me out in the woods to target shoot, preparing me for deer camp in a few years. On my sixteenth birthday he gave me a Marlin model 336 30-30, the only firearm I still own. He taught me how to properly clean a rifle and this became one of my regular chores, not that I minded. The smell of 3 in 1 oil, blue steel, and gun powder lingers with me to this day, it was a ritual that I cherished. We had perhaps the best maintained armory in all of Habersham county.
The thing that strikes me most about all of these guns, with the exception of the Marlin that was bought mail order, is that they were either military issue or hand-me-downs. Growing up, there was one small gun shop in all of Habersham County and it was generally regarded as an unsavory kind of place. The hardware store sold rifles, shotguns and ammo and that was all anyone really needed. I grew up around a crusty old bunch of WWII vets and I never knew one who had a carry concealed permit. Guns were viewed as tools to harvest game and protect the homestead, nothing more. They deserved respect, not adulation. I always viewed the story of Sam Kimzey almost as a tale of the “Wild West.” A story from a different time, when folks often took the law in their own hands.
Things are different now. Guns are a multi-billion dollar business and the firearms industry has one of America's most powerful lobbying groups, the NRA, protecting its interests. This is how we ended up with terribly misguided “stand your ground” laws that do nothing to enhance personal safety but do protect gun sellers and manufacturers from lawsuits and civil damages. This is also why the US House of Representatives recently voted to hold US Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over a scandal that was largely manufactured to cover up incredibly lax gun regulations that resulted in a law enforcement officers death. The NRA let Congress know that they were scoring that vote and Congress trembled in it's boots.
I know quite a few card carrying NRA members. Most are sportsmen and all are hard working, patriotic Americans. Surprisingly, most of them agree we should close the gun show loophole. Many also favor tighter regulation, if not an outright ban, on assault weapons, cop killer bullets and high capacity magazines. Some are even willing to talk about handgun control. But all of them, every last one, share one common opinion; a well cultivated distrust of government and its motives especially when it comes to gun control. Much of this distrust is understandable. We've discovered that our leaders are human and as such prone to lies of convenience or sometimes for more diabolical purposes.
Nixon had Watergate, Reagan Iran-Contra. Bill Clinton claimed he “never had sex with that woman” and George W. Bush swore to the world that Iraq was on the verge of unleashing weapons of mass destruction. There have been many more institutional failures, some large, some barely noticeable but the cumulative effect has been the creation of a huge void of trust in our nation's leadership. Special interest groups like the NRA have rushed to fill this void seizing every opportunity to gin up fear and suspicion against any government regulation of the marketplace. Their constituencies are often so blinded by this suspicion that they are willing to traffic in the craziest anti-government conspiracy theories.
Nobody does this better than the NRA. A while back I took the family mini-van to our mechanic for an oil change. I had scheduled ahead so I that I could wait instead of trying to arrange a drop off. Like most mechanics, the waiting area is nothing fancy; a few chairs, a coffee pot and small TV and lots of car and gun magazines. In fact, I think one publication was named “Cars and Guns.” I picked one at random and began thumbing through when a headline grabbed my eye, something along the lines of “Obama's Secret Plan To Destroy The Second Amendment!” Being both a gun owner and Obama supporter, this naturally caught my attention.
As I began reading I was alarmed at the dire tone of the piece. As someone who has followed Obama closely since his appearance at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, I know gun control isn't an issue that he's given much attention. Certainly not as much as Clinton during his years in the White House. You would have never known that from reading this piece. Both Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder were demonized as gun control extremists who wouldn't rest until they had collected every last firearm in America for their own sinister purposes and they were doing it all in secret... shhhhhh! It was hard for me to believe that what I was reading wasn't satire.
The author of that op-ed was NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne Lapierre. Having held that post since 1991 it's fair to say Lapierre has had more influence over American gun control policy than anyone in history. He was the one who first called federal agents “jackbooted thugs.” His description of ATF agents “wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms” and wanting to “attack law-abiding citizens” prompted former President George H. W. Bush to renounce his NRA membership in 1995. Things were different then.
Lapierre delivers his message with the gusto of a televangelist, scaring the bejeezus out of you and then urging you to renew or “upgrade” your membership at the NRA's website that welcomes you with this cheery broadside: “You know that America cannot withstand four more years of President Obama dismantling our heritage and the foundations of our freedom. Your commitment today cannot only help save our guns, but save the country you love! Please log in below to see the extraordinary discounts and special gifts we've reserved for you in appreciation for your critically-needed membership support!”
In an earlier era (see George H. W. Bush) this would be roundly denounced as crazy talk, or even worse, sedition, which is exactly what it is. But things are different now. Now we have America's first African American President. Now we have a 24/7 Outrage Machine on cable TV that exists solely to support groups like the NRA and their ideological allies. Now we have a congress and state legislatures that kowtow to the NRA's every whim. How can that be? Gun owners represent a minority of Americans. Anywhere between 25 percent and 40 percent depending on who you believe and that includes folks like me.
Firearms kill 30,000 of us each year, give or take. Two-thirds of those deaths are suicides and 600 are ruled accidents. That means over twice the number murdered in last week's Aurora shootings are murdered every day in America. This is far more than any of our industrial allies. Why are we so hell bent on killing each other or ourselves for that matter? Are we that angry? Are we that depressed? Is it our ease of access to firearms? Is it the vast amount of poverty and our dwindling safety net?
One thing is certain, the problem isn't going to just go away and we have to be able to stand up to groups like the NRA if we are going to have a national conversation about this.
There are some simple things every American can do today to make a difference. Keep your guns at home and keep those guns secure and out of the reach of loved ones. If you're angry or depressed, see a doctor or a counselor. If you know someone who's angry or depressed, reach out to them. Support anti-poverty initiatives in you community. Stop all the crazy talk about “dismantling freedom” and let's work together to find a solution. Things can be different, we've proven that over and over.