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Perspective: Confessions of a sensible gun owner

By Lily Raff McCaulou, New York Times
The Oregonian
Lily Raff McCaulou is an anomaly as a hunter — she didn’t grow up in a hunting family, was terrified of guns and had few outdoors skills when she moved West from New York City.

BEND, Ore. — When we hike together, my oldest son, who is 5, scans the ground for the perfect "gun." His ideal stick has an ergonomic crook in it and is a comfortable size to hold. When he finds one like that, he lifts it for a test fire — pew, pew. A mile in, he's usually got one in each hand but is still on the lookout for an upgrade: anything smoother or more gunlike. My youngest, who is 2, isn't far behind. He's been saying the word "gun" for more than a year.

Should I forbid this kind of play? Ignore it? Set ground rules such as "Ask for permission before you shoot someone"? Psychologists say there is no evidence that imaginary gun play is abnormal or harmful. Still, it bothers me, as a gun owner and a hunter, to watch my children violate basic rules of gun safety, even if armed only with sticks. I want my kids to grow up to be what I am: a responsible gun owner.

This month's mass shooting in Las Vegas is a reminder that this is a perspective our country needs to hear more from: that of gun owners who favor safer gun laws. We should be helping lead the national conversation about gun control, because we are uniquely suited to move the debate away from polemic and toward effective compromise.

In December 2012, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and killed 20 children and six others, I was a new mother, preparing for my son's first Christmas. I was also a relatively new hunter and gun owner. I had taken up hunting six years before, in my mid-20s.

As an environmentalist and a meat eater, I discovered that hunting was a fascinating and firsthand way to learn about wildlife and the ecosystem around me, and to sometimes bring home healthy, tasty food. It had taken an intensive hunter safety class and many hours at the shooting range and in the field before I felt comfortable handling firearms. It was an adjustment to even think of myself as a gun owner, especially in the aftermath of tragedies like Sandy Hook, when the prevalence of guns in the United States would be angrily cited as the root cause of violence.

This is my reality as a gun owner: I use guns for an activity I love, but I also worry about gun violence. Like most Americans, I want stronger gun laws such as nationwide universal background checks. I don't support the National Rifle Association, which seems as if it's just a few years away from arguing that the Second Amendment guarantees our right to buy nuclear warheads. (The NRA did make a rare concession, suggesting that a federal agency reconsider the legality of devices like those used by the Las Vegas shooter to make semi-automatic weapons fire almost as rapidly as automatic ones.) I'm not alone in this position: Approximately 90 percent of gun owners do not belong to the NRA.

Our family has moved three times in the past five years, and each move has necessitated a reckoning with where and how my guns are stored. My armory is small by American standards: two shotguns and a rifle. I don't own a gun safe, which is enormous and expensive. Instead I keep my guns unloaded in padlocked hard cases, with the ammunition stored in a separate part of the house.

For years I fretted about where to keep the keys, moving them from my underwear drawer to the back of a high shelf in my closet. Eventually, I learned about a product called a key safe, a metal box that can be mounted to a wall and secured with a combination code.

These days, the keys mostly stay there. I've barely hunted during this early phase of child rearing, instead focusing on activities my sons can do now to become competent hunters when they're older. We camp and hike. We identify birds and look for animal tracks and scat. We practice spotting deer and keeping quiet so that we don't scare them away. We tiptoe closer to wildlife. My 5-year-old has taken up archery.

A great many hunters and gun owners are like me. We are not "gun nuts," stockpiling weapons in the name of some future apocalypse. We exercise our Second Amendment rights in a way that is palatable to most people who otherwise oppose guns — we're the bridge that connects the two sides of the chasm in the national debate. Even the NRA recognizes this, which is why it tries to enhance its legitimacy by identifying as a sportsmen's group, though few of its stances reflect the will of sportsmen.

Hunters are accustomed to following nuanced gun laws (gun calibers and ammunition types are limited depending on the season and species we're hunting, for example), so we understand that commonsense regulation doesn't mean an end to bearing arms. And because we see the brute power of a gun every time we kill an animal, we are regularly reminded of why guns need to be regulated.

We also have an interest in drafting sensible gun laws now, rather than waiting for an avalanche of pent-up frustration to generate a policy response so long overdue that it overreaches. If we don't want onerous regulations to infringe on a tradition we love, then we can't afford to stay quiet as body counts rise and politicians offer no more than thoughts and prayers.

The NRA doesn't represent gun owners like me, but the problem is that no one else really does, either. Americans who don't own guns are represented by an array of nonprofits that share their wish to crack down on gun violence with gun laws that are as restrictive as possible.

Gun owners are hesitant to get behind these groups because we first want to understand their nuanced views on gun laws. Details matter to us.

Last year I joined the board of a small nonprofit in Oregon called Gun Owners for Responsible Ownership. This group was founded by gun owners and relatives of victims of a 2012 mass shooting at a mall near Portland. The killer stole his rifle from a friend, who left the weapon unsecured and containing a full magazine of ammunition.

Our group is trying to do important, mostly apolitical work — handing out free gun locks, training doctors to talk to patients about safe firearm storage, offering basic information about guns to the news media so they can report about the issue more accurately. But we are frequently met with suspicion or disdain by gun owners who think we're secretly out to disarm them.

We do very little lobbying, though our board endorsed a proposal signed into law in Oregon this year to issue protection orders to keep guns temporarily out of the hands of people who, in a situation like sudden extreme distress, pose a clear threat to themselves or others. Suicides account for 60 percent of the nation's more than 33,000 firearm deaths a year. Many suicides are impulsive acts, so even minor barriers — akin to putting guardrails on bridges, for example — can save lives.

By the time my boys are hunters, I hope there are more sensible gun laws, such as those that close loopholes on background check requirements, restore funding for research on gun violence and regulate modified semi-automatic guns just as strongly as we do the automatic guns they are altered to mimic.

I also hope my sons take a broad view of what it means to be a responsible gun owner. Responsible ownership is about more than safe storage and careful handling of one's own firearms — it's also about making sure that as a society we have effective laws to keep guns out of unsafe hands.

Gun owners already embrace the idea of personal responsibility, whether by hunting wild meat to put food on the table or keeping our homes safe. Now we need to take responsibility to help stop gun violence, too.

Lily Raff McCaulou is the author of "Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner."

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