A Well-Regulated Militia

NRA Instructor JB Herren works on a student’s technique.
Photo Friday Harbor Gun Runners

Count me among those who were beyond dismayed to see gun control move back to a central place on the progressive agenda. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’ve got a problem with mass shootings; negligent owners; yahoos with fantasies of fighting tyranny everywhere it rises, including bird sanctuaries; and the general bad effects of a century of Hollywood’s fetishizing of guns as a way to solve conflicts. We have all those problems, and more. The President cries on TV, and I feel his frustration acutely.

Where I diverge from my fellow progressives, though, is in my understanding of gun culture’s nuances — and the ways in which the left misreads (and sometimes, almost willfully and deliberately misunderstands and misrepresents) so much of what goes on in that culture.  I grew up in the rural west, where guns signified meat, vermin control, and safety in a house that was 20 miles from the nearest official help. And I own and shoot guns now, an activity that brings me into frequent contact with conservatives in their native habitat. As a result of this lifetime of experience, I know things — about guns, gun laws, and gun owners — that most progressives don’t know.

Some of those things, if better understood, might be leading us toward better policy — if, indeed, better policy is the goal. (I’m not entirely sure it is. Guns, like abortion on the right, have become a useful enough way of whipping up the Democratic base that there are undoubtedly quite a few people on our side who would rather milk the outrage than solve the problem.) There will probably be many blog posts here plowing some of that ground, but I’d like to start off with a little blue-sky proposal — an alternative way of getting us to some seriously effective gun control that the most responsible factions within conservative gun culture would quite possibly actually sign on for voluntarily.

Yes, it’s possible. But it’s going to require that we think about guns, gun ownership, and gun owners’ social responsibilities in a rather different way.

Good Guys With Guns
Invoking “good guys with guns” is a reliable way to raise sniggers on your Facebook feed.  But there are deep and important differences between the responsible gun owners — who are involved in vanishingly little gun violence, either intentional or accidental — and the negligent ones, whose errors populate the headlines with all manner of stupidity and malfeasance. There really are two different groups, and gun owners know the difference.

“Responsible owner” isn’t just a slogan. It’s a set of behaviors. Being responsible means that you are properly permitted to own your firearm. On the range, you are scrupulous in following every safety rule. At home, you have a locking safe to store it in that will protect it not just from kids, but also from thieves. You store your ammo in a separate location. When you transport your firearm, you do so in a lawful way. When you carry it, you make damn sure it’s concealed (for your own safety, as well as the peace of mind of others), and that you’re following the laws dictating where you can and can’t have it. (This is a major headache for concealed carriers: there are common situations in which you can  literally carry legally on one side of the room, but not the other. Knowing the rules for where you are right now — and how that changes if you go ten feet over there — is a matter of constant awareness and aggravation.) You keep your firearm under your direct personal control at all times, without exception; and knowing the stakes, you take extra pains to keep yourself out of situations where you might have to use it.

Most importantly: you train. And train. And train. And take classes on gun safety, and situational awareness, and tactical skills, and the life-altering legal issues you’ll be faced with should you ever decide to draw the thing. Carrying a gun is, like marriage, not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God. It’s a rather awesome and grave responsibility, and you take it seriously. If all of this is too much hassle for you right now, then as a responsible owner, you put the thing away in the vault, or sell it. There’s no halfway point.

Those of us who drive cars and fly planes and raise kids and take on other kinds of serious risk in our lives will find this whole drill very familiar. We deal with danger by acquiring the knowledge and skills that will enable us to reduce the risks to acceptable levels. And, by and large, gun owners who take these steps do reduce their risks significantly. Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner has pointed out that, given that one-third of US homes have guns in them, the surprise is that our rate of death is as low as it is. Apparently, on the whole, American gun owners are pretty darn safe with the things.

The problem is that there’s that other group — the negligent gun owners who want the firearm but won’t (for whatever reason) do any of the risk mitigation that goes along with it.  These are the parents who leave their guns loose in the car, or in their purses, where their toddlers can get at them. They’re the young guys who are enchanted by the power, but aren’t old enough to take on the full responsibility; and the bullies and abusers who see a gun as the ultimate tool in their arsenal of intimidation. They’re the criminals whose entire gun ownership experience happens outside of every gun law we have ever passed, or ever will pass (universal background checks will help with this); and the mentally ill whose families see them careening out of control, but can’t do a damn thing about it. Very often, negligent owners live lives that are disorganized in other ways as well: these are the people who simply can’t get it together enough to go to the range, buy a safe, or keep control of their guns. It’s these owners who create the vast bulk of the tragedy we see, and whose behavior we need to be most intently focused on controlling.

Unfortunately, the way the politics of this issue work right now, the responsible gun owners feel forced to defend the rights of the negligent ones because we propose policies that make them feel like we’re lumping them all together. If the good owners don’t defend the bad ones, everybody’s rights are at stake. The result is that knee-jerk Second Amendment absolutism that even a lot of the good owners don’t believe in when they really think about it.  The truth is: every gun owner I’ve ever met can name a brother-in-law, godson, or neighbor they think should never be in the same county as a firearm. They know there’s a bright line between Us and Them, and they get really pissed off when liberal policy makers can’t tell the difference.  This argument isn’t (always) self-serving on their part, though we often assume that it is.

Rank Has Its Privileges
Alongside this quiet snobbery on the part of the responsible owners, there’s also the fact that gun culture borrows heavily from military culture; and that the conservatives who are drawn to it are big on hierarchy, status, and authority — which also often translates into a love of credentialing and ranking systems. These two traits — an acute awareness of the line between the good guys and bad guys, and a craving for official validation — are the hooks on which a new policy might hang.

In the name of a “well-ordered militia,” we might tell people who want to carry: OK. Here’s the deal. You meet a stiff set of criteria — range qualification at a certain very high standard; regular mandated training to maintain skill; demonstration of safe handling and storage; and a background check that’s clear of felonies and drug or domestic violence misdemeanors — and you will get a permit that allows you to carry nationwide, in most times and places, no questions asked. (For most owners, simply being subject to one federal standard instead of rules that change at every city line would be well worth a large amount of pain.) But this permit comes with a responsibility: you are now part of a semi-official posse (modeled, perhaps, on the Civil Air Patrol) that also requires that you take regular mandated training and be prepared to perform certain community services in exchange for this privilege. (What services? At this point, I’m leaving that open, but there’s certainly plenty to be done.)

Most of the gun guys I know would positively leap at this deal. They like the metaphor, popularized by Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, of themselves as loyal sheepdogs — defenders of the public order, set to preserve the safety of the larger whole against the predators in our midst. (Yes. In this scenario, the rest of us are the sheep. Charming, isn’t it?) The enhanced permit requires them to enlarge their sense of what that duty entails, and fixes their firearms into that larger context of service to society. It would give them a meaningful credential, tangibly recognize their commitment to responsible ownership, and put a community of accountability around them for their behavior with guns. With expanded freedom would come expanded responsibility — an exchange that most of them would understand, and possibly even welcome.

More broadly, over time, this scheme would put the whole cultural meaning of gun ownership into a wider social context. No longer a weird fetish for loners, carrying a firearm is a right that should only be exercised by people who are willing to work with others and commit themselves to the greater good.  Membership in this group would be suspended immediately if you were involved in a negligent discharge; if you were convicted of a felony, or a misdemeanor involving drugs or violence; or if you could no longer participate in required trainings or pass the qualifications. (Those familiar with the history of the National Guard may recognize this proposal, because the Guard was originally formed out of state militias that once occupied a similar role.)

Politically, this plan would also create much greater distance between the interests of committed and negligent owners. Once the committed owners felt safe and protected, they’d have a lot less interest in defending the indefensible behavior of their less-conscientious peers. “Of course that crazy guy deserves to be prosecuted: he didn’t meet the high standards I had to, so he never should have had the damn thing in the first place.” They sort of secretly think this now, but there’s too much political downside to say it out loud.

Over time, this could also swing the balance of the internal culture of the NRA. Right now, the nation’s leading exponents of safe gun ownership are the NRA-certified instructors found at practically every gun range — a large and influential faction that still carries forward the organization’s historic tradition as a firearms safety group. Requiring all owners to have more extensive training would be a full-employment act for those instructors (most of whom already believe that the average American is woefully under-skilled and dangerous), so they’d wholeheartedly support this idea. To be sure: the NRA’s gun-manufacturing sugar daddies, who fund the lobbying operation, would still have a different agenda; but this proposal would restore considerable clout to the association’s education and training arm, which over the long haul could bring them back around to their historically saner and more positive view of firearms regulation.

Idaho: More than potatoes and patriots
This isn’t really as blue-sky as it sounds. There’s already an experiment being run along these lines. The Holy Grail of gun permits right now is the Idaho Enhanced concealed carry permit — a special license granted by the state of Idaho that demands the highest standard of training and range qualification of any permit granted in the US.  Because the standards are high, the Idaho permit is honored by 37 other states, making it the closest thing to a universal permit in the US. Among gun folks, it’s the most prestigious credential you can get, and therefore carries tremendous status. And because the permit can be issued to non-Idaho residents, Idaho is making a bundle off the permit fees from out-of-staters stampeding to get theirs.

The Idaho experiment is still in its early stages. But the early data seems to prove out my suggestion that responsible gun owners respond well to appeals to their love of recognition and status, and are motivated to meet high standards in order to get a credential that signifies their skill. This is an understanding that far more policy could be built on.

And the downsides…
No policy proposal is without its downsides, and to be sure, this one has its flaws. There’s no doubt that some bad actors will manage to qualify for a high-status posse permit, if only for a while. George Zimmerman, as a neighborhood watch leader, might well have been the kind of guy who went out of his way to qualify for this; and it would be a magnet for the kind of cop-wannabe who can’t quite make the cut for the academy. Mechanisms would have to be put in place to cull such people out, or use social pressure to direct their issues toward the common good.

It’s also extremely likely that this system would be gamed in ways that re-create the racism and classism that have been embedded in every gun law America has ever passed. It’s true that the kind of disorganized lifestyle that leads to negligent ownership correlates strongly with socioeconomic status: if you’re too poor to buy a safe, or too stressed to keep track of your gun, or too busy surviving to keep your paperwork in order and keep up with your qualification requirements, you’re going to find yourself every bit on the wrong side of this system as you are in our current one. (And, frankly: if your life is that far out of control, do we really want you owning a gun?) Police and court harassment of African-Americans and Latinos mean that they’re far more likely to have criminal records that would be disqualifying, reducing eligibility throughout those communities.  We would have to take aggressive steps to ensure that most Americans could readily access these permits, and that getting one would be more a matter of time and effort than money.

But empowering the better angels of the gun community, and affirming their own instincts toward more safety, better training, and careful credentialing, might be a way of de-escalating the growing polarization over this issue.

Update: Commenter Raven On The Hill links to this excellent article by Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station (which belongs on my blogroll, actually — Wright’s a favorite in this house) offering another perspective on effective gun policy that the NRA probably wouldn’t bother to fight.

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Published by Sara Robinson

Sara Robinson is a Seattle-based futurist and veteran blogger on culture, politics, and religion. Since 2006, her work (gathered in the Archive section of this blog) regularly appeared at Orcinus, ourfuture.org, Group News Blog, and Alternet. She's also written for Salon, the New Republic, New Yorker, and many other sites. This is her personal website: a writer's workshop bringing together old friends, new ideas, past work, and future projects.

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  1. A month ago, I noted that retired Justice Stevens had made a similar proposal, and posted this in a couple of places:


    Perhaps 3/4 of the states would sponsor such an amendment, and then set about regulating guns in the way the Founding Fathers intended – on a state by state basis, by trained “well-regulated” members of state-level militias, which could include categories of citizens much as we hear Switzerland has.

  2. This is an interesting idea that I would certainly be open to exploring, but I don’t think it would fly with most people on my side of the debate. The drawbacks you mention are the fundamental things that gun control advocates are worried about. After all the gun violence, whether a mass shooting in a school or a one-on-one shooting in a street, folks on my side of the issue now view the proliferation of guns as an existential threat. To them, the compromise is allowing any form of private ownership of guns in the first place – keep permitted guns (probably long guns) under lock and key, only to be used on shooting ranges or in approved and designated hunting grounds. Nothing else, nowhere else.

    The Sandy Hook shooting was a point of no return for most people on my side of the debate. The NRA’s total unwillingness to consider any new regulations has radicalized people. But so has the pervasiveness of the mass shootings. If the goal on our side was compromise, then what you lay out here could work.

    But right now the goal is to get guns out of our daily lives, and so this proposal probably won’t go anywhere. There may simply not be any room for compromise, and this will be a battle for hearts and minds. I suspect that is what the near future holds.

  3. Robert Cruickshank: and yet, most firearms deaths do not occur in mass shootings. Nor, realistically, is it possible to imagine “nothing else, nowhere else” in the USA.

    What your side of the debate is proving, I fear, is that some of the conservative critiques of the left are true.

  4. Banning is a blunt instrument that will leave decades of political devastation in its wake. It’s picking at wounds in the American body politic that are already festering and unstable, and can only exacerbate our political polarization in the long run. Short of that, though, there’s a huge amount that can be done by leveraging the concern for safe and responsible use that runs through the owner community. There’s good evidence that they’d rise to the occasion if asked — if we bother to ask, instead of insist.

    Progressives don’t understand guns, and they *really* misunderstand mass shooting. Sixty percent of all gun violence is suicides; and the vast majority of mass shooters can be classified in this group, too. (They’re just choosing to go out in a *really big way.*) Any steps we take to exclude the mentally unstable from ownership (which is a popular idea on all sides), and enable families to seek treatment before someone actually gets hurt will do quite a bit to stop the future Elliot Rogers and Adam Lanzas. Someone always sees these people coming; but they can’t usually get help. That has to change.

    The GOP and NRA already pay lip service to mental health changes — but we need to hold them to it and make them fund them, too. California’s just put a law in place that looks like it may be heading in the right direction here, and it’ll be interesting to see how it works out for them.

    Putting gun ownership into a community accountability scenario like I propose should surround all owners with people who also may be able to see and head off unstable members in their midst, and take steps to ensure their guns are removed earlier on.

  5. I suspect that the number of people who would only accept banning is relatively small as is the number of people who will not accept any controls at all. Rhetorical extremism is easier than actual extremism, but extremes drag the center, so there’s advantage is appearing more so.

    My concern would be that if there is no opportunity for compromise, as the demographics crunch gun owners into a smaller percentage (if they do — the data is unclear) the metaphorical battle for hearts and minds may transform into a series of literal battles, fulfilling the wet dream prophecies of a legion of antigovernment leeches like the Bundys.

  6. Raven on the Hill: That’s the risk we take, for sure. But I also don’t think most gun control advocates are worried or concerned about what the right will say.

    Sara: I totally hear what you are saying and I think this proposal is worth consideration. I’m not sure it will be given that, because my side’s goals are different. Your proposal focuses on community accountability and there is much to be said for it. At the same time, a lot of gun control advocates I know simply don’t want guns to be circulating in public, even under a community accountability system. Such a system is no guarantee that guns won’t be used to kill people, whether in a mass shooting or not. And unstable people have a tendency to skillfully hide their desires – or have people who will minimize those desires, explain them away, rationalize their own inaction about what they hear.

    Evan (and this also addresses something Sara mentioned): I think that risk is very real. The middle ground disappeared at Sandy Hook. Every mass shooting since then has made my side of the conversation less and less willing to seek a compromise, unless it’s on our terms. I feel that pull too. And we’re winning when we go straight to the ballot, which means our side no longer believes we have to cut deals in legislative bodies to get what we want.

    I am much less familiar with the other side of the conversation but I would not be surprised if they’re also less willing to reach an accommodation, though I know that the NRA does not speak for every gun owner. But the thing to keep in mind about our side is that we’re squicked out by all the guns around us, by the new open carry laws, and by active shooter drills in schools. Any lasting and successful compromise will have to address that.

    Maybe a middle ground is some sort of community accountability system, but paired with a significant reduction in the amount of guns in circulation. Ban “assault weapons” (and I know that defining them isn’t easy, so let’s just go with a broad definition), ban semi-automatic and automatic weapons, and some sort of strict limits on magazine sizes and ammunition sales/possession. Create rules taking away one’s permission to own a gun if they’re ever found carrying one within X feet of a school. Policies like those could go a long way to meeting the needs of folks on my side and create space for this kind of compromise. But I say “could” – I don’t know if such space exists any more.

  7. Is creating an elite class of Americans licensed to carry concealed weapons anywhere an actual good idea? And wouldn’t the primary mechanism for weeding out bad actors almost certainly turn out to be identifying them after they’ve committed some crime or another? And what’s the appeal of obtaining a license to carry anywhere other than that of joining an elite class of Americans? “Among gun folks, it’s the most prestigious credential you can get, and therefore carries tremendous status.” Do we want people motivated by the acquisition of “tremendous status” to achieve that status by carrying weapons, unbeknownst to the less-privileged masses?

  8. Robert, the measures you’re proposing would be far easier in a climate where gun owners were also saying, “Hell, yes. Let’s make some hard, bright lines around what responsible ownership looks like, credential those who do the work, penalize the shit out of those who don’t, and create community mechanisms that hold people accountable.” It’s not an alien idea, because the responsible owners by and large already live within a self-created system like this, and would love to see some official support for it. I think that the polarization coming from your side is tragic, because it makes it hard for you to see just how many millions of allies you might have — even within the NRA itself! — for raising the bar dramatically on who gets to carry what, and where, and when, and why. Background checks are not, by a long shot, the only thing we agree on.

    (Let me also go on the record here as saying that most gun owners scare the snot out of me, too.)

    A community approach would also give us new eyes on the potentially unstable ones, and new tools to keep them away from danger.

    One thing that would reduce the level of acrimony more than you can know is for gun control advocates to stop throwing around the phrase “automatic weapon.” It seems small and stupid — a matter of semantics — but it really matters. Automatic firearms have been functionally banned in the US for the past 30 years. To own one, you need a BATF license and a fat five-figure sum to buy one of the very few grandfathered ones still in circulation — which means that nobody, in practice, actually has them. Since 1986, only two people have died from full autos — both of which were in the hands of cops who had them illegally. This is just NOT a thing.

    Calls for “banning automatic weapons” really grate when you’re talking to gun people, because it tells them that you’re not even really clear on what laws are in place. (And the right is not wrong about this: there are a lot of great gun laws already on the books that are not getting adequately enforced. As so often happens in politics, the answer to the question, “Why aren’t we doing X?” is that someone already did. Some of these proposals thus become the left’s version of repealing Obamacare 50 times. ) They also are inflammatory, conjuring Hollywood images of spray-and-pray shooting that simply cannot happen in the real world. (Which is not to say that trained mass shooter with a semi isn’t terrifying enough; but a full auto brings a whole new level of terror to the image that does nothing to de-escalate the acrimony.) You can see why gun owners would rather check out of the conversation when they discover they’re talking to someone who doesn’t bother to draw this really important distinction.

    Semi-autos are a different beast, and important conversation to have, since they account for the vast majority of both long and handguns in circulation now.

  9. I will be the first to admit I am not an expert on guns. Not anywhere close. I certainly understand how gun experts can get frustrated with the general public’s willingness to propose policies without that knowledge.

    At the same time, that’s the population that has to be worked with in order to reach some sort of compromise on guns, and I doubt we’ll ever be able to educate the masses on the details. To them this is a simple issue: they look at Adam Lanza bringing a Bushmaster .223-caliber semiautomatic rifle to an elementary school and think “nobody should be allowed to have those guns.” And they’re right. Parents hear about kids doing active shooter drills at school, and read about toddlers getting shot by guns in homes, or see photos of someone open carrying a gun at a Subway, and conclude that this something has gone horribly wrong.

    The side I’m on is coming at this from a place deeply rooted in values and morals, and views this issue in those terms. It is a perspective that does not like nuance. Hillary Clinton’s attack on Bernie Sanders’ gun votes is a good example of this. Bernie’s votes are a great example of nuance and careful reasoning based on a familiarity with the issue. But Hillary and her team believe, probably correctly, that the Democratic electorate doesn’t want to hear nuance on guns, and so they are attacking him on that basis.

    This values-driven approach has its pros – it makes for an increasingly effective political movement – but it also has some big drawbacks, such as reluctance to compromise and willingness to support laws that don’t take nuance into consideration. I recognize that own tendency in my own attitude on the issue.

    That said, for a compromise approach to work for my side of the issue, it has to work for us on a values level. It’s got to address the fear, the insecurity, and the injustice that we perceive to be created by the easy availability of guns. I do think there is a chance we can get there.

  10. Thank you for broadening my view and giving me some new ideas to chew on.

  11. I think you and Jim Wright have very sensible proposals. I am a progressive, support the Second Amendment, but do not own a firearm. I have military training with both the M-16 and the .45 (expert in both). One of the central difficulties with gun control is that the NRA stokes the anti-position with fear of confiscation and conspiracy theories. Wouldn’t your proposal have a central, federal database for licensees? How would responsible gun owners, and there are many, have their voices heard among the din of the NRA? I think there is a debate the Democratic Party needs to have, which, as Senator Sanders states, has to bridge the rural and urban divide. Even the NRA rule on knowing the purchaser would seem to close the gun show loophole, the Internet loophole, and the strawman purchases. I applaud both of your efforts. What would be the way forward?

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