Generic Ignorance

Some years ago, I was genuinely shocked when a young man, age 27, told me he had never even touched a firearm. To me, a Southerner, it seemed unimaginable that any male could attain the age of 27 without ever having handled a gun.

But as I thought about it, I understood. In today’s America, where there is no draft, most young men and women don’t have any military experience. In the days of the draft, even draftees from big cities with gun-control laws like New York had been exposed to firearms.

Furthermore, most Americans today grow up in urban areas where there is scant opportunity for recreational use of firearms. This absence of contact with firearms shows up as a sort of generic ignorance that one sees frequently in journalism and politics.

I recently skimmed a book of satirical essays poking fun at the vice president’s hunting accident, but one would-be humorist ruined his piece by constant references to buckshot. Dearly beloved, if the vice president had been using buckshot, his lawyer friend would be dead and missing a face, and any quail the veep had shot would be soup and feathers. As every bird hunter in the world knows, you use birdshot for quail. Double-ought buckshot are pellets the size of a .22-caliber bullet. Buckshot is used on deer, hogs and humans.

I was reading a mystery paperback once, and the author had his hero "slip the safety off his revolver." There is no safety on a revolver. Most semiautomatic pistols do have manual safeties, though not all of them these days.

The generic ignorance really showed up in the hysteria about "assault weapons." A true assault weapon is either a fully automatic weapon or a weapon with a selector switch that allows it to be fired in either a semiautomatic or full automatic mode. Without that selector switch, no matter what it looks like, it’s not an assault weapon.

You can buy various versions of the AK-47 or the Uzi, but these civilian models only shoot semiautomatic. The great irony of the assault-weapon hysteria was that weapons that shoot fully automatic had been regulated since the 1930s. To buy one, you needed a special license from the Treasury Department.

What Congress ended up doing was banning cosmetic features, like flash suppressors or bayonet lugs, that had nothing to do with the firing mechanism.

A weapon that fires semiautomatically works just like a revolver — one shot per one pull of the trigger. An automatic keeps firing as long as you hold the trigger back. About the only people in America who bothered to buy fully automatic weapons since the 1930s, besides the police and the military, were wealthy collectors. Bullets today cost about 25 cents apiece, so you can imagine not many folks wish to shoot up quarters at the rate of 400 or more a minute.

Furthermore, unless you are being charged by 50 or more people, a semiautomatic weapon or a shotgun will do just as well as a machine gun in a self-defense situation. I don’t think any American civilian has been charged by a large group of men since the end of the Indian wars and the last lynching.

There is no excuse for a journalist or a politician to be ignorant about firearms. Whatever you’re going to write about or regulate, you ought to at least know what the object is, whether it’s sewer pipes or firearms. If you’ve never handled a gun, visit your local gun shop and touch one. You’ll find that it is an inanimate object exactly like the tools in a hardware store. It won’t jump off the counter and bite you.

As my friend Colonel Dan says, it is much better to have a gun and never need it than to need it and not have it.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.