If President Barack Obama is looking for allies in his quest to keep guns out of the hands of the wrong people, I suggest he think about veterans. Not necessarily the guy who ran the movie projector at Fort Dix, but men and now women who served in combat and combat support in our last half-dozen wars. These people have seen what firearms can do, to the victim and the shooter. They should be heard.
At least, that was my reaction to a survey I never intended to take. Two weeks ago I wrote a column explaining why I didn't keep a gun in my home. The column ran in newspapers across the country, so I've heard from folks in Virginia, Texas, Alabama, Michigan and Kansas, as well as Connecticut.
Many of the responses were predictable. People who would rather the country not be awash in guns praised the piece; staunch gun advocates called me everything from a liar and a coward to a liberal. If you dish it out, you must be able to take it.
What I couldn't have predicted were many nuanced, thoughtful responses from veterans, many fellow Vietnam vets. Some are gun owners; some have given up guns; some, like me, turned in their guns when their tours were up and never picked one up again. John Bennett, an Army lieutenant in Vietnam and son of a World War II D-Day paratrooper, said neither he nor his father ever owned a gun, "for two simple reasons: they are unnecessary and dangerous."
Several brought up a point that has been largely overlooked in the gun debate: the profound and awful experience of taking a human life. The experience doesn't roll off the back of a sane and compassionate person; which is to say, most people. "The reality to me is that gun violence, which only very few of us have experienced firsthand, is horrible," wrote Jim McCollough, a former Vietnam helicopter pilot from Texas.
Gunshots that don't kill can cause incredible pain and lifelong disability (One veteran recounted a gruesome story of a friend being shot in the stomach outside a bar. It was a case of mistaken identity.) Could most teachers, who devote their lives to nurturing children, shoot someone? Do you want to put them in that position? And, as several vets observed, the pain of a shooting is shared by the shooter; there is a psychological price for taking a life.
Vets are also familiar with what can go wrong with loaded guns. Rudy Salas, a sergeant with the First Cav in Vietnam, said he forgot to take the clip out when clearing his M-16 and shot up the floor of his tent "next to my boot." It could have been worse, mi hermano.
There is a perceptible disdain among veterans for the crabgrass commandos who own small arsenals of weapons and are waiting to blow someone away without a clue of what that entails. On the other hand, there are incidents where homeowners with guns do repel invaders. The numbers strongly suggest that a gun in the home is much more likely to be used in a suicide or homicide than to shoot an intruder, however.
As I said in the column, I'm OK with responsible people keeping guns in their homes for protection. Nonetheless, several people charged that I was trying to take their guns away and deny their Second Amendment rights. "Lets think of what would happen if the discussions were about our First Amendment rights," said Bruce Panico. Let's do.
First Amendment rights are not absolute. As Justice Wendell Holmes famously said, they do not protect a person from falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater and causing a panic. Similarly, the Second Amendment does not permit the ownership of certain weapons, or the ownership of any guns by certain people. The question is where to draw the lines.
After Newtown, can't we agree that gangbangers, criminals and deeply disturbed individuals shouldn't be able to buy guns at gun shows or through private sales without background checks? That assault rifles should be kept in the hands of the military and law enforcement? That high-capacity magazines have no civilian purpose?
The veterans who emailed me do.
Tom Condon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.