Earlier this year, my wife and I attended our day-long course that is a state prerequisite to obtaining a concealed handgun permit. Unsurprisingly, the room was packed full. The two of us looked not at all out of place. But a more detailed demographic might have put us in the minority. We’re both physicians at Triangle-area hospitals, both of us involved in trauma-related fields. We both see the horrific effects of very many guns in North Carolina. We both support legislation that would put forth reasonable efforts to curb gun violence. And we both voted for Barack Obama – twice.
But by some standards, we fit right in. We both hail from rural backgrounds and gun-loving states, Texas and Kentucky. We are gun owners (though my wife, admittedly, was not until she married me). We enjoy shooting recreationally. And after all, we were there that day as a necessary step toward the same thing that everyone else there also desired – to be able to carry, on our person or more likely in the car, a loaded and concealed handgun for protection.
I have been shooting since I was about 10 years old, and have always harbored a fascination with guns as machines, much more so than with a culture or heritage of hunting. I am fortunate to come from a family that ingrained a deep respect for the hazards of the world that we inhabit. Guns were certainly no exception. There were many rules, and they were militarily enforced. Guns could be useful – even fun – but they were not a novelty.
So, it was with expectations of a similar deference and gravity that we settled in on that Saturday morning for some serious instruction on how to go about exercising this rather unique American privilege. Boy, were we ever wrong...
Our instructor was well-qualified enough – a very experienced local law enforcement officer, with considerable advanced weapons training of all sorts. We proceeded directly into the letter of the law regarding explicitly what the state did and did not allow regarding concealed handguns. And then, almost immediately, things began to descend into a mockery of reason and good judgment. One-in-a-million scenarios began to erupt from the audience, unveiling the emotional currents that lie buried just under the surface.
“What if I come home and someone is in my house? Can I take my gun inside and shoot them?” Well, the law says technically not if you’re outside, but as long as you put yourself in the house then you should be good.
“What if my ex-husband tries to come to the house?” If he doesn’t have a right to be there, then you do what you gotta do. … Remember, they don’t have to be breaking in for you to shoot.
Perhaps most shocking, though, was the advice we received from a practicing law enforcement officer regarding the storage of firearms: under the bed, preferably loaded. I’m not kidding. Fifty or so families, many of whom we must presume have children in the home, walked out of that classroom with the understanding that the proper way to store your guns was in a location that is within reach of a child, and loaded. No gun safe. No trigger lock. Across the United States in 2008-09, according to the FBI, we lost more preschoolers to guns (173) than officers in the line of duty (89). A September article from the New York Times pointed out just how common it is for young children in the U.S. to encounter guns, pick them up and then play with them, naively courting tragedy all the while.
Gun ownership is an individual right. District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 removed much doubt from the shades of interpretation of the Second Amendment. However, it is a right that must be exercised with extraordinary respect, and with every possible effort to protect innocents from accidental harm. We must all recognize that while guns may empower us – in the face of threats from evildoers, or perhaps even to an extent from the tyranny that prompted the birth of the Second Amendment so long ago – that they far more often destroy our families and rob our children of their futures.
Those in positions of authority with the opportunity to transmit that respect to others must carry a strong message to all who will listen. That is what my wife and I expected to hear from our instructor that day, and what we all deserved to hear – but we didn’t hear it.
Dr. Ty L. Bullard, M.D., is a native Texan and a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at UNC Chapel Hill.
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