Jumping the Gun Debate

"I’ve never even touched a gun before.”

“Me neither…”

As we pulled into the parking lot of Deep River Sporting Clays and Shooting School, located about an hour’s drive southwest of campus, our ears were suddenly confronted by the steady “pop-pop-pop” of sustained pistol fire, punctuated by the deeper, more ominous “BANGs” of the shotguns we’d soon be shooting. Our nostrils filled with the acrid yet alluring scent of freshly-burnt gun powder.

“I’m nervous.”

“Word. This is gonna be dope though.”

Since neither of us had any experience with firearms, we decided we had better shoot a gun before we delved any further into our exploration of gun culture and gun control, issues that provoke widely divergent and often intensely emotional reactions from Americans—and Duke students—on all sides of the issue.

And so we journeyed to Sanford, North Carolina to rent a shotgun and spend a crisp, sunny afternoon walking around the ground’s sprawling sporting clays course and attempting to shoot down the six-inch orange plates being launched across the sky by small spring-loaded “trap” machines operated by our 16-year-old shooting guide, Matthew. Along with the requisite eye and ear protection, we were provided with a handsome, semi-automatic 20-gauge Beretta Silver Pigeon shotgun and 50 shells apiece.

“Most of the people here, all they want to do is have fun,” Bill Kempffer, the owner and lead instructor, told us before we set off on the course. “This is a family place. It’s no different than going and buying a tennis racket.”

We weren’t quite sure how to take this; for us, guns also bring to mind images of violence and horror: televised spectacles of unspeakably evil school shootings, inner-city communities ravaged by gang violence and spur-of-the-moment suicides made possible by the startling availability of lethal weapons in America.

But at the same time, there was something spellbinding about standing amid the rows of polished wooden rifles and the glass-enclosed showcase of toy-like black Beretta pistols, exhibited for sale inside the facility’s pro shop. This contradiction—of feeling both perturbed by such easy access to life-ending weapons and mesmerized by the opportunity to hold and fire one of the most controversial American symbols in our bare hands—was unsettling.

“Pull!” The clay spun out of the machine at a terrific pace. Following the disk along for a second or two with the long shotgun nestled firmly against one shoulder, we took turns squeezing the trigger: one shell, then the other. BANG. BANG. We both missed. It took several more shots before either of us connected. But when we did, the feeling was empowering, intoxicating even. We had just blown something out of the air from a distance of more than 200 feet.

“I can see why people like this.”

“Yeah… [CLICK]… Pull!”

In retrospect, there were many moments that gave us away as first-timers: our satisfied smirks at the bellowing sound of our first gunshots, our earnest and surprised reaction upon learning that people can and do buy guns from Wal-Mart and, most transparently, our age. Having shot his first gun before learning the full alphabet, our shooting guide, Matthew, has been operating firearms for more than 10 years. At 16, he owns several of his own firearms and spends his weekends leading beginners like us around the facility’s 13-station shooting course. At 22, we were a peculiar combination of lowly-beginners and late-blooming Yankees. But at least we were curious.

Amid the heightened national conversation about America’s gun violence epidemic, we detected a new sense of urgency in the voices of those who expressed opinions both for and against gun control. In the wake of a spate of horrific mass shootings that culminated in a national nadir at a small elementary school in Newtown, Conn., gun safety activists argue that the national mood toward regulating firearms has softened. They see an opening to push through Congress legislation that would ban “assault weapons”—an ambiguous definition that includes certain semi-automatic firearms that can inflict mass casualties in a short amount of time­­—expand background checks and close well-documented loopholes that allow people to buy guns from private dealers at gun shows and flea markets without being screened.

While gun rights advocates are generally opposed to renewing the federal ban on assault weapons—they see the proposed law as arbitrary and ineffective at preventing gun violence—there is an emerging consensus that activists on both sides might find common ground on expanding background checks to ensure that guns don’t wind up in the hands of criminals or individuals with a history of mental health problems.

“I think it’s possible to reduce the amount of gun violence we have without banning guns,” said junior David Winegar, co-President of Duke Democrats. For Winegar, enforcing tighter background checks, eliminating the so-called “gun show loophole” and cracking down on firearm trafficking should be the primary areas of concern. “It would require a lot more regulation,” he said, “but I think it’s possible.”

Gun control advocates frequently say that 40 percent of gun sales in America occur without any background checks. But Kempffer disputed that number, insisting that the concern over background checks was overblown.

“Statistics—if you’ve done any study of statistics, you can make them say anything you want,” he asserted.

Kempffer believes the most important concern is ensuring that law-abiding citizens can adequately protect themselves. Making it harder to obtain firearms, he believes, would only undermine Americans’ sacred right to bear arms.

The right of the people to keep and bear arms, codified in the second amendment, is deeply ingrained in American history­—after all, we threw off the yoke of British imperialism with muskets and bayonets. While early understandings of the amendment suggested that it applied only to state militias, the notion that it covers an individual’s right to bear arms has become conventional wisdom over the last 50 years, a shift some legal scholars attribute to the rise of the modern conservative movement and a sustained and forceful lobbying effort led by the National Rifle Association.

In 2008, the Supreme Court channeled public opinion when it affirmed an individual’s right to possess firearms for self-defense in the landmark case, District of Columbia v. Heller. Today, even liberal Democrats pushing for more stringent gun control laws acknowledge that the second amendment protects this basic individual right to bear arms. But where should the government draw the line? As that debate plays out in the halls of Congress and in classrooms and living rooms across the country, it’s important to consider that guns mean different things to different people. Part of why discussions surrounding national gun policy can feel so frustrating has to do with the divisive nature of gun culture itself.

Sophomore Alex Smith captured this frustration perfectly, decrying the degree to which the debate over gun control has become hyperpolarized.

“Everyone’s at opposite extremes,” she said. “I’m not hopeless, but I have a lot more faith in the country on other issues.”

When it comes to guns, coastal liberals and rural Americans don’t just disagree—they speak different languages. Those in cities have a compelling crime-fighting interest in curtailing individuals’ rights to bear arms, while those in rural settings associate rifles with generations of family tradition and are taught, early on, how to use them safely.

Benton Wise, a senior from South Carolina who “grew up around guns,” explained how learning to respect firearms was an important part of his upbringing. “In some ways,” he said, “guns defined my childhood.”

Wise began hunting at age 8 and got a new gun every year. He developed a profound appreciation for sportsmanship and spoke of the value of learning to use guns in a safe way. When he came to Duke, he founded Duke Ducks Unlimited, a club dedicated to teaching students about preservation, restoration and protection in the outdoors. Every year, the club sponsors skeet shooting trips in which students learn how to handle guns appropriately.

When asked whether guns unnecessarily empower violent individuals, Wise said he was “distressed” by acts of gun violence and acknowledged that firearms can be a “megaspeaker” for those who wish to inflict mass pain. While he does not favor increased weapons bans, he supports background checks for every gun purchase. The most pressing issue, he concluded, is not limiting access to firearms, but changing America’s “culture of violence” and attitudes toward weapons of such power.

But Jaisal Mariwala, a junior from Mumbai, India, who has never shot a gun before in his life, said he had trouble understanding Americans’ attachment to firearms. “As an outsider, it just looks like the access is too easy,” he said, noting that India enforces far stricter gun control measures than the United States and endures far less gun violence.

And indeed, the United States has a higher rate of firearm-related homicides per capita than any other developed country. According to data compiled by the United Nations, an American is 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than someone from another developed country. This isn’t surprising given the fact that America has far more firearms (300 million by some estimates) than any other nation on Earth.

While gun rights activists acknowledge the issue’s confounding circularity, they argue that with so many guns out there, the government has an obligation to ensure that people have access to firearms for self-protection.

“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said Wayne LaPierre, the NRA executive vice president, at a December press conference in which he called for armed security guards in every American school.

But many advocates of stricter gun control measures, including President Barack Obama, argue that the government can reduce gun violence through “common-sense” policies that seek to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them to commit acts of violence. In his most recent State of the Union address, Obama did not call on Congress to enact specific policies like the proposed assault weapons ban; instead he urged Americans to “come together around common-sense reform­, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.” Whether America’s hyper-polarized Congress will actually vote on such bi-partisan gun legislation remains to be seen, but it seems as though the most realistic short-term approach will occur on middle ground.

The warm afternoon sun began to set as we left the 13th and final shooting station. Although we were slightly discouraged by our relatively poor showing—together, we only shelled five out of 100 clays—we left Sanford with a newfound respect for gun culture and an enhanced understanding of unfamiliar perspectives on gun control. As the policy debate rages on, we feel better positioned to take a stance—or at least understand the complexity surrounding the bipolar nature of the national discourse. It seems that everyone agrees that America has a problem with gun violence, but our brief adventure to this small North Carolina shooting school illustrated the scope of misunderstanding and cultural disunity that informs impressions on both sides.

Editor's Note: This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Duke Ducks Unlimited only sponsors skeet shoots during which no animals are killed.


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