I've had a gun pointed at my face, and the trigger pulled.
My experience has made me conscious of how gun control advocates like myself are failing America, how gun enthusiasts have good points that need to be understood, and how the only successful approach to reducing gun violence in America needs to involve a hell of a lot more initiatives than regulating the sale of guns.
When that gun was pointed at me, I was a Senate Aide in Washington DC, working for Senator Paul Wellstone and Ted Kennedy as Labor Committee staff. It was after midnight, I was driving home from a party, through Adams Morgan. I saw an altercation in a parking lot, under a single streetlight.
A man was mugging a woman. She resisted him, tried to fight back. He threw her harshly to the ground. He marched toward her, determined. I saw abject fear in her eyes.
I drove over in my Volvo (of course I had a Volvo) and pulled up right between the two. I don't know who was more surprised to see me, the mugger or the victim. I honked my horn again and again, hoping it would scare the mugger away, that he'd scatter, like some frightened bird.
He didn't. He was entirely unimpressed, let alone scared. If anything, he seemed irritated. Enough so that he took a few steps toward me, and pointed a handgun toward the spot right between my eyes, and pulled the trigger.
My brain didn't fully register what was happening. It didn't seem possible that it could be so easy to shoot someone at such close range. My right foot remained on the brake instead of the accelerator. The only part of my body able to move was my right hand, which just kept pounding that horn. The mugger looked at his gun, frustrated. Shook it like it was a can of something that wouldn't open, and tried one more time. No luck.
Then he smiled broadly at me like I was the beneficiary of his bad luck -- and just walked away. I think the woman climbed into my car and we drove to the police station, but it's also possible the police arrived, I don't remember clearly, anymore. Memory is a funny thing. At the time, I could recall a clear visual image of that gun. I couldn't remember anything about the mugger's face. As I understand from Dr. Elizabeth Loftus, a friend and a memory expert, what I experienced was probably "gun blindness." It's common. All you can recall is that bluish metal, that round hole lined up with you, and little else.
As it turns out, the woman who was being mugged was a Republican House staffer. The following day she gave me a box of Kudos candy bars, and a note that read "you deserve Kudos for saving my life." I checked up to see how her boss voted on gun control laws in the future, and he came down against them. There's a reason why I'm not upset with her or with her boss about that, and I'll explain.
We all know the numbers. Nearly 12,000 Americans every year aren't as lucky as I and the Republican staffer were. Five percent of the world's population resides in America, and yet Americans possess nearly half of all privately-owned guns in the world. In part because of the plethora of guns, Americans are twenty-five percent more likely to die by gun than in any other developed nation (according to the Journal of American Medicine). Clearly, this is not just a safety issue, it's a health issue. And whatever efforts have been made to curtail this violence isn't working.
Why aren't the efforts working? Well, let's start with approach. Gun control advocates (like myself) tend to demonize Gun advocates (like the woman who was being mugged that night). Not surprisingly, that approach doesn't work well.
In his article in Big Think, David Ropeik successfully makes the argument that one of the reasons some gun owners might care so deeply about the Second Amendment is because of how affected these people are by the decline of America. These gun owners are disturbed, to their core, by limited opportunities, limited upward mobility. By real and perceived threats against their safety, from individuals and even from the government.
Gun control advocates can argue whether those threats are legitimate, but they can't argue with those feelings. Those feelings are real, they are based on real trends, and gun reform measures are unlikely to succeed unless they are included in a package that addresses these feelings, too.
A true gun reform package should include clean government regulations, like campaign finance reform and truth-in-government provisions that reduce the amount of lies that infect public discourse and that build public trust in government. A true gun reform package should include mental health provisions so that the almost 21,000 Americans who use guns to kill themselves annually have treatment available when they need it, and not just a gun. A true gun reform package should include alcohol and substance abuse treatment, and measures to reduce domestic violence (related to guns or otherwise).
A true gun reform package should include a jobs opportunity bill, a meaningful investment in our social infrastructure that promises more upward mobility for average Americans. A true gun reform package should make all of us feel safer, not just people who want fewer guns.
And the portion of this bill that addresses guns, has to include ammunition. Especially when 3D printers are capable of creating lethal guns in just minutes, without a waiting period or even the involvement of a gun manufacturer. Philip Bump made this point well in the Atlantic, four years ago. We're rapidly reaching a time when technology might make regulating guns impossible. So it's time to include the regulation of ammunition - which is harder to create from whole cloth - in the equation.
As for how can all this be paid for? Gun violence costs American taxpayers $229 billion a year in health care, lost revenue, legal fees, long-term prison costs, investigations, security, and more. If we transfer some of that money toward preventative measures, we'll not only reduce trauma and increase safety, but we'll save money. A LOT of money.
When I worked for Paul Wellstone, he had a policy: before you suggest I introduce a partially effective bill, at least tell me what a bill would look like that would actually solve the problem. Right now, few of the proposals being introduced in Congress are comprehensive. Most have no chance of passing, and although they might make for effective campaign fundraising on the Left (gun proposals raise money), they also raise money on the right, in almost equal amounts of campaign donations.
Perhaps most upsetting of all, is that gun control proposals tend to increase gun sales.
That's one of the things those who want change must face. When we focus only on reducing guns for some, and not on increasing safety for all, we actually pad the pockets of the NRA and gun manufacturers. Because people who don't feel safe will do what they feel they have to do, to feel safe. That means gun advocates will stockpile more weapons. And, as statistics show, the more guns that are purchased, the less safe we all are. Especially gun purchasers, who are 80% more likely to be wounded by their own gun than by anyone else's.
Please join me in calling upon our legislators, and our community, to demand a public safety bill that addresses the root causes of increased gun ownership, the root causes of gun violence, and that includes sensible and fair gun and ammo regulations that are as respectful as possible to the second amendment.
This is a tall order, I know. But it's the only one I can think of that comes close to matching the problem itself.
I hope, somewhere, the Republican Staffer I encountered in Adams Morgan can agree with me on this. Ultimately, the only way to affect real change is by working with our opponents. Not against them.
(Note from the author: in an earlier version of this blog, I identified the gun as likely being a Glock 19. I was never sure, and don't hold myself out as an expert on guns, so I've removed that reference).