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In the Gun Culture

By June 13, 2000 No Comments

One of the few perks to being the director of the Institute is that one occasionally receives interesting invitations – this partly makes up for an irregular (and low) salary, long hours, and the occasional pledge to inflict grievous bodily harm from some of our critics. An invitation to be a guest at the 2000 Seattle Conference of Academics for the Second Amendment last June was one of the more interesting invites.

When they gave me a loaded submachine-gun, I knew this was a conference with a difference.

The Seattle conference of Academics for the Second Amendment went like many academic sessions do – except that this collection of American constitutional lawyers, historians, criminologists and political scientists planned one unusual afternoon session.

With the assistance of some Microsoft employees who took us to their club’s firing range, all of those in attendance were given the opportunity to fire a number of weapons – most of which are absolutely prohibited in private hands in Canada. Our hosts were generous; ammunition is costly and most of the delegates at the conference must have burned through about 1,000 rounds of ammunition each. In return for their generosity, they had to endure a few jibes about the possibility of their club being forced to split into two organizations… they took this in stride.

I had fired submachine-guns in my long-passed Army days, but had forgotten how much of a pleasure it was to shoot them. I had missed the intoxicating smell of oil, hot brass and cordite fumes; the pleasure of using a good piece of machinery and the confirmation that my old hard-won skill with automatic weaponry had not deserted me. I might no longer be a lean mean fighting machine, but I could still shoot like one (scoring 547 out of a possible 600) despite gray hair and an expansive waistline.

After firing each weapon, I retrieved my riddled paper targets and folded them away as souvenirs. I was especially proud of the fist-sized hole through which about 60 rounds from a Colt 9mm SMG had passed at 25 metres in short tight bursts.

The rest of the conference was not quite as interesting although the company was quite diverse. The Chair was from way out in left field, having worked for the famous radical lawyer William Kunstler. He developed an interest in self-defence as a civil-rights worker in Mississippi in the days when the Klan was still rampant and it was not unknown for his peers to mysteriously disappear. Others also ranged the spectrum from New York Liberal to Attila the Hun Conservative.

The debates over the intentions of the framers of the US Constitution and their interpretations of English Common Law and the 1689 Bill of Rights were interesting – but not as much as wandering about in the area. Washington is one of the US states that recently adopted extremely permissive gun laws. Citizens can make application to the police for permission to carry concealed handguns, and the gun-shop attached to the Microsoft club was stuffed full of a wide variety of pistols and long-arms – both historic and modern.

The first, and invariably proper-Canadian, reaction to the wide availability of firearms among the hoi polloi is to assume the whole State is one free-for-all, with schoolyard massacres and indiscriminant pistol fire being the daily fare. Truth to tell, aside from the pounding my ears received in the gun club, I never heard a single shot. The denizens seemed quiet, orderly and prosperous – much more so than Canadians. (Indeed, our average disposable income has slipped by 2% over the 1990s while that of Americans has grown by 18%… but I digress).

Conferences get me restless, and I tend to go for long walks in the area in the early morning and late evening. No gunfire was heard in the upscale and downscale neighborhoods I strolled through. I also visited a nearby shopping mall filled with all manner of the armed natives of the area… it too was quiet. Despite careful observation, the areas around checkout counters and the signs in the parking lot were not pockmarked.

I did notice the tell-tales that indicated several citizens who were packing heat, and the suggestion that many more might have been – if bumper stickers are anything to go by. The sports car of an attractive young woman carried decals indicating NRA and pistol club membership in the rear window. I might add that her car was stalled in a traffic jam, but neither she nor anyone else seemed inclined to pepper other drivers with gunfire. Similar decals were on an SUV belonging to a young mother. According to recent polling, only about a third of the State’s residents are armed, so it is possible that the stickers were a bluff – I didn’t make a closer inquiry.

Over four days, the Seattle papers carried no stories about local homicides with guns (although there was a knifing in one of the city’s less than choice locales). There was a suicide with a firearm, but Seattle offers lots of other choices to those who are disposed to self-disposal. Indeed, the other suicide that was reported during my visit involved a leap from a bridge – an act that did endanger many other people.

Truth to tell, wandering about Seattle was pleasant and safe. Near my own downtown Toronto residence, there have been two drive-by shootings and one shooting death in the last couple of years. Dance clubs that I often walk by have seen fatal shootings inside them in the last year. There are areas of Toronto where I do not walk fearlessly at night. A friend of mine has frequently heard gun-fire at night from her Scarborough home, and we both met another couple at a Toronto dinner-dance who had been narrowly missed by pistol shots outside the Eaton’s Centre.

But then, it is a comfort to know that Canadians reportedly do not go for gun-ownership or engage in easy gunplay. There will be none of that insane American penchant for indiscriminant pistol shooting in Toronto the good…

When I showed a neighbor one of my souvenir submachine-gun targets from Seattle, she asked to have it. Like so many good Canadians, she doesn’t own a gun; but thought that hanging a thoroughly perforated paper target just inside her back door might be the next best thing.

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