Guns, Again: Cars, Youth Culture, and Playing By the Rules

I conclude with a more personal observation. In November 2006, eight Atlanta Narcotics detectives served a No-Knock warrant at the home of a 92-year-old woman named Kathryn Johnston. Unbeknownst to five of the officers, the three members of their team who had applied for the warrant had falsified the information required and thus obtained the warrant illegally.

They had difficulty in cutting through the burglar bars and, since they were not required to announce themselves, they made it sound as if they were criminals attempting to break and enter her home (technically speaking, that is exactly what they were). Upon entering the home, they found Ms. Johnston in the hallway, at which point she fired one warning round from a six-shot revolver into the ceiling. The Atlanta police opened fire and shot 39 times. They hit Ms. Johnston five times. They shot three of their own by ricochet. Amazingly, all eight members of this team had spent two hours at the shooting range that same morning, for mandatory gun training.

The way President Trump and the NRA leadership frame the current debate about guns, with the childish rhetoric of good guys and bad guys, assumes that everyone with a gun is Bruce Willis, and will drop the bad guys like a stone. Anyone who has familiarity with the reality of gun use, especially in closed spaces and under emotional duress, knows that this is not the case.

Owning a gun did not save Ms. Johnston from an abusive state apparatus; it ensured her violent death. Police and weapons training did not turn eight Atlanta detectives into Bruce Willis and the Magnificent Seven; they were simply a danger to themselves and a menace to the public they were tasked to protect and to serve.

More guns is not a serious proposal for what can no longer be denied as a catastrophic social problem in this nation. Our youth are serious about this, and they expect the adults to be serious as well. In high school, a lot of thought and energy goes into cars–when you get a permit, then a license, then a car. The open road has long been a symbol of youth culture in this country, it is a symbol of freedom. That freedom is not incompatible with regulation. 

Our youth are telling us that they would like to be regulated in their gun ownership much as they are in their car ownership. Here’s how that might look–and yes, they know that they are calling for a revolution.

The gun industry should be a heavily regulated industry and most of the regulating (virtually all of it) should be aimed at public health and safety. We should require effective gun safety mechanisms, limits to caliber, limits to the size of magazine clips, and we should demand a recall on all automatic (“assault”) weapons.

The youth would go further. They require anyone who wishes to use a gun to receive training in the operation of a gun (and further training for more advanced weapons) and then to take both a written and a practical test. They themselves would go through a long apprenticeship during which they cannot shoot or hunt alone. State governments would issue an operating license which is required of anyone wishing to use a gun, not just to buy one, and these state issued licenses would be entered into a national data bank. Background checks will be enhanced in this way, and loopholes more easily eliminated.

They would require anyone who wishes to own a gun to have the gun inspected on a yearly basis and to provide evidence of a passed inspection before the gun’s license may be renewed. They would require gun owners to pay for both the inspection and the license renewal, every year. They would also require anyone who wishes to own a gun to purchase an insurance policy… not just to protect themselves, but to protect every other shooter in the woods, on the range, and on the road, especially those whom they injure or kill with a gun.

Some of this we already do, but most of it, not yet. This will be burdensome. We will submit to bureaucracies and waiting lines. We will do it every year. We will pay for the licenses, inspections and renewals. And this cost, all of it, is infinitesimal in comparison to the value of a single human life.

We have not been here before. This is what the youth are telling us: that there is no more sacred matter than their lives.

Louis A. Ruprecht Jr. Is the inaugural William M. Suttles Professor of Religious Studies, and the Director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, at Georgia State University. The second edition of his book, Policing the State: Democratic Reflections on Police Power Gone Awry, in Memory of Kathryn Johnston, was released in 2015 with a new Afterword on “Policing the State After Ferguson.” His latest book, Report on the Aegina Marbles with Historical Supplements, was published by the SUNY Press in 2017.