The recent mass shootings in Buffalo and Tulsa — and so many others day in and out in 2022 America — coupled with the National Rifle Association’s annual convention in Houston staged a few days after a Uvalde gunman, 18, using a military-style semi-automatic rifle, blew apart 19 elementary school children and two teachers brought to mind my youth membership in the gun rights advocacy group.
It was in the early 1960s and my father was stationed at Fort Eustis, Va., and I was emerging from a fascination with a Fanner 50 cap gun to real firearms, prompted, I think, by what seemed like endless shoot-’em-up TV westerns. So I decided, with my father’s blessing, to take rifle lessons at the base firing range on weekends. And I joined the NRA to learn about .22-caliber competition rifles and, above all, gun safety.
Teaching gun safety was the main idea, which I respected and took seriously. I and other youths learned to safely store and secure the rifles, bearing them upright, firing chambers open when walking toward our shooting positions, then waited for instructions from a monitor using a public address system before lying down on a mat and adjusting the rifle’s sling around one arm to steady the gun.
I learned to lock and load the rifle, to breathe before slowly squeezing a round, take aim, fire, look at the target downrange while using a monocular scope, adjust my sights with a few clicks, if necessary, then fire again and examine the target anew. Pretty soon, it seemed I was hitting the bull’s-eye with nearly every shot, depending on my breathing and patience.
I began to enter competitions at Fort Eustis, then later at Fort Hood, Texas, as a preteen, earning medals and certificates and NRA medals for increasing expertise. If I recall correctly, I earned the Distinguished Rifleman’s medal and thought it was a big deal, but never really talked about it with neighborhood pals.
As an “Army brat,” I spent three of my four high school years overseas, in Turkey and Germany, and, of course, left competitive shooting behind. As a teenager, there was just too much going on in the mid-to-late 1960s and, after all, I had reached some of the highest rungs of competitive shooting already and knew I could handle just about any kind of firearm.
And I did, later, while serving in the Army, from the .45-caliber semi-automatic handgun and the M14 to the M16 semi-automatic rifles and the M60 machine gun, earning an expert marksman medal during basic training. I learned how to handle, load and fire those weapons, as ordered, but I can’t say I was ever fascinated with them.
So my interest in military weaponry, particularly small arms, waned long before I was discharged from the Army during the Vietnam era. I was happy to leave them behind, too.
By that time, the NRA was in my rear-view mirror, but by the late 1960s and the beginning of the Nixon presidency, the 151-year-old group began to transition largely from firearms and gun safety education to leading legislative and political efforts to defend the Second Amendment. Today it is mired by infighting, scandal involving its leaders, legal woes and the real possibility of financial collapse.
Since the late 1960s and the 1970s, with the names of Columbine, Sandy Hook, Charleston, Parkland, Las Vegas, El Paso ringing in the memories of the majority of Americans, the NRA has become a political lightning rod for both gun-rights and gun-limits activists, as Reporter and Times-Herald news headlines show.
By all accounts, a whopping 90 percent of Americans want to see Congress pass and President Biden sign common-sense gun laws and renewed funding for gun violence research.
Could our federal leaders on both sides of the political debate agree on warning labels on guns, noting that an unsecured gun around the house increases the risk of a gun death? What about a surcharge on firearms to cover the costs of their misuse, just as we tax cigarettes? And “red flag” laws for people who shouldn’t have guns?
And universal background checks to buy guns and ammunition, whether it be in a retail shop, via the Internet or at a gun show such as the one June 11 and 12 at the American Armory Museum in Fairfield? Can we ban high-capacity magazines and revive the ban on military-style assault weapons marketed for civilian use?
Should we increase the waiting periods before a buyer can pick up his or her gun or guns — and can we limit the number of guns sold per month to a buyer? Can we clamp down on so-called “straw buyers” who then sell the guns to gangs and crack down on companies that make untraceable gun parts and sell them on the Internet for assembly later without serial numbers?
Can we make it impossible to curb firearms made by 3-D printers? Can we mandate a license to buy a gun, as required in Massachusetts, for instance? Can we as a people, in our own towns and neighborhoods, encourage gun buybacks?
With the horror of yet another tragic spate of mass shootings, I noted some statements made last week by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who wondered if there is something dying within the soul of America.
To me it seems there is an anguished figure, our nation’s collective population, its spirit commingled with hope, trying to rise out of the heart of America in an age of angry young men with mental health problems and easy access to guns.
And the NRA and the GOP side of the U.S. Senate are not helping matters.
— Richard Bammer is a Reporter staff writer.