An automatic reflex

Recently I wrote a short news story for the Free Press Facebook page about the armed robbery of a Durango pot shop in which I referred to the suspect’s weapon as an “automatic rifle.” In fact, it was an AR-15, commonly – and legally – known as a “semi-automatic” rifle. (The difference is that an automatic takes only one pull of the trigger to unloose a hail of bullets, while the semiautomatic requires the shooter to do the tiresome work of pulling the trigger to launch each hailstone.)

I admit the factual error may have been influenced by a personal bias I have against both types of weapons, since in my mind the distinction is pretty trivial – either is highly effective when it comes to killing people. But it was just a careless mistake, nothing more.

The swift response from a few readers was to eagerly point out the mistake and wonder how they could ever trust any of the paper’s reporting after such an egregious miscue.

One observed that the robber would be in much more serious trouble had he actually wielded a fully automatic rifle, since they are illegal to own. (I don’t think so. Committing an armed robbery and threatening the lives of others – regardless of the weapon used – is about as serious as it gets without actually shooting someone, but never mind.)

Anyway, the tenor of the posts made me wonder what sort of person reads an account of such a crime and takes away from it in large measure this one, to me, minor point. An obvious conclusion is that they must be folks very passionate about protecting their right to bear arms and very concerned about having this Second Amendment right eroded.

(And, just maybe, a few think the Free Press is a small part of some insidious mainstream-media conspiracy to rip all guns out of good Americans’ hands and ultimately enslave them in gray pajamas manufactured in China.)

So I just want to have my say about guns and the common-sense control of them in a country that seems to grow evermore crowded and violence-prone.

I don’t believe guns are intrinsically good or evil. They are tools that, like a drill or a hammer or a saw, have useful and handy functions, like putting food on the table and safeguarding one’s family. And, of course, they are essential for military defense and law enforcement.

Beyond that, they are a source of good, clean fun for a lot of folks who just like to sharpen their shooting skills on ranges and out on our ample public lands.

I first shot a gun when I was about eight years old – my father’s prized muzzleloader, which required a ram rod, powder horn, lead ball, cloth patches and a cap to load. It was so heavy I could barely hold it steady while pulling the main trigger, then gently touching the hair trigger and waiting a second for the delayed discharge and considerable recoil. It was a blast for a scrawny kid to make a tin can leap into the air amidst the smoke and noise and flying dirt.

A year or so later I was allowed to have a Daisy Red Ryder BB gun – only after memorizing and reciting the Ten Commandments of BB Gun Safety to my father. (I will not shoot birds . . . and so on)

I got my first real gun – a single-shot .22-caliber rifle – when I was about 10 and used it to hunt small game in the woods and fields near our rural home. A couple of years later I was allowed to own a 20-gauge full-choke shotgun, which I found much more efficient in slaying the dodgy critters.

My brother would occasionally let me shoot his semi-automatic .22 rifle for target practice (illegal for hunting, of course), and borrow his .32-caliber Winchester Special carbine for deer-hunting.

However, as a teenager I lost interest in hunting and guns, perhaps not coincidentally as my interest in the opposite sex increased. (Although we did covertly make a couple of zip guns in high-school shop just to be rebellious, like James Dean or something.)

Over the years I’ve owned a few other firearms, including a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson semi-automatic handgun. (Other than taking it out in the woods and firing off a few rounds to get the feel of it, I never had any occasion to use it.)

So with the above as a preamble to demonstrate that I’m not a stranger to firearms or opposed to gun ownership, I will finally get to my point:

I believe our country needs more effective gun-control measures to prevent the mass killings we’ve all become far too familiar with. The distinction of whether guns fire “automatically” or “semi-automatically” pales when it’s you or a loved one staring down the barrel of a maniac’s weapon, be it in a schoolroom, a theater or a shopping mall.

The easy availability of such weapons, along with large-capacity magazines, makes us all prey for any sicko who decides he’s been ignored long enough and wants to make his “statement” before he goes.

As those careful readers must know, there are limited uses for such guns, with killing other human beings real fast and dead being the one that leaps to mind most quickly. (And I’d bet they already have their legal weapons at the ready, and, moreover, they are not the criminals or crazies who wouldn’t be able to buy more, even with a more thorough vetting process.)

To go to the extreme, one interpretation of the Second Amendment would mean we should all be allowed to own fully automatic guns, bunker-buster bombs and nuclear arsenals.

This country has about 10,000 gun-related deaths annually, most of them crimes of passion committed with an ordinary pistol or long gun by someone whose hate for his ex and her new boyfriend finally reaches the boiling point or who just can’t stand the neighbor’s barking dog any longer. (Yeah, most of us are responsible gun owners until suddenly we’re not. )

But let’s get real. We’re supposedly working toward being a more civilized society where differences are not settled by brute force, but through reason and concern for our fellow travelers.

Life is compromise, and no “inherent” right is absolute. And, remember, one meaning of “automatic” is “without thought.”

David Long writes from Cortez, Colo.

From David Long.