Our Well-Regulated Militia

Is the conversation around guns in this country really about the right to bear arms?

Alexander Chee | Longreads | April 2016 | 15 minutes (3,713 words)

My partner Dustin and I recently bought a cabin in a 1930s-era hunting association a few hours from New York City. Out in the yard is a game hook for hanging a deer after shooting it. We are thinking of turning it into a swing.

Last summer, my retired prison guard neighbor there tried to convince me to do two things: marry Dustin—“I’ve seen too many gay guys like you get screwed by the family when something happens to one of you”—and get a hunting license to help him shoot some of the bears. We thanked him but did not marry, and as for the hunting license, we prefer watching the bears eat apples from the trees in the meadow—you could even say we prefer the bears to some of our neighbors.

The bears don’t bother us.

Most of the members of the association don’t seem to hunt much. Dustin and I go up regularly, every other weekend, and only a few times a year do we really hear anyone off in the woods shooting at anything. One day another neighbor appeared in camouflage and a bush helmet, carrying a bow and arrow, inviting us over to drinks.

Real hunting, as I know from my own family life, is hard. You have to be in decent shape, you need to be dressed for the weather, sprayed for bugs, you need sunblock, you need food packed for the day, you have to have a good dog you’ve trained year round, and you have to be able to field-dress what you kill or at least drag it to where you parked your car. Also: you need to know how not to get lost in the woods. I have a lot of respect for many of these hunters even if I don’t agree with what they’re doing or want to participate in it.

But I also know my cousin Jon back in Maine has a sideline as a butcher for deer and moose, was young when he learned how to carve them up from his game warden father, and he gets a little money and a little or sometimes a lot of meat from it, plus bones for his dog. This sideline exists because most of the hunters coming through his small town don’t know how to do what he does, or they can’t be bothered to do it.

His venison with garlic marinade is exceptional. Every time I have it, I’m grateful to his clients.

I wonder if the day will come when I’ll have to buy a gun. I’m just afraid that when the day comes, it won’t be because I’m hunting bears.

When you try to write about guns in America, you can’t bother to use the news peg approach. Any peg you choose goes by too quickly, replaced by another. It isn’t a peg as much as something that is always there—a constant, always rising death toll—spokes in a wheel that never stops turning.

* * *

I grew up with guns. There’s a photo of me and my siblings from our childhood in Maine in the mid-1970s, seated on a blue corduroy couch, and behind us is a woven tapestry of palomino horses running across a desert. I love the photo for the pure 70s kitsch of our living room.

Also behind us: several of my father’s rifles, leaning on a corner of the wood-paneled wall.

When my brother showed this photo to his German wife, she was shocked. To her it was unconscionable to have guns so close to children—she reacted as if our childhood had been brutal and dangerous in some way it never was, at least, to us. At first it seemed as if she was overreacting, and yet when a friend of mine moved to Germany permanently back in the 1990s, saying, “I just don’t want to think about getting shot all the time,” I knew what she meant.

My father was a gun enthusiast and his gun collection ran from an antique Korean War-era rifle to his hunting rifles to an actual antique bronze cannon. I never once played with our father’s guns. Neither did my siblings. We were taught carefully that they were not toys and we never touched them without his supervision. He took me to gun shows where I tried to act as if I admired the guns like he did, but to the extent I loved those shows it was only because he loved them. He was so happy there, experimentally sighting a rifle as he considered whether he would buy it.

I never knew why he loved guns the way he did and I never asked before he died. I just accepted it. Also: it was the norm there in Maine. Like many gun enthusiasts, he loved the camaraderie of hunting. He always hoped I would love guns the way he did, but I never did. He also never pushed guns or hunting on me. The only thing he had ever really insisted on was that I learn to swim. I did attend a hunter safety program at a summer camp, where I learned gun safety and even shot rifles at the range, and I proudly reported back to him that I was a good shot. But I never once went hunting.

As I grew older, my sitting-out the family hunting trips became harder. My uncle, the game warden, often went hunting with my father and my brother, and after my cousin Jon was born, him also. My aunt would ask if I was going along and I would look up from the book I’d brought and shake my head. There would be some discussion about how unhealthy it was for me to read all the time, and then it would move on. But it was never my father pressuring me—it was usually my mother, or my aunt.

I can see why my relatives might have thought I would enjoy hunting. I was the boy the neighborhood kids called Nature Boy, who spent his free time in the woods. But it wasn’t so different from my mother believing I might want to be a competitive swimmer just because I liked being underwater.

My brother was the one who loved guns the way our father did, and while I was a little jealous sometimes of the closeness I could see growing between them, my father also made sure to spend time with me. I was a strong swimmer, as was he, and he liked to take me to the pool and make me race him, swimming underwater, to see how far we could go until we had to take a breath. I suppose it was a little like this for me and guns—I wanted to see how far I could go without ever firing one.

I still do.

I have photos of my father with his buddies from the Korean Army and I wonder sometimes if the one Korean rifle he kept reminded him of them. Was it nostalgia, or did it remind him of the days he ran around Seoul as a kid, salvaging food from bombed-out supply trucks to feed his family there? In which case, that gun would have been a way to remember he could save himself. No nostalgia there at all. For him, the idea of having to fight for food that way, the memory of what it was like to live in a country at war, they guided him through the success he built here as an engineer and entrepreneur. He never wanted his children to struggle the way he did. We never have. But the country he brought us up in is tearing itself apart, accommodating a stunning level of bloodshed that is rivaled only by countries at war.

* * *

The biggest fight I’d ever witness between my parents occurred on the day my father came home with his cannon. He hadn’t asked for my mother’s permission before the purchase—and the price emptied, more or less, all or most of their savings. At least, this was what I gleaned from the fight. My father explained to her the purchase was an investment: the cannon was 17th Century, left in Korea by the Portuguese and stolen from the country by Marines, friends who each took one back with them. The man selling it to my father was one of them. His, he said, had the only firing piece. When my father said this to my mother—as a way of telling her how valuable it was—she shouted, “What are we going to do with it? Declare war on the Mullinses?”

The conceit of that joke—that we would set up the cannon and fire on our neighbors—has been something that until recently made me laugh: how could you be so ridiculous? But with time, the context of it changes. Back then it was the early 1980s, and we were in a small rural suburban town on the coast of Maine, and while I knew it was the law in the state that you could be shot for pulling someone else’s lobster traps, or that we were allowed to hunt animals with guns that lived behind our couch, propped up in the corner next to the cannon, which we kept, I also remember that I was raised with the idea of an inherent respect for the lives of others.

I was raised with the idea that this social contract was an American ideal. I just don’t know that it is anymore, or even that it ever was. My mom’s exasperated joke isn’t funny to me anymore.

I have photos of my father with his buddies from the Korean Army and I wonder sometimes if the one Korean rifle he kept reminded him of them. Was it nostalgia, or did it remind him of the days he ran around Seoul as a kid, salvaging food from bombed-out supply trucks to feed his family there? In which case, that gun would have been a way to remember he could save himself.

Most of the stories I read about gun rights focus on the problem of mass shootings, but there is a more complicated matrix in which anti-blackness, the dehumanization of women, the lack of childcare and mental health care and the ready availability of guns creates an ongoing national crisis. For too long our country has treated incidents like the Trayvon Martin shooting as separate from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting as separate from the Gabrielle Giffords shooting as separate from the Wisconsin Sikh Temple Shooting, all of it separate from, say, any recent murder-suicide, in which a husband kills his wife and children before killing himself. But these are not separate. They are incidents in which someone’s bigotry or anger or despair or delusion is enlarged into a murderous force that could have been minimized and made non-fatal with gun control regulations. And what we see now is that some states have actually loosened gun control laws in the aftermath, calling these new laws protections for gun owners, and lawmakers who support gun control regularly receive death threats instead.

The result of this is, when you try to write about guns in America, you can’t bother to use the news peg approach. Any peg you choose goes by too quickly, replaced by another. It isn’t a peg as much as something that is always there—a constant, always rising death toll—spokes in a wheel that never stops turning.

* * *

Some recently discarded pegs: The death of Antonin Scalia and the shifting of the Supreme Court—possibly—away from the fantasy version of the 2nd Amendment that Scalia affirmed his whole career; Senator Mitch McConnell’s vow not to hold hearings on any pick to replace Scalia while the president is still in office, and his refusal to confirm any SCOTUS candidate the NRA does not approve of; the gun rights advocate whose 4-year-old son shot her the day after after she bragged of his prowess, who has since been charged by the local sheriff’s office with leaving a gun unprotected too close to a minor (a misdemeanor charge). The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by a private militia in Oregon.

Some stories stay with me for years. I’m haunted most by the man who was caught with a car full of guns while on his way to shoot a former employer, and who had just attended a showing of The Dark Knight Rises. He had clippings of the Colorado Dark Knight shooting in his car. The theater is the one I go to when I visit my mother, who lives near there, in Maine.

On the day I begin to write this: the attacks by the Islamic State on Brussels.

The connection between the Second Amendment and an act of Islamic State terrorism in another country may not be directly clear, but just after the March 22nd attacks, The Atlantic’s Washington editor Steve Clemons appeared on MSNBC criticizing how easy it is to get guns in Brussels on the black market. I can’t imagine any European being willing to accept that criticism from any American. We are the foremost supplier of guns to the entire world. We are so committed to the sale of guns, we haven’t as yet figured out how to keep them out of the hands of terrorists because that might impinge on our “freedom.” If the terrorist has a gun, there is no longer a way to tell if the terrorists have won or if the gun lobby has.

During the Obama administration, the 2nd Amendment has been defended most often by the gun lobby by invoking the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” Their belief: we need all of these guns to protect our freedom. According to a report in the Washington Post that analyzed data from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, there has been a $10 billion spike in sales of guns and ammunition since Obama took office in 2009.

This freedom to own guns comes with an astonishing domestic death rate annually, a death rate we would never accept if it were dealt to us from any of our so-called terrorist enemies—13,404 gun deaths in 2015 alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Americans are much more adept at killing Americans than the Islamic State. And yet despite the relative ease of purchasing a gun for those on the terrorist watch-list—at least 91% of those who tried were successful—the percentage of active shooters who are Muslim in the U.S. is vanishingly small: more people are killed by toddlers in the U.S. than by Muslim extremist terrorists, and yet in 2014, Florida made it illegal for doctors to ask or advise parents on gun safety in the home.

During the Obama administration, the 2nd Amendment has been defended most often by the gun lobby by invoking the phrase “a well-regulated militia.” Their belief: we need all of these guns to protect our freedom.

In the aftermath of the San Bernardino attack, which was an exception, anti-Muslim attacks are on the rise and conservative politicians are urging us to enact laws restricting the rights of Muslim Americans. After it was learned the San Bernardino shooters obtained their guns through legal sales and ordinary channels—something Al Qaeda has even urged its supporters to do, thanks to the prevalence of guns in the U.S.— President Obama initiated executive actions around gun safety and gun control that were treated, as is now usual, like attacks on gun rights from conservatives in office. These measures were supported by a majority of Americans, though, and a Gallup poll at that time of more than 1,000 Americans showed 80-90%  supported background checks for gun buyers, online and at gun shows.

These are the first restrictions President Obama has initiated with executive actions since his last executive actions, taken after a larger and more comprehensive reform package failed to pass Congress five months after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2013. Despite a reputation with conservatives as the most anti-gun president to date, he has actually expanded gun rights twice before this: signing into law bills allowing guns in most national parks, and allowing Amtrak passengers to carry unloaded firearms on the train. Using the San Bernardino attack as the opportunity to do this is a kind of bigotry in action, unfortunately: post-September 11th, we never seem able to enact such regulations when mass shootings are conducted by white Christians, or any non-Muslim, for that matter. It appears related to a political climate in which, again and again, police seem able to take white shooters alive in armed confrontations, while a black shooter is shot to death, no matter the region–that armed white Christians can kill in the U.S. with fewer repercussions, treated each time as an aberration. We have become a country held hostage by an aggressive and well-funded political minority, with lawmakers who oppose gun control rewarded with NRA donations, and lawmakers who support gun control regularly faced with death threats.

Protesters have begun to react by using the methods of the conservative gun rights movement against them, and legally. A group of white armed protesters calling itself the Bureau of American Islamic Relations, for example, were recently met at a South Dallas mosque and outnumbered by black armed counter-protesters, calling themselves the New Black Panther Party and the Huey P. Newton Gun Club.

The BAIR protest, outnumbered, retreated.

A petition to allow guns at the Republican National Convention, begun by a liberal Democrat who goes by the name “Jim”,  quickly earned over 50,000 signers. “Jim” began it to force the candidates to take a stand on open carry laws, as Ohio is an open carry state, and told CBS News, “If they can’t live in accordance with the policies they impose upon us, they owe us that rational conversation. I thought, ‘How do we square how unsafe they’re going to be with what they say makes them safe?’” Further complicating the issue is that the venue, the Quicken Loans Arena, does typically permit firearms at events. In a statement to Guns.com, Brett Pucillo, the president of Ohio Carry, a local gun rights group, said “(We) would love to see this petition take off and the RNC to allow law abiding citizens to carry at the event.”

Before he had even taken office, conservatives declared Obama would take away their guns. Having lost that election, they began to plan for a country, it would seem, where the crowd I saw that day would be filled with guns.

The Secret Service has announced that there is simply no way this will be allowed. As it stands, between the open carry laws, the number of guns owned by Americans, and with GOP delegates reporting getting threats from Trump supporters, the potential for violence at the convention is unprecedented, if not inside the convention center, then in the firefights that now seem increasingly likely at the conference hotels. All of this of course only dramatizes the danger these weapons pose.

* * *

I saw President Obama speak exactly once, when he was Senator Obama, during his campaign for president. The occasion was the Wesleyan University Commencement, May of 2008. A record crowd had gathered for the speech and my friends and I had traveled to tailgate beforehand. A party atmosphere prevailed all Saturday, until Sunday, when we entered the ceremony, and I could see the Secret Service snipers stationed on all of the rooftops I knew so well. Rooftops I had looked at first as a student and then a professor.

An unexpected detail: The snipers were trained on the crowd. Prepared in case anyone pulled a gun.

This is true in any crowd now where a major party candidate is running for president. This was my reminder. But this was also a black man who would become the first black president in a country that has a history of killing its most visible and effective black leaders.

Before he had even taken office, conservatives declared Obama would take away their guns. Having lost that election, they began to plan for a country, it would seem, where the crowd I saw that day would be filled with guns. So many that the person those snipers anticipated would be joined by many others, enough others that those snipers would be overwhelmed.

I’ve never not understood that, not for one year of his presidency. I don’t think he has either.

As his presidency reaches its final year, I’m concerned about what will happen to this country, so full of guns and anger, a country with a black president where it is still too easy to shoot a black man and get away with it. It’s as if, having failed to assassinate him in office, his enemies have worked to create a landscape in which he will, after he leaves office, never know a moment’s peace. Him or anyone who resembles him or who might come up after him.

Shortly after President Obama took office, a Tea Party candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates named Catherine Crabill became famous when she said, at a campaign event, about her fears of rising taxes under a Democratic president,  “We have a chance to fight this battle at the ballot box before we have to resort to the bullet box. But that’s the beauty of our Second Amendment right. I am glad for all of us who enjoy the use of firearms for hunting. But make no mistake. That was not the intent of the Founding Fathers. Our Second Amendment right was to guard against tyranny.” When the Washington Post reached her at home, she defended her remarks by saying, “I have no desire to see this country erupt in any kind of violent revolution. I don’t even own a gun.”

At the time, she was derided as a fringe character, but her remarks are indistinguishable from anything Ted Cruz now says at any rally. The problem with the Overton Window is that if it opens, it doesn’t matter who opens it. Almost no one knows Crabill’s name now but everyone still remembers what she said. Her remarks even come out of a tradition, rooted in what is called the Four Boxes of Liberty: “There are four boxes to be used in the defense of liberty: soap, ballot, jury and ammo. Please use in that order.”

This is a quote that has often been used in the last 150 years, but no one quite knows who said it first.

But this is the test before us. We fully have the militia part of “a well-regulated militia,” we just lack the “well-regulated.” This is a test we keep facing, and have since the expiration of the automatic weapons ban. A majority of people want an end to these senseless gun deaths. That majority is defeated by legislation so regularly it’s hard to believe we could win. The one thing these enemies of gun regulations can’t shoot is our ballot, though, for now. It is a tiny consolation to me that the ballot box comes before the ammo box in that list, and as I get ready to vote, it feels impossibly frail to me. But that is what they want, for me, for all of us, to be too afraid to vote or even to feel it is useless.

For now, it is still how we can win. They still fear our votes for a reason. And so I’ll use mine while I still can.

* * *

Alexander Chee is the author of the novels Edinburgh and The Queen of the Night, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is a recipient of a 2003 Whiting Award, a 2004 NEA Fellowship in prose, and residency fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. His essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book ReviewTin HouseSlateGuernica, NPR, and Out, among others. He lives in New York City.

Editor: Sari Botton;  Fact-checker: Matthew Giles