Robert B. Simpson: Guns, gun owners and responsibility

January 25, 2014 

As I write this, the latest shooting to make the national news happened just hours ago at Purdue University. It won't be the last, of course. But it will add force to the arguments of those who favor gun control of some sort. Those arguments will be countered by screams of "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Some will advance the eminently reasonable argument that responsible gun owners don't abuse their constitutional right to bear arms and so should not be burdened with undue restrictions.

I've used the "responsible owner" argument myself, which is a pretty good indication that I consider myself one. But when you look for a definition of the phrase, a problem is evident. Some people think reasonable gun owners don't object to registering guns. They keep their guns locked in a gun safe, maybe with trigger locks on them to boot. They have taken special training in gun safety, etc., etc. Others consider a responsible gun owner just to be one who appreciates the benefits of gun ownership, the pleasure of gun sports, the satisfaction offered by a finely machined and fitted piece of equipment, but who respects the potential lethality of firearms and acts accordingly.

Despite definitions and discussion, efforts to find common ground while respecting rights on all sides continue to get bulldozed aside by numerous lawmakers who insist on expanding the natural habitat of guns. For some reason, these legislators seem convinced that you can be safe at work, in church, or in your favorite club or bar only if you go armed. I get the feeling that they've watched too many old episodes of "Gunsmoke," and that the very thought of packing heat makes them feel tougher than they know themselves to be. They apparently also assume that every gun owner is a responsible one.

In fact, bad things can happen even with responsible and experienced users of firearms. I hereby confess that I have, under some pressure, accidentally touched the trigger of an armed and ready M16 rifle, sending an unintended round out the muzzle. Fortunately it was pointed in a direction where firing was OK, even encouraged.

The shot was momentarily embarrassing. Such a careless mistake in a peaceful setting could be disastrous.

State Rep. Leslie Combs, D-Ky., recently startled some of her colleagues when she accidentally fired a round from her semi-automatic handgun while she was cleaning it in her office at the state capitol. The bullet hit a bookcase and caused some consternation, but no real damage, other than possibly to the nerves of a colleague who happened to be in her office at the time. There was no report as to the colleague's reaction or any bad language just after the round was fired. Ms. Combs has a conceal-carry permit, and she said she'd decided she didn't like that particular weapon and was just taking it out of her purse and "purposely disarming it to put it up" because she didn't want to use that one anymore. Evidently it needed a quick cleaning in the process. Whether Kentucky lawmakers routinely clean their sidearms in their offices is unclear.

An equally fascinating case involves Lauren Tannehill, wife of Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who rented a Nissan Rogue a couple of weeks back, then a few hours later turned it in for a different vehicle. Another woman rented the Rogue that same night, but later found an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in a case in the back seat. Ms. Tannehill, an attractive blonde model, had forgotten the weapon. The finder turned it in to the police two days later. Now, being a sensitive and respectful guy, I'm not going to make any blonde jokes. Nor even speculate about a car rental agency that doesn't check and clean vehicles before re-renting them. But I ask you, was this responsible weapon handling?

These cases happen to involve women, but carelessness with firearms is an equal opportunity failing. My point has nothing to do with gender. It is, simply, that the proliferation of firearms and their increasing presence in public places, combined with simple but potentially lethal mistakes by supposedly responsible gun owners, can lead to awful results.

Representative Leslie Combs surely considers herself a responsible gun owner. She waved away her culpability with a casual response. "I'm a gun owner," she said. "It happens."

Yeah, Leslie, it sure does.

Robert B. Simpson, a 28-year Infantry veteran who retired as a colonel at Fort Benning, is the author of "Through the Dark Waters: Searching for Hope and Courage."

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