Living with Guns: Changing the Social Image of Gun Owners


Recently I drove to a bank in Santa Fe. I parked next to an old, modified Cadillac. There was someone sitting in the driver’s seat but I couldn’t see them as the windows were up and tinted. I got out, walked into the bank, went inside and came out. As I was getting into my car, I got a look at the guy in the Cadillac as his window was down. He was a twentyish-year-old male, lots of tattoos, piercings, and dressed like a gang banger. Then I saw that he was handling a pistol–at least a .38. He holstered it as I started my car–with the muzzle pointing in my direction. My first thought was, “Is this guy casing out a bank? Regardless, he is recklessly brandishing the firearm in the public place. What should I do?”

I took a deep breath and I thought. I remembered that New Mexico is an open carry state. I also recalled what a friend of mine who is a concealed carry instructor had said about such a situation: “the answer is three words: proceed with caution. Why provoke a reaction based on what you think may happen?”

I quickly and quietly backed away. As I drove off I saw a girl about the same age as the guy coming out of the bank and heading for his car, so I guess it was his girlfriend and he was just waiting for her. No reports of armed robbery of a bank in Santa Fe paper the next morning, so…

I began working with law enforcement in the late 1960s after the Detroit Riots of 1967, and have since consulted on a variety of police work from crime prevention to improving police-community relations and assessing prisoners at the federal, state, and local level. For the last 10 years or so I’ve been working with California game wardens, including doing a lot of ride-alongs on land, sea, and in the air (like in the TV show Castle). In a couple cases I’ve been a warden’s back-up when we came upon a dicey situation and no other law enforcement was even remotely close. My work with law enforcement has made me think a little like them. I know they would have approached the guy in the Cadillac, hand on their pistol, and used a calm voice to address him. As a public citizen, I believe that I did the right thing, but the incident got me thinking about living with guns and how social standards get set.

Improving the image of firearms and firearm owners in the United States must be a primary aim for American enthusiasts. Image courtesy National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Guns and gun culture across America

Recent public mass shootings and sensationalist media have thrust firearms in the spotlight, for better or for worse. Imagine what could have happened if instead of me, the person who saw the gun in the hands of what appeared to be a gang banger casing out a bank, was neutral about guns, or was violently opposed to guns. That one incident could have triggered the right person into anti-gun action that would further polarized people and maybe even resulted in removal of some gun rights. Or, suppose that I confronted the guy, resulting in a nasty incident.

Anyone who ever has been to a large sporting event or a rock concert knows how emotions can be contagious. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You want to preserve guns rights? Lobbying is important, but let’s all get behind working on improving the image of firearms in society. The point that I am coming to here is that we have to do a better job about integrating guns into the psychology of mainstream culture by educating people about them and setting the standards about how they are viewed.

I grew up on Grosse Ile, a Michigan island situated at the mouth of the Detroit River as it empties into Lake Erie. Hunting was prohibited in Grosse Ile township, but if you placed one foot in the water, duck hunting became legal, and a significant percentage of the people owned guns and hunted. In fact, when you went to someone’s house for dinner, it was considered appropriate to ask three questions: “Have you been out fishing for perch and walleyes?” “Did you get a buck last fall?” and “Do you have any new guns?” Firearms were commonly displayed on racks or in cases and it was proper etiquette for a guest to ask to inspect them. In short, guns were an accepted part of culture and people all participated in keeping guns safe and sane as a cultural standard.

When I moved to Oregon and Washington, gun racks seemed to be standard equipment for trucks once you got outside of major towns like Portland or Seattle. My point here is that attitudes towards firearms are cultural–some places they are normal parts of everyday life, other places they are seen as weapons of violence and terror. At best, guns should make the world feel safer.

Then I lived in California for 28 years, where the best-selling firearms book in the state is How To Own a Gun and Stay Out of Jail in California by attorney John Machtinger, which has sold over 100,000 copies.

I well remember the time when I was living in California and I won a Glock pistol at a National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) shooting competition. It was shipped to me via a local sporting goods store in San Rafael. I passed the background check, but then as I was about to leave the store with the pistol, the dealer said, “Ah, you really need a locked case of some kind for that. You could legally walk outside with it in your hand, but if a police officer saw you, he would definitely stop you. If you drive away with it on the seat, then it’s legal, but again, don’t get caught for speeding. And if you put it in the glove compartment, it’s concealed carry, and you got to get a permit for that.” (In 2012 California passed a law that prohibits open carry in incorporated areas.)

New Mexico, where I now live, is an open carry state. If I had seen a police officer sitting in a parked patrol vehicle a block or two away from the guy with the pistol in the bank parking lot, I would have stopped and told the cop, not because the guy had a gun, but because he was brandishing it. I don’t care who he was–gang member, veteran, or undercover officer–that was not appropriate behavior in public.

Changing the perception of firearms

Some people have reacted negatively to the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) position on having armed guards and/or armed teachers and administrators in schools. It’s nothing new. When I worked on community mental research in Detroit right after the 1967 riots, there were armed guards, uniformed and plain clothes, in Detroit public schools. They were called “community agents,” and generally people did not like them much. Teachers, students, and staff all felt uneasy about them as there was no program to educate about them. I applaud the NRA National School Shield Program to train teacher and staff in schools that want to use armed guards. If people are going to be around guns, they need to feel comfortable with them and training an entire school is the way to do it. It replaces fear with respect.


Learning to live with firearms involves not just learning to shoot one, but learning the difference between fear and respect for guns. Image courtesy U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance.

In an earlier article I described the Swiss experience, where shooting is the national sport. The Swiss have many more shooting ranges than golf courses. The Swiss carry their guns around openly on trains, in restaurants, supermarkets, and so on. No one bothers about the guns and the Swiss firearms crime rate is far below that of the U.S.

The FBI estimates that there are at least 300 million guns in the U.S. and at least 100 million gun owners. In the area where I live, police and game wardens estimate about 80% of the homes own at least one gun. I have no problem with that so long as the folks who own the guns use them correctly, lawfully, and respectfully. One good way to teach that ethic is through sports.

Learning to live with firearms involves not just learning to shoot one, but learning the difference between fear and respect for guns. The late, great, actor Robert Stack used to say that “You meet the nicest people on a shooting range.” Bob had a one-line joke for every clay pigeon he hit or missed, and he missed precious few. He hit the bull’s-eye with his remark about sport shooters.

There are at least 26 million people who participate in shooting sports in the U.S. There ought to be more. Shooting sports teach respect and skill development, as well as the proper form and rules for handling firearms. Rifle, pistol, shotgun, and archery are all Olympic sports. If you want a real challenge, try the biathlon, which is inboth the Winter and Summer Olympics. To describe the physical ability required, imagine hitting 1.8-inch and 4.5-inch bull’s-eyes at 50 meters after climbing five flights of stairs as fast as you can. And if you miss, you get a penalty of additional skiing or running.

I’d like to see more gun clubs, public shooting ranges and shooting competitions in schools in the U.S. The Archery in The Schools program, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance Trailblazer Program, and the Scholastic Clay Target Program are examples of a breath of fresh air on public education about firearms.

A U.S. Justice Department study tracking a cohort of boys through four years of high school in Rochester, New York found that boys who owned legal guns had lower rates of drug abuse, delinquency, and crime than boys who owned no guns did. One of the authors of the study, criminologist Alan Lizotte, says that this finding is consistent with several other studies he has conducted that show that boys who own illegal guns are socialized by illegal gun-owning peers, and they commit significantly more crime than those who not own guns, or those who own legal guns. Sport gun owner kids tend to be socialized by parents, and in general they are involved in less criminal activity than either illegal gun owners or non-owners. I hope schools, teachers, and community leaders across the U.S. have looked at this research.

Mainstream films and TV are the primary storytellers of our times and on the screen the good guys shoot people. When was the last time you saw a film or TV show–mainstream–that featured sport shooters as good guys?

A good, responsible gun owner is a cultural hero. By word and action they demonstrate that firearms can encourage maturity and their behavior and attitude help set social standards. Remember that every time you take up your gun, you are setting an example. In these times when media seem to dwell on sensationalist inflammatory topics and guns seldom get much positive coverage, we could all benefit from hearing more about and seeing the people Bob Stack talked about.

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