A gun is a very simple object—a metal tube from which projectiles are discharged, usually by the explosion of powder. And the purpose for which most guns are designed is simpler yet: to kill.
I live in "gun country"—the Pacific Northwest—and, like most people, I'm familiar with the usual arguments concerning the issue of gun control. Those in favor of some sort of control cite statistics that prove guns are involved in hundreds of thousands of crimes committed each year; that a majority of each year's 20,000 murder victims are killed by guns, and that thousands more die from accidental gunshot wounds.
Those against control rely on their own statistics, which, they say, prove that guns and crime barely relate; on the Second Amendment to the Constitution, and on bumper stickers, which are usually displayed on pickup trucks with deer rifles or shotguns in racks against the rear windows:
GUNS DON'T KILL PEOPLE, PEOPLE KILL PEOPLE. IF YOU OUTLAW GUNS, ONLY OUTLAWS WILL HAVE GUNS
So far, neither statistics, slogans, nor various interpretations of the Second Amendment have even begun to resolve the controversy. One basic reason is the complicated social factors. One Oregon psychiatrist identifies the causes of the violence-prone society of the Northwest as: "The spirit of independence: immaturity of social institutions and community supports; the rapid influx of people from all over the country and the world; the fact that any frontier society attracts a large number of people who are less stable.... It takes a significant period of time for a culture to develop stability, and we are only 100 years old."
More is involved than the frontier ethic. Consider the following from Gray's Sporting Journal, September 1979: "A pair of fitted 12-bore Holland & Holland guns starts at about $17,000, although it is possible for a truly discriminating buyer to spend a great deal more. Recently, one American happily parted with $50,000 for a double-barreled express rifle with African veld engravings and a brass-bound elephant hide case. [The cartridges alone cost $17 each.]" It has to be a terribly strong attraction that can cause men to pay those prices for such simple tools.
Most psychologists agree that, for many people, the desire to own a gun is the result of insecurity, sometimes even paranoia. As far back as 1844 one Sidney George Fisher of Philadelphia wrote, "The people are arming to protect themselves, because they see from experience that the law is not strong enough to protect them."
For others, guns are symbols of power and potency, as well as companionship. A 19th-century Colt advertisement reads as follows: "If you buy a Colt's Rifle or Pistol, you feel certain that you have one true friend, with six hearts in his body, and who can always be relied upon."
Sometimes, no doubt, fairly simple fantasies are involved. The target shooter is Wyatt Earp, the tin can he aims at an outlaw to be killed. The hunter is Daniel Boone, and the game he seeks will feed his family. In 1967 American Rifleman magazine printed the following definition of the American hunter: "He is a citizen who has kept his nationalistic youth in a society that is becoming sophisticated and jaded."
Not even the staunchest advocates of gun control have ever promoted legislation which would in any way restrict or inhibit America's sportsmen. The right of hunters to own all the weapons and ammunition they want is never questioned. At this point I should make it clear that I have no objections to the legal killing of game. I hunted for years, almost always enjoyed it, and in fact still own the shotguns I used. Perhaps my son will want them someday. I accept the popular notion that hunters are America's most responsible group of gun owners.