Giuliani improvising, and guns

NPR, reporting on Giuliani’s appearance before the NRA today, had a sound clip in which he asserted that the freedom in the Second Amendment was just as important as all the other freedoms in the Bill of Rights. What kind of nut, including the most dedicated firearm aficionado, could believe such a thing? Or say it, even cynically to fawn on a hostile audience?

More generally, what is it about guns? Is there any other recreational accessory that attracts not only such a ferocious affection but so much silly hifalutin’ rhetoric about them? Maybe dogs, and I guess if someone wanted to restrict possession of baseball mitts we’d have people in the streets. “You can have my food processor when you rip it from my cold dead fingers!”? We don’t hear that very much, even from people who really like to cook. But the gun affect mystifies me even though I spent about a decade playing with guns from about age 12, and enjoying it, because guns are just so simple and limited; when it comes down to it, you just can’t do very much with them.

I grew up in Manhattan, but my parents had a very rural summer place in New Jersey and I started off with the standard Winchester Model 67, and with that and a couple of more capable 22’s in time, I punched paper along the NRA junior track to a gold medal with a bunch of hangy things on it, and brought home the odd squirrel and woodchuck. (I know, a .22 isn’t really suited to anything as fat and durable as a chuck, but I almost always got them). I was on my college freshman rifle team, but after that, the guns went to the back of a closet shelf, moved from house to house, and never saw the light of day except, when I had my own country place, to deal with the occasional woodchuck that got under the fence into the garden. On and off during that period of fascination with guns, I had the dream that if I had a handgun, or maybe a shotgun, I would be really in heaven. Girls aside, I had two other aspirations; one was a real tractor I could actually sit on (we had a two-wheel garden tractor I mowed the grass around the house with) and the other, much more vague, was a motorcycle.

Hunting, I should note, is not the same as playing with guns, in fact the weapons are almost incidental to understanding game habits and behavior and simply being out in the woods paying attention to everything that’s at the core of that sport. No-one hunts paper targets with a camera. It also has nothing to do with handguns; handguns are for shooting paper or people.

So, recognizing how solipsistic all this is, I can report that all three dreams came true with very enlightening effect. When my father died, I found in his closet a long-barrel Ruger Single-six with both .22 Magnum and .22 LR cylinders, and a nice holster. He acquired it, I think from his brother, after I had left home. This is a really ideal handgun to play with, because it’s cheap enough to use for targets, it’s reasonably accurate, and the magnum is not unsporting for small game. It’s also a single-action “cowboy” style weapon and romantic as all get-out. I also had, as an adult, a Kubota 4-wheel drive tractor and a small (350cc) motorcycle. Lesson: in the six years I had the pistol, I didn’t finish the first box of cartridges. The motorcycle was fun and plenty fast enough to scare my pants off (and court my wife successfully), but I was a pretty cowardly driver and never laid it down. But the tractor was another story completely: I spent hundreds of hours on it and more making accessories and messing with the hydraulic system (it was the main reason I learned to weld). I believe the difference is that motorcycles (on the street), and guns even more so, unless you are a customizer or a gunsmith, engage the user in a limited and almost passive way: there are really only two things to do with a pistol, and those are to clean it and shoot it at something. A tractor with a loader, though; that’s a real grownup’s toy: it pulls, it digs, it mows, it welcomes modifications and adjustments…if I still had a place to use one, I’d replace it in a minute.

Fortunately, we all have different tastes, and a good thing too. But while I can understand what it’s like to love to raise snakes or show cats, or make doll houses and teeny furniture, or play bridge, or a lot of other proclivities I do not share in the slightest, and I’m neither afraid of guns nor morally opposed to them on principle, I draw a blank understanding the appeal of something so univalent and specialized to a grownup. (Exception: trap and skeet shooting I “get” in the same way I “get” golf and other hunting: I don’t want especially to do them but I can see how a grownup could make a hobby of them). Engaging with guns with the intensity (some) people paint watercolors or garden or even play Scrabble, or the fanaticism that so scarily radiates from gun-nut events, is not just beyond my ken but beyond my capacity to conceive to imagine to conjecture. I remember that I was a gun enthusiast, but I so outgrew it that I can’t remember being one. (And in my most gun-obsessed stage, as a politically engaged typical New York red-diaper teenager, I never had any idea that they represented any important political freedom, certainly no sense whatever of a “right” to play with them, especially in the city.)

I mean no disrespect by the word play here. I think play is important and not trivial or frivolous; at the same time, anyone using a gun who’s not a soldier, or a peace officer engaged in a firefight, is playing with it and we might as well call it by its right name.

There remains the issue of home protection, on which I also draw a complete blank. The facts are quite clear that a gun in the home is more dangerous to its occupants, especially kids, than to burglars. The idea that I would wake from a sound sleep and get the drop on a professional accustomed to working nights and full of adrenalin, rather than provoking him to plug me on the spot (or maybe shooting my foot off) seems merely ludicrous. But what I’m even further from understanding is a paranoia that despite night after night in a zillion houses, especially yours, of no home invasions at all (but relatively lots of fires, falls down stairs, burns in the kitchen, and the like) leaves you so afraid of other people and so insecure about dealing with life in general that you don’t sleep well without a pistol in the drawer (loaded, of course, or what’s the point?) next to the bed. How that thing isn’t more terrifying, given the real odds but also given a sane imagination, than the bad guy who hasn’t ever come in your window I will never fathom. Your car is plenty dangerous, but it’s really useful every day; that .38 in the drawer has to be about a piece missing in your head, not a phenomenon in the real world. Go figure, I can’t.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.