When I was in tenth grade, I got my first steady job doing maintenance at a country club in Fairfax, Virginia. I lived a good bit south of my employer, and I needed some form of transportation. My grandfather in the mountains of western Virginia possessed an old vehicle he no longer had need for—a 1989 silver Volvo 240 DL, which my parents graciously purchased for me. A few months after driving that tank of a car, I received a letter from my grandfather. It read as follows:
You have achieved power—seated at the wheel of an automobile. You have for the first time become powerful. It is power with the obligation to control something of tremendous force: three thousands pounds of steel driven by one hundred and fifty or more horsepower.
Treated with respect this machine will provide convenience, utility, and joy. At its worst it can incur injury, damage, and death. I know you will use this newfound power and your abundant commonsense to enjoy this mechanical responsibility. There will be more meaningful sources of power to come in your life.
My grandfather had far too much faith in my common sense. During my first week of school, I parked illegally (more than 12 inches from the curb) and the car was towed across the county. Not long after, I got a speeding ticket leaving school (those school zone speed limits are killer!). The next summer, I totaled the car not but half a mile from my house because I was paying more attention to bluegrass music than the line of vehicles forming at the red light directly in front of me. It took that real-life experience for me to wise-up and drive responsibly—though the car was totaled twice more: once, four years later, when I hit a deer in Nelson County, Virginia; and again, a year after that, when I was hit from behind on the highway in Norfolk.
I’ve been thinking about that advice from my grandfather—and my obvious negligence in heeding it—in the wake of the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Because another tool I acquired as a young boy was a rifle, a .22 Marlin, bolt-action. The first time I went hunting with my father I was 11 years old, trudging through the woods near Shenandoah National Park looking for small game. In order to hunt, I had to complete a hunters’ safety course over a number of evenings. No such training was required to own a gun though. When I was 25, I decided to purchase a Glock 19 and acquire a conceal-and-carry permit in the Commonwealth of Virginia. That hunters’ safety certification from grade school 14 years earlier sufficed. So much for continuing education.
Guns, like automobiles, offer their owners tremendous power. That power can be used for great good—a deer I shot several years ago provided enough meat for six months of lunch (and a fair number of dinners besides). In the case of Parkland, Florida (and Las Vegas, and Newtown, Connecticut, and a host of places across our nation), though, those tools were used, to cite my grandfather’s phrase, to incur tremendous injury, damage, and death. It is truly a remarkable thing that our nation presents so few requirements, and so little oversight, regarding the sale and purchase of firearms.
Even the most ardent Second Amendment-loving conservatives have at times acknowledged the tremendous power and responsibility associated with owning a firearm. Bre Payton, writing at The Federalist in 2017, chronicled her experience training with a retired Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms officer in West Virginia:
In high-stress situations, mistakes are more prone to happen—diplomatic security forces sometimes discharge their weapons when holstering them. He’s heard of guys shooting themselves in the leg or the foot on occasion, which is why practicing and developing muscle memory is a key component of survival when faced with a life-or-death situation, he explained.
Diplomatic Security officers are usually former military or police—and they sometimes hurt themselves with the tool most associated with their profession. That should ring alarm bells, no? Payton’s experience on that range led her to acknowledge the following:
The experience made me realize there’s a lot more to using a gun as an effective tool of self-defense than just being able to shoot it accurately. One must also be adept at handling it quickly in case of an emergency, which takes a lot of practice. I will definitely get more tactical training with handguns in the future, as I’ve learned that I’m not prepared for a zombie apocalypse.
I would go a step further—that training could hardly prepare Payton to use a gun effectively in the kind of scenario that unfolded in Parkland. She spent one day on a range doing simulations that mimicked “real-life scenarios.” It’s unclear from the ATF’s officer website what that even entails.
The irony here is thick. A conservative advocate of gun rights spends a day learning how to actually use the tool she defends in the kind of scenario she is constantly citing as evidence for rejecting any perceived infringement on the Second Amendment. She realizes that significant training is required to use that tool safely and effectively. And yet no admission is made that perhaps our laws should demand it—indeed, no such training is required in 26 states. The dealer at the gun show where I purchased my Glock 19 had no proof that I’d ever handled that weapon before.
I have received extensive training on several firearms, including the Glock 19, Glock 26, M4, and Remington 870 Shotgun. This has included more than 100 hours and many thousands of expended rounds of ammunition at the range. In spite of all of this, I still feel a great sense of fear and danger every time I pick up a firearm, be it a handgun or my .308 hunting rifle. The thought of actually employing a gun in some suburban firefight terrifies me, because I know the risks of failure are so high. People can talk the talk, but considering the response of Instagram celebrity Dan Bilzerian to the Las Vegas shooting, it’s another thing to walk the walk.
There’s likely no end in sight to the fruitless talking-points battles that descend upon the nation in the wake of every new mass shooting. There will almost certainly be no realizable attempt at legislation that could have prevented Parkland—if Newtown or Las Vegas or Sutherland Springs’ First Baptist Church couldn’t change the paradigm, what’s one more? If there are ever productive political developments to address gun violence in America, it will require a broader recognition that firearms, like automobiles, are tools of such great danger that they require far more training and oversight. As Gracy Olmstead wrote for TAC in the wake of one of last year’s mass shootings: “In our hesitancy to endorse exhaustive gun control measures, we must not negate or ignore the lethality of the gun. Because some tools are too deadly to be taken lightly.”
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.