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The NRA could save the right to bear arms and also help us solve our violence crisis.

Come Let Us Reason Together


Born and raised a strict pacifist, I almost felt guilty when I looked up the National Rifle Association's Web site the other day, folding my shoulders around the computer screen in an involuntary attempt to hide the fact I was reading about guns. But recently I've been thinking about the NRA. I've been imagining the NRA launching a deliberate, high-visibility campaign to promote cooperative games, mediation programs, and nonviolent toys. Crazy thoughts? It's certainly unlike the NRA's established "Eddie Eagle" gun safety program. Aimed at children through sixth grade, it "promotes the protection and safety of children," according to the Web site, based on the mantra: "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult." But like matchbooks and household poisons, which the NRA equates with firearms as "facts of everyday life," guns are not permanently untouchable objects. Older children will learn how to use guns, and they will also learn when to use guns. From whom will they learn when to use guns? The answer is plural and debatable. Clearly, however, hunting and last-resort self-defense are not the only options being taught. The NRA admits in the Eddie Eagle publication, "A Parent's Guide to Gun Safety" that "firearms are often handled carelessly in movies and on TV." The guide advises parents to talk to their children about the consequential differences between "entertainment and real life," and between toy guns and real guns. But the purpose of the educational program is only to prevent accidental misuse of firearms, not to teach moral distinctions between firearm uses. In contrast to its educational division, the NRA has a "CrimeStrike" division, established in 1991 for the purpose of "criminal justice" reform. CrimeStrike promotes, for example, jail expansion, adult sentencing for some juveniles, and the "Three-Strike" program. It also provides fact sheets with titles like "Parole and Probation: Peril to Public Safety?" and "Capital Punishment in the United States." In other words, these programs address what the NRA believes should be done after firearms are criminally misused. But it seems there is a gap in the programming. What happens between "Stop. Don't touch," and "Three strikes and you're out"? Our nation works hard to deal with criminals who misuse guns. Why not work even harder to prevent the first wrong shot from being fired? Just as it's in the NRA's own interest to support the punishment of people who misuse firearms, it's also in the NRA's interest to support the prevention of deliberate firearm misuse. Ten days after the Columbine High shooting, against the tide of public sentiment and the wishes of the Colorado governor, the NRA held its annual meeting in Denver. In his opening remarks to the scaled-down meeting, president Charlton Heston noted that "the eyes of the nation are upon us today." With the nation watching, the NRA could create violence prevention programs using the Eddie Eagle icon or a similar figure. Perhaps there could be an NRA "seal of approval" on video games which are not based on gun violence. In my grandest dreams, the NRA would encourage toy makers to stop manufacturing toy guns that teach our youngest children that violence is a game. I'm not singling out the NRA because I believe that the group is responsible for the misuse of firearms. But the NRA is a highly visible organization and reportedly has a lot of lobbying power. Of course I'd like to have that kind of mainstream endorsement for nonviolence. But the NRA also represents one side of a troubling duality that plagues our national psyche. We have created a conflict between safety and freedom, perhaps because the problem of gun violence is so shocking and immediate that it's easier to think the solution must be one of two choices. Heston described the conflict in his closing remarks to the Denver meeting as "those who believe in the Second Amendment, [the 'right of the people to keep and bear arms'] versus those who don't." Someone else might frame the issue as a tension between the risk of injury or death and the possible restriction of rights. But our nation was founded on the right to life and to liberty; their co-existence is inherent to the vision for our nation. If we see them at opposite ends of a spectrum, we need to re-see the problem. Perhaps the problem is not that some people have too much freedom or that the risk of death or injury by guns contradicts the Second Amendment, but that we need to understand better what it means for individuals living together as a nation — "the People" — to have rights. I even wonder if we overemphasize the rights to life and liberty while neglecting to discuss the right to pursue happiness. Could it be that a misunderstanding of what this means contributes to the apparent conflict between life and liberty? Could it be that our national attitude is more likely to value wealth, power, individualism, or even conflict, more than happiness? Do those former values stimulate an acceptance of violence? No person, group, or legislation alone can eliminate gun violence. But I imagine that everyone, no matter what his or her opinion about gun laws, can pursue a safer, happier nation. Cooperative games and peaceable toys are one way to start. Angela Lehman-Rios is a graduate student in creative writing at VCU. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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