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An ongoing discussion about conservatism in New Jersey.
Gun control from a Jersey perspective
Peter C. Hansen  (December 22, 2012, 12:51 am)

Metropark is known to most folks as a major Amtrak and NJ Transit rail stop, nestled in a cat's cradle of arterial roads, streets, parking lots, corporate buildings and small shops. My father remembers it, however, as a place where he hunted rabbits. He used to wander with his hunting dogs all around the farms and empty country around Metuchen – places like the Great Dismal Swamp, which now has its share of townhouse developments. When he was drafted into the Army, he became a prize-winning marksman. His guns – like those of an earlier generation on my mother's side – are still in the family.

In Montgomery today, no wander across fields or forest fails to turn up an old shotgun shell poking up from the dirt, the metal rusted but the plastic still bright. My uncle and cousin hunted in our wooded backyard, which merged into neighboring lots so seamlessly that property lines were as abstract as those in the deepest Amazon. I remember when the same uncle took a shine to vintage guns and we found ourselves firing an old-time, 50-caliber muzzle-loader at targets near the house. When I shot it, I found myself staring straight up from the recoil, and my shoulder aching. When my uncle shot, he put a massive hole through a can that inspired grim thoughts in me about what combat really entailed.

Having been born soon after the major highways went in, I grew up in the 1970s hearing how things had changed, how the area had gotten too crowded, how the traffic was getting ridiculous, yadda yadda yadda. The family guns rarely if ever appeared, and my dad had retired from hunting. My uncles went out every season, however, and hoped to see and bag a deer. (My, how times have changed.) It was a manly culture, but not one of jerks. When I see The Deerhunter, I know those guys – maybe a little rowdy in their younger days, and good drinkers, but still very proper around kids, tough workers, and willing to rip the shirt off their back for you.

When we moved to rural Montgomery in 1983, I was a young teenager from the Middlesex County 'burbs. I grew to love the woods, but I reviled hunting. I had never been taken out, and was often teased for being a softee on animals. (Which I was – I loved trapping with my dad, but he and I were both glad we never caught anything.) I couldn't stand rednecks and – far worse – those suburban jerks who thought hunting in our neighborhood meant indiscriminate and often drunken blasting. I resented not being able to go out into my own woods for fear of getting myself shot. When a party of fools dropped in to hunt deer just across the street, they set up a gauntlet, and one guy shot another in the leg as a deer ran between them. My mom marched out to yell at them – including the wounded guy laying on the ground. I heartily congratulated her when she got back.

Guns gradually disappeared again as Montgomery rapidly built up and transformed rolling old farms into non-descript housing estates. There was still a shooting tradition, however, most notably at the charity "turkey shoots" held by the local Lions. Old salts and novice members set up a paper turkey target near the hardware store and lumber yard, and took turns blasting away with a 12-gauge to find which square had been hit closest to center, and so which square-buyer had won the prize – a frozen turkey. I personally hated shotguns, but I had always enjoyed my BB gun and later my air rifle. Target-shooting was great fun, and it got respect from the family men. There is nothing like that feeling for a young boy. It really sticks with you. I took it many years later to Cambridge, where in my mid-thirties I shot on the university's small-bore rifle team. Only then, it was the camaraderie of peers that made the cold and frustration of prone target-shooting more than worth the effort.

So, what does this one set of experiences have to do with gun control in New Jersey? Well, for one thing, it illustrates the huge change in central New Jersey's gun culture over the past few decades. It also helps to explain why "blue state" views on guns can be quite nuanced, and how a truce in the debate over guns might be reached.

I suspect that in New Jersey, views on guns tend to track one's family origin. If one's immediate family hails from rural settings, whether in New Jersey or elsewhere, one is much likelier to be comfortable with hunting and shooting, and to have an old rifle or shotgun around the house. By contrast, if one's family came to New Jersey after generations in New York City or Philadelphia, or from countries that do not have strong gun traditions, gun culture may seem completely alien. The same goes for folks growing up in NJ suburbs where local shooting opportunities long ago disappeared. These folks may not be inherently hostile to guns, but if they come to embrace them, it can be with the zealotry of a convert. In place of calm old traditions of rural hunting and target shooting, one may instead encounter a countercultural bravado.

It is this contemporary gun culture, and its in-your-face defiance, that most strongly affects New Jersey's "blue state" attitudes toward guns. There is no reason why a widely practiced shooting culture is impossible even in this most densely populated state. One could easily see a genteel tradition of target-shooting, including skeet shooting, emerge if it were marketed as a manly or upper-crusty pursuit (depending on the market). What is extremely unlikely, at least absent a social apocalypse, is the widespread adoption of a pseudo-militaristic gun fetish. Such an attitude is repellent in NJ, and is expressed most clearly in the widespread loathing of "assault weapons." While this term is actually rather meaningless, and is indeed popularly undefined, it captures for New Jerseyans all that seems unnatural, outsized, aggressive and just plain weird in modern gun culture. If one were to press the issue a bit, one might see a Jerseyan stick a pinky slightly though the opposing hand. It is the same explanation as to why a middle-aged jerk drives a Lamborghini.

Such a distaste for the modern gun culture is not a sign of unmanliness in "blue state" folks. Quite the contrary. It is a disdain for what seems immature and even boyish in that culture. Having an old rifle or shotgun in the house, or even a pistol, seems like a reasonable if somewhat fanciful security measure. Having a set of high-powered guns with large clips indicates, by contrast, that one is not expecting an armed burglar, but rather an assault akin to the Benghazi incident. That sort of thing simply doesn't happen in New Jersey. Few people live on isolated farms or under threat of gang assault. A collection of military or high-powered firearms therefore suggests that the person is something of a nut. Either the person has a hallucinatory understanding of his surroundings, or an active desire to live in a place like Mogadishu. Such a guy might be good to have nearby if the Revolution occurs, the black helicopters of tyranny suddenly darken the sky, or the U.S. is unexpectedly invaded. Barring such extremely unlikely events, however, such a guy makes for a rather sketchy and undesirable neighbor.

Perhaps most disgusting to Jerseyans is the carrying of weapons on the person, whether concealed or open. While this might be acceptable in remote areas like rural North Dakota or along the Rio Grande, life for most Garden Staters is extremely safe. Except in a few hotspots like Camden, guns are almost never seen, and robberies are vanishingly rare. The idea that one has to be ready for self-defense at all times seems like paranoid lunacy. As one Garden State friend put it, we do not live in medieval Iceland. Indeed, we live in quiet modern Iceland – albeit an extremely populated one. New Jersey has around 1,134.5 people per square mile. That is 14 times as dense as the U.S. is generally. New Jersey is in fact one of the most densely populated large areas on earth – the polar opposite of the Wild West. Moreover, New Jersey's population is extremely diverse, with many different cultural approaches to handling conflict. If folks strolled around packing heat, the feeling would not be one of greater security, but rather one of far greater insecurity. The Garden State has more than its fair share of louts and loudmouths. Jerseyans can get very hot under the collar, and adding firearms to the mix would dangerously change a well-established if naturally difficult culture of conducting blowout arguments.

One illustration sums up the Jersey attitude quite well. While strolling recently in the perfectly safe tourist district of a beautiful Southern city, a NJ friend saw a fellow promenading with his wife and pushing a stroller. The man was an unremarkable American type – shirt primly tucked in and rather pot-bellied – except for his openly displayed holster. My friend allowed for the possibility that the guy was an off-duty cop, but he seemed in fact to be just another tourist enjoying the sights. My friend was taken aback, and not because he was scared – my friend had hiked around New York City as a teenager in the 1980s, and was no stranger to urban threats. What instead irked him was the fact that the guy perceived the idyllic tourist district as akin to Kabul, and that he wanted to let all and sundry know that he was as ready as Rambo to deal with any threat he might encounter. This struck my friend not only as ridiculous, but also as a childish effort to intimidate everyone. The guy seemed ostentatiously law-abiding, but one would still hardly feel comfortable asking the guy to pick up trash he chucked, or to lower the volume of his cell-phone conversation. That gun was like a North Korean nuke – a way to make sure the guy got to do whatever he wanted. In the hands of a bully or serious jerk, that firearm could make for a very uneasy situation indeed.

This example brings us to where we might actually find a red-blue consensus on guns – my friend's complete comfort with the thought of an off-duty cop packing heat. This comfort derives from several sources. First, there is the recognition that the cop has to deal routinely and sometimes aggressively with dangerous, grudge-bearing members of the public. Second, one knows that the cop has, or at least feels, a duty to protect the public both when on duty and when off. Third, the cop has obviously been given thorough training in a martial culture. In essence, the cop is like a modern knight – the armed protector of the public. Knights, unlike peasants, had the right to bear arms because they did so for the noble ends of public service, and only after undergoing rituals and oaths. Centuries later, the drafters of the Constitution, when recognizing the existing right of the people to bear arms, looked forward to maintaining a "well-regulated militia." In effect, the Founding Fathers envisioned a country filled with citizen-knights ready to uphold and defend the Republic.

What is missing from the modern gun culture is the sense that gun owners are knights. To be sure, boosters of the modern gun culture often play to that image, pointing out instances where armed citizens have taken down bad guys and would-be spree killers. Many private gun owners may for their part similarly fancy themselves knights, or at least members of a widely dispersed posse comitatus on the lookout for outlaws. The reality, however, is that these gun owners are simply folks deemed by a licensing agency to be not crazy and perhaps able to complete a simple training course. That is an exceedingly low bar of competency, and is in no way an indicator of civic virtue, let alone of martial qualities. To consider such persons as presumptively akin to cops or soldiers is an insult to cops and soldiers. It is in fact a joke.

People are not entitled to knight status simply because they buy a gun. In fact, many gun owners espouse views directly antithetical to the knightly ideal. All too often, people accumulate guns in the belief that serious firepower is needed to ward off tyranny and protect their individual rights. In other words, the social order is seen as a clear and present threat, or likely to become one. That is not how a knight thinks. At a minimum, a knight doesn't expect or plan to wage war alone. A knight would not treat miniscule risks as major threats. A knight would not prepare for a last stand when his opponent isn't even on the field. Nor would a knight tilt at windmills unless that knight were crazy old Don Quixote. Meanwhile, a person who decides that arms will be needed to secure his or her rights is not defending democracy. Such a person has already given up on democracy. While the Founding Fathers did contemplate that revolution might be needed to secure republican ideals, this was expected to be a last resort. No republic could survive if people took up arms every time they felt their interests or status threatened.

What is needed for blue-state acceptance of a mainstream gun culture is an overt commitment by gun owners to uphold knightly virtues and ideals. In practical terms, this means that gun owners need to purchase guns not simply as personal tools, but also as instruments for protecting the public. In addition to safety courses and background checks, gun owners should be required to undergo regular mental-health assessments and public security training that covers basic combat training, target discernment, rules of war, civil arrest laws, and upholding of individual rights. Oaths of allegiance and public trust should be sworn. In short, gun owners should be required to pass muster for the hypothetical "well-regulated militia" envisioned by the Constitution. Such requirements could hardly be objectionable, since they merely give substance to the image of the virtuous and idealistic gun owner. Such measures would also reassure blue-staters who want to know that the chubby guy packing heat nearby has the public's trust, and is not just a video-gaming, would-be Rambo who will shoot up the mall when he gets nervous.

To sum up, the perception that blue-staters simply don't "get" guns is wrong. To be sure, there are many people in blue states, as well as in red ones, who are completely unfamiliar with guns and so see them as a frightening and unnecessary evil. Many other blue-state people, however, actually have nuanced views on guns. They don't mind them in theory, but they want them handled by calm, well-adjusted and trained people who abhor violence and care about protecting the public. In short, they want gun owners to resemble cops and soldiers. That is not a tall order. Indeed, such a desire for a mature, public-spirited form of gun ownership echoes the ancient ideals of the Republic. If the modern gun culture were overtly to adopt this humble, knight-like spirit and approach, red-state gun owners might just find that the blue-state Venus is rather attracted to their seasoned and mature old Mars. And that would make for a lovely truce.