"I want to say those fighting words, to hear and to heed, and especially to you, Mr. Gore: From my cold, dead hands."
-Charlton Heston in May 2000, waving a rifle above his head at an NRA annual meeting.
"The NRA is opposed to common-sense gun reform, and they have George Bush in their hip holster..."
-Al Gore's then-spokesman Chris Lehane.
In my first newspaper job in Georgetown, Texas, I became friends with a reporter who had been in the military and liked to target-shoot. Georgetown is in the German-Czech, beer-drinking part of Central Texas, but the town itself was dry. So after work we'd head up the two-lane highway over rolling hills to the tiny hamlet of Theon, which had a bar on its outskirts.
We'd order beers and walk across the road to a "shooting range," which really was just a pasture with an earthen berm in it, and we'd blast away with my friend's .38 revolver and/or .22 rifle. I assume the criticism of this shooting-while-drinking behavior will start any minute, but we weren't primarily drinking; we were target shooting and having fun. And there in way-rural Williamson County, we were a danger to no one.
About a quarter century later, I was walking down San Francisco's trendy Valencia Street when a short man in his late teens or early 20s walked next to me, way too close. He stuck his face about three inches from my cheek and chanted, "Gimme a cigarette, bitch." After 10 or 15 paces of this, I stopped to face him and noticed the other members of his gang - judging from their colors, one of the Norte?o crews that claimed this part of the Mission - who were watching intently.
When I explained that I didn't have a cigarette, the gangbanger scooted back a few steps, crouched weirdly and then charged, swinging a beer bottle at my head. Reflexively, I blocked it with a forearm, and time began moving very, very slowly as I backed away in careful baby steps. And you'd better believe that I was looking for guns; the Nortenos and the rival Surenos had been shooting each other for years in that part of town.
High Country News has a history of championing collaboration among antagonists - even bitter enemies - as a way of solving intractable Western problems. No issues call more loudly for the finding of reasoned common ground than gun ownership and gun control. There are groups and politicians who benefit from polarizing the gun question into simple-minded absolutes with demonizing subtexts: Do you support the right to bear arms? (Or are you a big-government fascist come to take our guns and put us in a camp?) Do you support gun control? (Or are you a right-wing loon with an assault rifle at the bedside?) The polarization has led to a mishmash of state and federal laws that disserve the majority of Americans - and Westerners - who don't want to take guns away from solid citizens or rural areas, but don't want their kids killed in gang crossfire, either.
Ray Ring's cover package, "Guns R Us," offers an authoritative look at the sometimes loopy state of Western gun culture. I think it remarkably even-handed and hope it can provide a starting point or two for discussion among people of goodwill from across the political spectrum who are more interested in sane gun policy than rabid rhetorical gunplay.
Theon, meet San Francisco. S.F., Theon.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.