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Gil Smart: How I changed my mind on guns

Gil Smart: How I changed my mind on guns

Gil Smart , gil.smart@tcpalm.com 5:10 p.m. ET Feb. 7, 2017

AR-15.jpg (Photo: AP FILE PHOTO)

Florida could soon have looser gun laws. Or tighter gun laws.

Or something.

Numerous gun bills await the Legislature when it convenes March 7. From the right we have a full-frontal assault by Sen. Greg Steube, who filed a comprehensive bill — since broken into smaller proposals — to allow open display of firearms in courthouses, government meetings, on college campuses and in airport baggage claim areas. Another bill would make private businesses that ban concealed weapons liable if a gun owner who leaves his weapon at home is injured in an attack that "could reasonably have been prevented" with a gun.

With a strong Republican majority in the Legislature, this could be the year these bills — some of which were (ahem) shot down in years past — become law.

But not so fast. Orlando Democrats Sen. Linda Stewart and Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith have proposed an assault weapons ban that also would outlaw "parts that convert a firearm into an assault weapon," like large-capacity magazines. Another Democratic bill would prohibit concealed-weapons permit holders from carrying guns in performing arts centers or theaters.

My bold prediction: Regardless of what happens, it won't move the public opinion needle. Opinions are entrenched; not many people change their minds about guns.

Not many. But some.

Including your humble host.

Once upon a time I was anti-gun. I viewed the issue through what I thought was a rational lens. Guns, particularly the semi-automatic rifles commonly called "assault weapons," are engineered and designed to kill. They excel at the task.

And I didn't get why the pro-gun crowd didn't see a need to curtail the availability of these weapons with the goal of preventing more more massacres.

But even then my anti-gun enthusiasm was tempered by the fact I'd spent some time around guns — not in my own home, but at my in-laws'.

My wife's dad — "the armed father-in-law," as I refer to him — carried at least one gun on him at all times, plus a .45 (he's totally old school) tucked into the pocket behind the driver's seat of his vehicle. The first time I met him, we went out to an Italian restaurant in my wife's hometown of Altoona, Pennsylvania. When we left, my girlfriend/now-wife walked ahead with her mother, while he and I walked behind.

"I want to show you something," he said. He pulled a Derringer-style pistol from an ankle holster.

"This is in case we run into any bandits," he said.

And I thought: How many bandits do you run into in Altoona? But clearly, he was sending a message: Hands off my daughter.

Message received.

But it wasn't like he waved the guns around. He either concealed-carried them or they were locked up. I learned what responsible gun ownership looked like. And I noticed the guns didn't shoot themselves.

I didn't actually fire a gun until years later, when my oldest son was in Boy Scouts and went to a range. There, I fired several .22 rifles and, later, dad's semi-automatic .380. That bugger was loud.

Then my buddy George, a Vietnam vet, asked if I wanted to go shooting. George still had his service .45, and at the range he rented an M1A, the civilian equivalent of the M14 he carried in Vietnam. I was a terrible shot with the pistol, but did pretty well with the rifle, scoring a couple of near-bull's-eye.

It was fun. It was cool. There's a feeling when you hold a weapon like that in your hand, a feeling of power and control.

I think that's the allure: the idea that if you have a gun, you can be in control rather than being at the mercy of someone else.

Indeed, the moment I realized my position had changed came in the wake of a brutal rape-murder in my hometown of Lancaster. Two young men broke into the home of a beloved local teacher and slaughtered her. This doesn't even begin to describe what happened. The District Attorney was reluctant to release details, perhaps concerned a lynch mob might show up outside the jailhouse.

In subsequent online discussions, several people said: If she'd owned a gun, maybe this wouldn't have happened.

I couldn't disagree.

Sure, maybe the killers would have gotten the drop on her anyway; m. Maybe, had her weapon been locked up, it would have been inaccessible when she needed it most.

But maybe it could have made all the difference.

Ultimately, I think guns are a reflection of human nature and American culture. That very American anger and resentment that motivates so many killers is a rationale to limit guns. But it also is a reason to own them.

And I think the loudest anti-gun rhetoric comes from those who have never been around firearms. If you have never owned one or known anyone who has, they're scary machines used to kill and nothing more, and you simply can't understand why anyone would have one unless they want it for nefarious purposes.

For me, proximity created familiarity, which ultimately led to greater understanding. Your own mileage might vary. But the issue now seems more complicated, more nuanced, than it once seemed. There are no easy answers.

One thing I'm sure of, though: We'll be offered many easy answers, from both sides, as the Legislature debates these bills.

Gil Smart is a columnist for Treasure Coast Newspapers and a member of the Editorial Board. His columns reflect his opinion. Readers may reach him at gil.smart@tcpalm.com, by phone at 772-223-4741 or via Twitter at @TCPalmGilSmart.