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Saturday, January 19, 2013

On law-abiding gun owners

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about the rights of “law-abiding gun owners,” and how we have nothing to fear from them.

In the early 90s, my parents, New York academics who’d taught for decades in the CUNY system, moved to Houston, Texas. They stayed for a decade. It was a great professional opportunity; my mother was given an endowed chair at Rice University while my father taught at the University of Houston. They bought a house near the Rice campus. They were very much fish out of water in this new environment, like characters from a Woody  Allen movie transplanted to the cast of Dallas. I like to tell this story to illustrate: When their house was reassessed and their property taxes went up, my German-Jewish father went into the assessor’s office to appeal.  The gentleman handed my dad a big book and told him to “look up y’all’s house.” My father thought this was an odd request but flipped to the Y’s, figuring maybe Mr. Yall’s house was similar to his.

Here's another story my father told me about Houston.

My parents lived next door to a young family with whom they got along well. They were good neighbors - friendly and unintrusive, just the way one wants one’s neighbors to be. They had an adorable kid.

One day my father was heading across his driveway to his little office above the garage when he noticed a parked car blocking his neighbor’s driveway. Apparently, that same car had been there before. His neighbor, the man of the house, came outside and asked my father if he’d seen who parked the car. My father said no. The neighbor turned around, walked back inside, came out a moment later carrying a rifle, and headed up the driveway.

Needless to say, my father hightailed it to his office and hoped for a quiet afternoon. That was the last he heard of the incident.

I have no idea what my parents’ neighbor did. I don’t think he intended to shoot anyone. But clearly, in his mind, it was legitimate to use his gun to intimidate someone for the high crime of driveway-blocking.

No doubt there are gun advocates who will insist that this story is not representative of gun culture. But when I’ve told this story to Texans, their usual response is amusement at my indignation - like, “Yeah, and water is wet.” Like I am charmingly parochial and a little bit simple for thinking this story so remarkable.

Guns are just tools, we're told. Yes, they are. As the saying goes, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a gun...

See, the thing about this whole “law-abiding gun owner” argument is that every gun owner is law-abiding. Until they’re not.