I Sat Next To A Gun 'Fanatic' On A Plane. When I Told Him What My Job Is, Things Got Interesting.

"Seeing an opening, I asked Rick what he believed should be done."
"I doubt I could’ve changed Rick’s views, even if we’d talk for an entire international flight," the author writes.
SEAN GLADWELL via Getty Images
"I doubt I could’ve changed Rick’s views, even if we’d talk for an entire international flight," the author writes.

On a recent flight, I found myself seated next to a man I’ll call Rick, who was keen for conversation.

We established that we are both lawyers. Rick works for the government, and I explained that I lead a gun violence prevention organization. Rick took that as an invitation to talk about guns.

A self-described “2A [Second Amendment] fanatic” from Texas, Rick grew up with guns and today owns more than 40 firearms. He considers himself a collector, and many of his guns are antiques — he’s not interested in assault-style firearms — and he makes his own ammunition from recycled casings. In short, Rick is a gun guy, and I was interested in his views on gun violence.

Rick offered that he has family in Uvalde, where 19 elementary school students and two educators were murdered in a mass shooting last year. He declared that, despite his staunch pro-gun views, he felt that “something needs to be done.”

Seeing an opening, I asked Rick what he believed should be done. He wondered aloud about psychological testing for gun buyers but concluded that that would be too challenging to administer.

I asked what he thought about “red flag” laws that allow for temporary removal of firearms when a gun owner is determined to pose a risk for harming themself or others. Rick didn’t support these types of laws because he doesn’t trust the process.

Efforts to tackle military and veteran suicide by addressing access to firearms? No, he sees suicide as an individual decision.

What about limits on gun ownership for those with a history of domestic violence? Rick had mentioned that his legal work included handling sexual assault cases, so this seemed like low-hanging fruit. But again, Rick was not on board. He felt there were too many cases in which women falsely accused their partners of domestic abuse.

So, although Rick was saddened by recent mass shootings, he couldn’t conjure what could be done to prevent them or offer any tangible ways to address, much less reform, our country’s gun culture.

In addition to being a gun guy, Rick is also a father. He was quick to tell me that he stores his guns in safes because he doesn’t want his kids to access them. In his own way, Rick is trying to be part of the solution, and I told him as much. But though Rick deserves credit for practicing secure firearm storage, many gun owners do not.

Researchers have found that the majority of gun owners do not lock up all of their weapons. And studies have shown that nearly 40% of parents in homes with guns believe their kids can’t access a gun, but the kids can. Suicide rates are four times higher for children and teens in homes with guns. Homicides and unintentional shootings are more likely in these homes, too.

Rick was intelligent, well-spoken and rational, and I enjoyed talking with him. But our conversation provides a real-world example of why we should be skeptical of the idea that gun violence will be solved by finding common ground with gun owners. I doubt I could’ve changed Rick’s views, even if we’d talked for an entire international flight.

To be sure, Rick doesn’t speak for all gun owners. Most gun owners do support some legislative action, though they often disagree on how much. Still, he echoed the pessimism of many gun owners and non-owners alike when he told me that our gun culture would never change.

Many years ago as a young lawyer, I worked to keep low-income families in their homes on the West Side of Chicago. Though my clients were grateful to be housed, many also told me that they were hesitant to sit on their front porches or send their children to the park because of the threat of gun violence. Their experiences inspired me to devote my career to addressing gun violence.

As a lawyer, I was trained to follow facts and evidence. I take that approach to my work in gun violence, too. In this case, the evidence is clear: Where there are more guns, there’s more gun violence.

And though the movement to end gun violence has grown immensely in the two decades that I’ve been involved in this work, there’s a problem: Gun violence has gone up, not down, since the early 2000s.

What Rick and others may not realise is that modern gun culture is actually quite new. Twenty years ago, most Americans knew that having a gun made them less safe and household gun ownership was on the decline. Today, most people have bought into the myth that a gun makes them safer ― and that misconception is driving up gun use and, in turn, gun violence.

Taking on that myth is why I founded Project Unloaded, where we reach young people with the facts on gun violence through social media campaigns and community partnerships, and empower them to change the narrative on this issue. Because where there are more guns, there is more gun violence, not less. And history demonstrates that culture change often begins with young people armed with the facts.

Adults are unlikely to change their coffee order, let alone their attitudes on a topic like guns, as my conversation with Rick proved. Young people, by contrast, are open to shifting their views and behaviours after learning about the issue.

Two decades ago, nearly a quarter of teens smoked cigarettes. Today, less than 3% of teens do ― a generational shift sparked by large-scale cultural campaigns designed to empower them with information on the risks. Similarly, when we expose teens to the facts on using guns, they become less interested in having one.

When our flight landed, Rick and I wished each other well. In the days following our flight, I continued to reflect on our conversation. Like many gun owners, Rick felt that something must change and was deeply concerned about America’s gun violence crisis. But until we confront the basic truth that more guns make us less safe, we’ll continue to be stuck in a cycle of more gun violence and heartbreak.

Note: Names and some details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals in this essay.

Nina Vinik is the founder and executive director of Project Unloaded, an organization using cultural campaigns to inspire the next generation to choose not to own guns. Prior to founding Project Unloaded, Vinik spent two decades working in gun violence prevention. She lives in Chicago.

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