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joanna weiss

Common ground on guns

Instructor Mike Magowan worked with students during a concealed weapons permit class in Florida on Saturday.

Brian Blanco/REUTERS

Instructor Mike Magowan worked with students during a concealed weapons permit class in Florida on Saturday.

A few years ago, the leaders of the Chicopee Sportsmen’s Club had a bad feeling about a guy who was taking their firearm safety class. He didn’t have the right “type of temperament,” club vice president Richard Mastronardi told me. So someone made made a nonchalant call to the local chief of police, just to suggest that, if it were him, he wouldn’t issue a permit to a guy like that.

That single act hints at a world that’s not far from our grasp — a world in which the right to bear arms is weighed against the damage guns can wreak, a world where people who want guns for self-defense can still agree that a powerful weapon is worth regulating closely. A world in which a disturbed 20-year-old man wouldn’t have access to a weapon that could kill so many children in a horrifying flash.

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We haven’t gotten there yet. My Twitter feed is full of people who think the need for an assault weapons ban is self-evident, who view the reaction to the tragedy in Newtown as a test of President Obama’s leadership.

But the bigger leadership question is whether the will for change can come from the other side of the political aisle, and from gun owners themselves. This will require a change in rhetoric, and also a change in culture. Jimmy Taylor, a sociologist and criminologist who wrote the book “American Gun Culture,” said many gun owners have fundamental doubts about the government’s ability to protect them. They believe that exercising your right to own a gun is an affirmative act of patriotism.

From this comes the notion that teachers should be packing heat, and the more reasonable fear that any Newtown-driven change will be a knee-jerk solution that hurts hobbyists, not criminals. Mastronardi, a Vietnam vet, believes gun laws are restrictive enough as it is. “They still think that just taking all of the guns away from responsible people is going to make a difference,” he said. “I hope they sit down and think about it before they go infringing on 60 or 70 million gun owners.”

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It’s true that, when it comes to crafting a law that works, it would be useful to listen to people like Mastronardi, who truly understand how guns and gun clubs operate. Talk to him long enough, in fact, and the outlines of a workable policy come through — perhaps using some Massachusetts laws as a model. You can’t purchase a gun here with a capacity greater than 10 rounds of ammunition. (As Mastronardi pointed out, it would only take a few seconds for someone to put in another clip. But maybe those few seconds could save lives.)

And then there is the matter of discretion, the fact that local sheriffs and police chiefs have broad power to determine who gets a gun license, and many of them require character references. That power can be abused, and it’s largely maligned among gun owners. But the responsible act of the Chicopee Sportsmen’s Club suggests that gun owners and law enforcement can work together.

The broader question, of course, is whether gun owners could accept an outright assault weapons ban. But Taylor, a professor of sociology, criminology and criminal justice at the University of Ohio-Zanesville, said he already senses a divide — sometimes a physical one, at gun shows — between people who use rifles for hunting or self-defense, and thrill-seekers who want the buzz of discharging a military weapon. Even Mastronardi concedes that he wouldn’t need a 20- or 30-round weapon for target practice. And of the dozens of gun collectors that Taylor interviewed — people who own caches of military-style weapons — not one used an assault weapon for home defense. They all set aside small pistols for that.

The Newtown tragedy has already prompted changes-of-heart from some prominent gun defenders: A West Virginia senator, a television anchor. There’s no reason to doubt that people on the ground, so many of who try to act responsibly with guns, could be moved to change their minds, if national leaders give them guidance.

Perhaps that’s too much to ask from a lobby that depends on paranoia to keep its coffers full and its membership on edge. But the children of Newtown deserve it. Since the shootings, NRA leaders have gone into radio silence. What will they say when they finally speak?

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.
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