On June 26, 2018, our family experienced one of the most terrifying nights of our lives. It began with a strange and chilling direct message to our son — an image of three Klan hoods. That was strange enough, but sadly not all that surprising. From the moment that I’d first expressed opposition to Donald Trump and Trumpism, our multiracial family (my youngest daughter, who is adopted, is Black) had faced an avalanche of threats, doxxing and vile racism.
Alt-right trolls had photoshopped images of my daughter into gas chambers and of her face onto old pictures of slaves. They had placed images of dead and mutilated Black Americans in the comments section of my wife’s blog. The threats had not stopped after Trump won. If anything, by 2018 they had escalated once again. So the Klan hoods sent to my son — which would have been chilling under any circumstances — were particularly ominous. What happened next was worse.
Within moments, my son received another message, a picture of a road several miles from our house. Then another picture arrived. A road sign. This one was closer. Someone seemed to be coming to our home.
This was not the first such incident. A few years earlier, a man had driven to our house, positioned his car to block our driveway, confronted my wife and kids and demanded to see me (I wasn’t home). He was later seen driving slowly around the parking lot of my kids’ school.
I was born in Alabama and grew up in Tennessee and Kentucky. As a son of the South, I was no stranger to firearms. We had a gun in our home. I learned to shoot at a young age. So did my wife. After the episode of the man demanding to see me, she not only bought a handgun, she attended multiple classes to train in armed self-defense.
So, yes, we had guns. And when my son received the Klan hood messages — as well as in other similar situations — we were glad we did. While we scrambled to determine whether the Klan hoods and street sign images were truly threatening or intended to be merely harassing, and while we considered whether to call the police (we did), I knew that we would not be defenseless if the threat were real and if our stalkers arrived before the police.
Thankfully, no one came to our house. It was likely just more harassment, but the presence of a police car outside our home may have deterred something more serious. I share this story to make two disclosures: Yes, we own guns. And yes, I support gun rights, not just for hunting or shooting sports, but for the purpose of self-defense. I’ve written in support of gun rights for years. I grew up in a culture that approached firearms responsibly, safely and with a sober mind. They were a tool — a dangerous tool, to be sure — but nothing more. In a fallen and dangerous world, a responsible, trained gun owner could help keep his or her family safe.
But the gun rights movement is changing. In many quarters of America, respect for firearms has turned into a form of reverence. As I wrote in 2022, there is now widespread gun idolatry. “Guns” have joined “God” and “Trump” in the hierarchy of right-wing values. At the edges, gun owners have gone from defending the rights of people to own semiautomatic rifles like AR-15s to openly brandishing them in protests, even to the point of, for example, staging an armed occupation of parts of the Michigan Capitol during anti-lockdown protests.
But we’re now facing something worse than gun idolatry. Too many armed citizens are jittery at best, spoiling for a fight at worst. In recent days we’ve seen a rash of terrible shootings by nervous, fearful or angry citizens. A young kid rings the bell on the wrong door and is shot. A young woman drives into the wrong driveway and is shot. A cheerleader accidentally tries to get in the wrong car and is pursued and shot, along with her friend. A basketball rolls into a man’s yard, and a neighboring 6-year-old girl and her father are shot.
All of these episodes occurred over the course of just six days.
Yet even worse than such shootings, which occurred because of fear or sudden rage is the phenomenon that begins with a person who seems to want to fight, who deliberately places himself in harm’s way, uses deadly force and then is celebrated for his bloody recklessness. Take Kyle Rittenhouse. At age 17, Rittenhouse took an AR-15-style weapon to a riot in Kenosha, Wis., to, he said, “protect” a Kenosha business.
When you travel, armed, to a riot, you’re courting violent conflict, and he found it. He used his semiautomatic weapon to kill two people who attacked him at the protest, and a jury acquitted him on grounds of self-defense. But the jury’s narrow inquiry into the moment of the shooting doesn’t excuse the young man’s eagerness to deliberately place himself in a situation where he might have cause to use lethal violence.
And what has been the right’s response? Rittenhouse has gone from defendant to folk hero, a minor celebrity in populist America.
Or take Daniel Perry, the Army sergeant who was just convicted of murdering an armed Black Lives Matter protester named Garrett Foster. Shortly after the conviction, Tucker Carlson effectively demanded a pardon. Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas responded the next day, tweeting that “Texas has one of the strongest ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws of self-defense that cannot be nullified by a jury or a progressive District Attorney.”
Yet Abbott ignored — or did not care — about the facts exposed at trial. Perry had run a red light and driven straight into the protest, nearly striking Foster’s wife with his car. Witnesses said Foster never pointed his gun at Perry. Even Perry initially told the police he opened fire before Foster pointed his gun at him, saying, “I didn’t want to give him a chance to aim at me.”
But the story gets worse. In social media messages before the shooting, it was plain that Perry was spoiling for an opportunity to shoot someone. His messages included, “I might have to kill a few people on my way to work they are rioting outside my apartment complex” and “I might go to Dallas to shoot looters.”
That is not a man you want anywhere near a gun. Kyle Rittenhouse is not a man you want anywhere near a gun.
Our nation’s gun debate is understandably dominated by discussions of gun rights. But it needs to feature more accountability for gun culture. Every single feasible and constitutional gun control proposal — including the red flag laws that I’ve long advocated (which allow law enforcement to remove weapons from people who broadcast deadly intent or profound instability) — will still leave hundreds of millions of American guns in tens of millions of American hands.
I shared the account at the beginning of this piece to help explain to opponents of gun rights that there are times when a firearm can be the only thing that stands between profound evil and the people you love. I also share it to tell my gun-owning friends that I get it. I understand. I’ve faced more threats in the last few years than they might experience in 10 lifetimes.
But this I also know: Gun rights carry with them grave responsibilities. They do not liberate you to intimidate. They must not empower your hate. They are certainly not objects of love or reverence. Every hair-trigger use, every angry or fearful or foolish decision, likely spills innocent blood.
Moreover, every one of these acts increases public revulsion of gun ownership generally. The cry for legal and moral reform will sweep the land. America will change and gun rights will diminish. And the gun owners and advocates who fail to grasp the moral weight of their responsibility will be to blame.
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