I wish I’d said something like, “You can have my hundred bucks when you take it from my cold, dead hands.” I know I’d have gotten a laugh.
Instead, I asked the police officer if he’d take a check.
I was sitting in the police station in the rural town in Franklin County where I live, working with the officer to complete my renewal application for my gun license. Based on a law passed in Massachusetts years ago, those of us who want to lawfully possess a firearm need a Firearm Identification (FID) card or a License to Carry (LTC), which has to be renewed every six years at a cost of $100.
The previous week, just as Gov. Deval Patrick and House Speaker Robert DeLeo were busy congratulating themselves on a new gun control law the Legislature passed and the governor signed this month, I’d received a scary-looking mailer from the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services.
“Dear Resident Firearms Licensee,” it began. “Your current [FID] or [LTC] is due to expire in the near future. Due to a high increase in license applications, fingerprint-based background checks are taking longer than usual. We urge you to start your renewal application as soon as possible.”
Before 1998, an FID was valid for life and cost $25. I was one of the 1.2 million Massachusetts residents who were affected by the 1998 law. At the time, most gun owners did the smart thing and renewed their firearms credentials immediately. But I was busy working, buying a house, starting a family in those days, so I didn’t have much time for hunting or shooting. Foolishly, I failed to heed the warnings of my friends, who told me that if I didn’t renew my FID within 90 days, I’d have to take a firearms safety or hunter safety course before I could get my license back.
After letting my FID lapse, I stopped hunting for a few years because I didn’t have the time to take one of the required courses. Deeply annoyed that my license suddenly wasn’t valid for the rest of my life, I took small comfort in not buying my Massachusetts hunting license for several years; the state lost money on that deal. Eventually, my desire to hunt again compelled me to take a hunter safety course—it was actually a superb course, but required a significant commitment of time—and pay my $100.
Over the last decade, I’ve put a lot of time and money into complying with the state’s gun laws and its somewhat related hunting laws. In my view, I’ve done my part, fulfilled my obligations, complied with the regulations. So to receive a letter warning me that “fingerprint-based background checks are taking longer than usual” makes me testy. Of my $100 filing fee, my town’s police department will keep $25, the State Police will get $25 (and do far less work than the local cops) and $50 will go into the state’s general fund.
In my view, if the licensing process were truly intended to keep guns out of the hands of criminals rather than making gun ownership difficult and unpleasant for law-abiding people like me, some of that hundred bucks would be used to expedite applications, which are all automated anyway.
No doubt, for many readers, this will all sound like the whining of a gun nut, a Fox News-addled angry white guy. Given my desire to possess deadly weapons, is it really too much to ask that I obtain a proper license? With all the gun violence we see nowadays, doesn’t it make sense to tighten up access to guns, even if it makes things a little harder for lawful gun owners?
I don’t think owning a few guns makes me a gun nut, and I don’t watch Fox News, but I am white and middle-aged and, thanks in small part to the reactionary press for “tighter gun control” in the wake of several high-profile tragedies such as the school shootings in Newtown, I get a little grumpier every day.
Dismiss me if you will, but I’m not alone. And not all gun owners are Republicans or NRA members. Not all of us fit so easily into President Obama’s 2008 description of small-town Americans: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” (Well, I am frustrated by Clinton-era trade policy, but that’s another story.)
A few days before I renewed my license, I took a ride out to Chesterfield to meet with Matt Barron, a political consultant and Democratic activist who refuses to conform to his party’s view of guns and gun control. Barron said he regards recent efforts at gun control in Massachusetts as politically theatrical but ultimately ineffective. He said he also sees in the recent legislation coming from Beacon Hill—what many mainstream newspapers have called a “sweeping overhaul” of the state’s “gun-safety” laws—a high degree of “elitism” and “anti-rural sentiment.”
Barron, who grew up in the Boston area and began hunting as a kid, said that with political control centered in the heavily urbanized eastern part of the state, the concerns of people in rural parts of the state go mostly ignored.
“Until campaign season, that is,” Barron said. “Deval Patrick stood in my kitchen [when he was running for office] eight years ago.” The governor hasn’t been back since, Barron said.
The violent crime that ultimately drives the gun control debate is mainly an urban phenomenon, Barron said. “There are no drive-by shootings in the Hilltowns,” he added, borrowing a line he picked up from Dylan Korpita, the young Republican running against State Rep. Steve Kulik in the 1st Franklin District this fall. Kulik, a long-serving Democrat from Worthington, has historically enjoyed strong support from gun owners. Barron believes that by supporting the recent gun control legislation, even though it also had the support of the Gun Owners Action League, Kulik may have made himself vulnerable.
“Deval Patrick might be able to ignore the wishes of rural voters, but candidates in some of the legislative races can’t,” Barron said.
We were joined by Barron’s neighbor, a retired VA nurse named Ron Wozniak, who’s spent hundreds of hours attending hearings on the gun legislation Patrick signed Aug. 13. A lifelong hunter, Wozniak said he stays involved in gun issues because he worries that many politicians would “ban all guns,” despite assurances to the contrary. While Wozniak said he understands and accepts the need for some gun control but feels that the lion’s share of regulations add burdens to legal gun owners, leave open to wide interpretation the question of who is “suitable” to possess a gun and ignore the deeper problem: “most people shooting each other on our city streets don’t bother to get a license.”
Later, as I drove along the heavily forested road from Chesterfield to Williamsburg, I thought about all the people who, in the wake of the Newtown shootings, looked to their elected leaders to pass laws that might prevent it from happening again. Despite the differences I may have with them—differences based on our different life experiences and expectations—I suspect I have far more in common with them than I do with the politicians who’ve shaped gun laws over the years. If nothing else, I think we can agree on this: if our goal is to stop gun violence, political theater isn’t working for any of us.•