Does the NRA really take safety seriously?

If you’re thinking about getting into quail hunting, you should know one thing: You’re going to get “peppered.” It comes with the license. It hurts, but so do a lot of things in life. Only media elites run around trying to spread Neosporin on everyone who gets into a little hunting accident.

Then there’s something else I’ve learned reading my e-mail over the past 24 hours: Getting peppered at 30 yards  is a very big deal indeed—especially when it’s in the face, where your eyes happen to be. Either shooting someone or getting shot is the one thing all hunters dread. Dick Cheney’s accident wouldn’t have occurred if either he or the guy he blasted were being as careful as they should have been. 

Both of these positions have come to me from gun owners and experienced hunters responding to the article I wrote yesterday about why Cheney didn’t inform the public promptly about accidentally shooting his friend Harry Whittington. In a political context there is controversy about everything, including whether it’s bad to get shot. Forty-five minutes after it was reported that Cheney’s victim (that’s what the police report called him) suffered a mild heart attack as a result of the pellets in his system from the vice president’s Perazzi shotgun, I was getting e-mails from Cheney supporters arguing that it was no big deal because Whittington might already have had a heart condition.

Oh my.

Any political debate that has anything to do with guns gets hot fast. I’ve found it requires immediate disclaimers. So here are mine: I own a rifle. I treasure it. (It was my Dad’s Winchester .22, which he was given when he was a boy.) I will teach my kids how to shoot when they’re old enough. I grew up hunting squirrels and birds but stopped 23 years ago. I’ve shot skeet a fair amount. I wouldn’t mind learning how to hunt with a shotgun, though I’m too much of a wuss to kill any animal my kids might watch talking to them on Saturday morning. I would not like to learn with Dick Cheney because I don’t want to get peppered, sprayed, or wind up dead, which is a condition without appealing euphemisms. I would like to learn with my stepbrother because he seems to know what he’s doing. (He can even recite this.)

I offer these confessions because after the Columbine killings I got on the wrong end of a gun-control flame war over trigger locks. People who thought I wanted to take their guns got personal to the point that the attacks involved me having relations with a wide variety of animals and garden furniture. The NetNanny on my computer handed in her resignation. I’m still worried I might find someone in my garage who wants to do me in.

Maybe the disclosures above will allow me to ask a political question without readers assuming I hate gun owners: Shouldn’t hunters and those who care about the Second Amendment be taking the Cheney accident just a wee bit more seriously? Be sanctimonious, get enraged, but it seems hypocritical (and unsafe) to have talked for so many years about the American tradition of gun ownership and the responsibility that inherently goes along with that tradition and then go wobbly on safety when your ally has a misfire.

I have heard from hunters who are conservatives and Republicans. Several of them have made the case that spinning Cheney’s mishap as insignificant actually hurts the gun-owners’ cause. Some go even further: Not only was Cheney’s accident a very serious business, but, by the standards of the sport, Cheney was at fault for not looking where he was firing and for being greedy. Quail are fast and fly low but they’re not al-Qaida. You can let them get away.

I thought the elegant political argument gun owners have made over the years was founded on safety. Yes, we’re passionate, call us gun nuts if you want, but that passion shows just how seriously we take our firearms. That means we’re passionate about safely operating and storing them, too. We care about not shooting each other or bystanders. When we do have an accident, we treat it really seriously because, well, we don’t want any nanny legislation infringing on our rights. Now go away and leave us alone.

This kind of strictness is what I find appealing about airlines. They, and the Federal Aviation Administration, take it very seriously when the landing gear doesn’t go down or a plane skids off the runway. Their rigor when such mishaps occur suggests they’re being rigorous in trying to avoid them.

The NRA boasts in its literature that it “remains the nation’s leader in firearm education and training for law-abiding gun owners, law enforcement and the armed services.”Wouldn’t it help the gun lobbies to weigh-in here? So far, the two arguments that I’m hearing the most are the “it’s no big deal” argument and the White House line, which is to laugh about it.

Perhaps the reason they are holding their tongues is that the Republican Party and gun enthusiasts have a long collaboration. The NRA and its 4 million members worked hard to help bring the GOP to power in the House and Senate in 1994 and have supported the Bush administration. In fact, Republicans have worked so hard to co-opt hunters as their constituents that the Bush team turned John Kerry’s hunting trips into a laugh line. On the final day of the campaign, Bush staffers wore hunting camouflage gear to mock their opponent’s pretensions about being a hunter.

I’m not sure what the NRA’s political test is now. Let’s hope it’s not whether a candidate has been properly peppered.