A gun on my DeKalb farm: weapon or tool?

Shotgun shell. Photo: Arbyreed, some rights reserved.

Shotgun shell. Photo: Arbyreed, some rights reserved.

Let’s start with this: I own several long guns, no hand guns. I think this is pretty typical for farm dwellers across the region. Since NYS passed new gun control legislation, the so-called SAFE Act, there’s been a lot of heated debate about the Act, including a wave of repeal efforts and front yard sign-planting (SAFE in a red circle with a red diagonal line through the letters).

A few days ago, I was talking with Mike, a young man who is a 2013 forestry graduate from Paul Smiths College and a kind of “adopted” son. I’ve decided that I need to brush up on my very rusty shooting skills and plan to take a safety and skills course this summer or fall. (Suggestions about where to find a course in St. Lawrence County much appreciated.) Mike is knowledgeable about guns and the safe and proper use of rifles. If he was living and working closer to DeKalb, I’d enlist him as a private tutor.

The conversation came around to the difference between guns as weapons or tools. For so many of us living on farms and in rural communities, rifles are tools for barnyard and front yard problems (putting down a rabid animal, for example) or for hunting. This observation is nothing new. Nor is the concern about the widespread use of hand guns as weapons (i.e., as a means of hurting other people), particularly in cities and more populated areas of the state. Long guns are much less likely to be used in urban areas–though determined shooters have certainly found ways to conceal even these larger weapons.

While I loosely followed the ferocious public discussion of the SAFE Act in the months following its passage, what I hadn’t paid attention to was the section of the Act that steeply curtails the sale of ammunition. Years ago, when my shooting skills were a bit more up to date, my preferred rifle was a 22 caliber semi-automatic. Apparently, ammunition for this rifle is now basically impossible to secure. The 22 is the preferred rifle for a lot of people. However,  the ammunition can be modified and used in assault weapons.

And that’s the rub. Legislation designed to address a perceived problem may have unintended or expected but undesirable consequences. In this case, there’s a trade off: rigorously controlling the use of guns as weapons has affected legitimate users of guns as tools by making it much harder for these users to find and purchase the tools and the ammunition.

There’s a lot of talk about the Second Amendment attached to gun control laws. I find that less than compelling–our society has seen such dramatic changes since that language was added to the Constitution. However, gun control is still about legislation, so if you’d like to know where legislators stand on the issue, here’s a link to a ProPublica report on the congressional record, and another report from the same source on the lack of data about non-fatal gun-related accidents.

Basically, Mike told me I’d probably end up using some fairly small gauge shotgun rather than my preferred 22, because of the restricted access to ammunition. I don’t like this. There, I’ve said it. On the other hand, I don’t like the Wild West environment that allows mass shooters to easily acquire the weapons and bullets they need to mow down innocent people. (I’m not even talking here about the urban proliferation of illegal hand guns.)

I’m not taking sides in the gun control debate. I don’t think the answer is black or white. What I do think is that we have to work together to come up with solutions that protect innocent people from harm but allow legitimate gun owners to have some access. Everyone really does have to give a little on this issue. It’s easy for me to say because I’m not an active gun-rights or anti-gun activist. When there’s passion and fury around an issue, it’s hard to have the reasonable conversation leading to compromise.

Neither the NRA nor the 100% pro-control advocates necessarily have it quite right. The legislation we have is an imperfect compromise, and compromise, as we know, rarely satisfies any of the disputing parties. So, for now, I’ll hone my skills and learn to use a shotgun.

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24 Responses to “A gun on my DeKalb farm: weapon or tool?”

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  1. shovel says:

    Ellen, I’m not sure where I see your willingness to give. You can’t use a certain gun because we are trying to make reckless use of a weapon more difficult. It is inconvenient, and it may be a dumb restriction, but I don’t see how it shows partisanship.

  2. John McCloskey says:

    Interesting, I have owned a variety of firearms thru my life, and have never sought to assign the title of weapon or tool. They are what they are. Also, I had no idea that .22 ammo could be modified for use in an assault weapon. My firearm of choice for ‘front yard and backyard problems’ is a .22 cal ruger handgun, small, light, easy to carry, decent accuracy , and until recently ,very inexpensive ammo. .22 ammo is no more dangerous than any ammo, in my opinion

  3. Peter says:

    A firearm becomes a “weapon” when it is intentionally aimed at a human being.

    FBI statistics say that rifles were used in only 350 homicides nationwide in 2012.

    .22 ammunition can not be modified.

    Regarding the second amendment, one need only look to Mexico for reasons civilians should maintain arms.

  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I am not sure what you mean by “100% control advocates” and I think you are setting up a false dichotomy. I don’t believe I have ever met anyone who has seriously contended that we should completely eliminate guns. The fact is that we have a serious problem with guns in this country. But the real problem isn’t guns and gun control. We have a serious problem in this country with people believing that any effort to fix nearly any sort of challenge is really an effort to take something away from them.

  5. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    A weapon is a tool. It is a tool with the intended function of killing. That is simply a fact of definition, though I’m sure many people will read it as an attack on guns. People might say that they use their weapons for sporting purposes, target practice, whatever…target practice is meant to hone the skill of using the tool for its intended function – to kill.

  6. jill says:

    My family loves target practicing- and they get a deer in the fall. We don’t have a TV, and my kids have seen very few movies in their lifetimes. I think the idea of guns shooting people is foreign to them because of that cultural disconnect. I don’t shoot anymore, but did as a kid, and feel I am militantly non-violent (oxymoron?)- never allowing my kids to physically fight – quite an accomplishment in a large family of strong and fit farm kids. We’ve always been careful about guns- hope that continues.

  7. Ellen Rocco says:

    Knucklehead: You are probably right about the false dichotomy. I was oversimplifying for sure. I have heard such hard line positions on the gun control/gun rights issue so I used the extreme ends of the conversation because it’s ultimately at the extreme ends that the conversation gets bogged down…for all of us.

  8. Pete Klein says:

    I’ve probably been somewhat of a gun lover all my life, starting with cap guns (both rifles and pistols) and graduated to BB guns, pellet guns and finally to a 22 long rifle I received as a birthday present when I was 16. I still own that rifle and in addition currently own a pellet pistol and a BB gun.
    Knuck is right about all rifles and pistols being both tools and weapons – and join a wide range of items that can be used both as tools and weapons, including knives and a whole variety of things that would fall under the broad category of sticks and stones.
    After all is said and done, the Safe Act is probably mostly wishful thinking with a heavy dose of aggravation.
    There is a heap of difference between a .22 and a .223. While a .22 can certainly kill a person, its intent is for target shooting and small game. The .223 was created for the M 16 and its intent is to kill humans or cause major damage.
    If you are a criminal who wants to kill people, probably the dumbest choice is any automatic. Best to use a revolver, caliber of your choice, so as to not leave any spent cartridges at the scene of the crime.
    The advantage of automatics is part of their curse. You can get off a lot of shots but the speed lowers the accuracy and encourages sloppy shooting. That’s why snipers prefer bolt action rifles. If you know how to shoot, you only need one shot. If you are one of the few who are really, really good with a hand gun, you don’t even need to aim. It comes naturally and without any thought after much practice. It’s very much like how a Samurai uses a sword. If you have to think about it, you’re dead.

  9. Mervel says:

    I am sympathetic to your points.

    I understand control of handguns assault weapons etc, I don’t understand the strict and severe control and monitoring of ammunition sales for all guns, including shotguns. To me it really is government overreach. It also basically makes the point of the NRA, this is not about assault rifles or handguns, its about all guns and about impacting the vast majority of peaceful gun owners.

  10. Mervel says:

    One sideline is if individuals don’t want to deal with this law, simply look into re-loading and making your own ammunition. Which is kind of a neat hobby anyway.

  11. Mateo says:

    Ellen,
    I really appreciate your addressing this issue in such a constructive fashion. I completely agree that if used properly guns can be an important farm/rural tool. I also understand people who like to shoot for sport and for hunting. I don’t understand the need for assault weapons outside of the military and law enforcement. As for the second amendment, many anti-government, radicalized, and conspiracy folks think our government wants to take away all guns so that they can control us (think 1984 or the Hunger Games). I think that is just ridiculous. I also think that legislators pass laws without being fully educated of how things are in the real world and without knowing all of the consequences. But in conclusion, you are 100% correct in saying that opposing views are not willing to come together to compromise. Case in point that people want to repeal the SafeAct and not work to amend it to make it better. I also think the majority of people are in the middle in the issue you always just see the far ends of the issue in the public view. P.S. We also need to simultaneously address the issue of violence and mental health because just taking away guns will not stop killings.

  12. Mervel says:

    Most normal gun owners would be in favor of regulating or even outlawing machine guns. Most are not radicalized pro-gun at any cost people. However we were told this law is not about hunters or shotguns or small caliber stuff like a .22, don’t worry the gun nuts are just trying to scare you.

    Well then the law passes and we find out it mainly impacts hunters and law abiding gun owners and law abiding gun sellers by having all of these controls and tracking of ammunition for those very guns. I think at that point it becomes almost a cultural issue, the people that wrote and passed the law are largely urban people who have never hunted and I think do have a biased view of rural life and have no understanding of the impact the law has.

  13. dave says:

    Which part of the SAFE ACT steeply curtails the sale of ammunition?

    I am aware of the provision that requires background checks for ammunition. But I am unaware of any provision that would reduce the amount of ammunition available for sale or make it harder to find.

    .22 caliber ammunition has been in high demand and has been hard to acquire for at least a couple of years now. The ammunition background checks just went into affect this past January, so I don’t think they have anything to do with it.

  14. Gary says:

    Interesting, I’ve never thought of my long guns being a tool but on the other hand I have never thought of my hammer as being a weapon. According to the FBI more people were murdered from 2005-2011 with hammers/clubs than with rifles.

  15. Peter says:

    Has everyone seen the developing news on the usda’s firearm / ammo procurement?

    Any ideas / opinions?

  16. Mervel says:

    There should be no background checks for shotgun shells if this bill was really about assault weapons and handguns. The main people impacted by the law in number has been hunters using long guns.

    I just think the law should be modified to focus in on the whole issue of assault weapons and the trade in illegal guns. I am not against gun control most hunters are not, but what happens is when you pass broad sweeping laws that mainly impact hunters, you start to think, well maybe they are targeting me?

  17. Jordan says:

    How can a 22lr round be modified? It can’t even be reloaded. When the SAFE act was first passed, I was actually a strong supporter of the law because I thought it would be designed to prevent gun violence.

    I collect antique firearms and the ammunition is very difficult to find in St Lawrence County. Because of the lack of clarity there are dealers that won’t even ship me ammo even through an FFL. Look into how ammo purchases are actually being regulated. There still are no background checks but I am still not allowed to have it shipped to my home.

    I am 100% in favor of background checks. What I am not in favor of is regulation or outlaw of a firearm due to the fact that it has the capacity to hold a bayonet. When was the last time you heard about murder let alone mass murder by bayonet? This law should have focused on strengthening background checks and keeping HANDGUNS away from those who should not own them.

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Ellen, I understood your intent with the NRA vs 100% control advocate comment. You were trying to be fair in characterization of the issue. But that is a big part of the problem with the current media paradigm. The effort to be fair gives equal treatment to two sides of an issue, no matter that there are many sides to be considered or that some ideas are simply less valid than others. If the NRA were to accept and support sensible reforms – reforms that the NRA itself would have supported a few decades ago – we would have far fewer gun deaths and the issue wouldn’t be one which separates Americans. When Smith & Wesson tried to increase the safety of its product the NRA started a boycott movement that nearly bankrupted S&W. Even a gun manufacturer wasn’t sufficiently gun friendly for the NRA.

    On the other side are groups like the Brady campaign whose objective is “to enact and enforce sensible gun laws, regulations, and public policies through grassroots activism, electing public officials who support gun laws, and increasing public awareness of gun violence”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brady_Campaign
    Or there is the SAFE Act. Neither of these examples comes anywhere close to banning the use, possession, or ownership of guns except for a very few types.

    Those are not polar extremes. There is only one real extreme in this debate and it is the NRA, and there are people even further out than them on that side.

  19. Gary says:

    khl: You raise an interesting point. One thing that you should keep in mind is, how did the NRA get to this point? People like myself question how truthful government is when trying to get support for a bill. The SAFE went much farther than most expected. Some are happy others feel deceived. I supported parts of it but never expected it to go to the extremes that it currently has gone. This being said the NRA trusts government even less.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Gary, as with most legislation the SAFE act isn’t perfect. Reasonable people can work together to address specific issues and improve legislation. The problem we have is that apparently there aren’t enough reasonable people left to do even the most basic and essential work of government. There is no doubt that SAFE was pushed through. In the aftermath of the Newtown shooting – 20 children and 6 adults killed in one incident by one disturbed person – the vast majority wanted government to do something, and everyone knew the NRA wouldn’t agree to anything.

    Those of you who have the Repeal the Safe Act signs on your lawn: it will not happen. But there are reasonable adjustments that could be made through cooperative legislation if you choose to vote for legislators who promise to cooperate rather than promise to repeal.

    On the other side: people in urban areas need to understand that firearms are a tool of rural life. Seeing a teenager wandering the streets of Manhattan with a rifle slung over a shoulder would be startling, but on a country road up here it isn’t worth a second look except to maybe see if it is a friend. And the NRA has a point about enforcing the laws that are on the books. We should demand that our sheriffs and DA’s strictly enforce weapons violations including any that occur in hunting activities, much the way that drunk driving laws began to be strictly enforced a few decades ago.

  21. jeff says:

    My hoe is a weapon when I find a snake that is in the wrong place according to me. Otherwise it is a tool.

    It is an assault hoe. It has a blade on one side and prongs on the other side and a long handle to deceive he critter as to my location thus it is stealthy plus it is silent and it isn’t registered….

    Remington arms will move two of its manufacturing arms from Illion to their new facility down south. Fewer jobs in New York. I don’t feel any safer.

  22. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Jeff, you weren’t paying attention. Weapons are tools. They perform a function; that makes them a tool. But your point is a good one. I earlier times many ordinary day to day tools were used as weapons when times of war came around, and sometimes weapons were turned into tools with peaceful uses as the Bible notes that they beat their swords into plowshares.

  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Consider a teenager walking the street of Manhattan with a scythe of a shoulder. Tool, no doubt about it, but it would raise eyebrows. Even here it would be odd.

  24. Ellen Rocco says:

    Knucklehead: I’m going to disagree with your point about how the extreme points of view I cited in the original post just don’t cut the mustard. While it’s a bit artificial, it accomplished the goal I had in mind: to prompt a real conversation about gun control. I think everyone who has participated so far has been reasonable and responsive to other opinions (not necessarily agreeing, of course, but civil and open to give and take in the discussion). Call me a hopeless idealist, but there’s nothing I like better than a vigorous debate or dinner table conversation–as long as everyone is willing to listen as well as speak. Yes, there are many points of view–not just the two extremes I started with–but I think it’s up to all of you to fill in the details, the deeper thinking, the subtleties of the debate. I can’t pretend to speak for every point of view.