Off Target

BY DANIEL SWANSON

When I first read in the RECORD about the Harvard Law School Target Shooting Club last fall, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Here was a target shooting club whose sole purpose appeared to be organizing students to go target shooting. The students, all of whom were competent legal adults, took occasional weekend trips up to New Hampshire to practice recreational target practice at a licensed range. There are relatively few gun clubs in this country that simply gather their members together to enjoy safe target practice and camaraderie, and nothing more. Most shooting clubs double as political advocacy organizations, taking a hard-line stance against any effort to regulate the lethality or availability of guns. I had no problem with the HLS Target Shooting Club because I believed they fell into the former category.

I have a problem with them now. As last week’s RECORD noted, the HLS Target Shooters have gone public with disappointing advocacy statements that will not enrich the national gun debate. In the April 13th issue of The Economist, the Target Shooters’ founder, Sasha Volokh, noted that the he “plans to hold a wide range of gun-themed events on campus, including screening of films which feature ‘regular people using guns as a force for good.'” In the Economist article, Volokh also discusses his view that “enthusiasm for guns is a form of counter-cultural rebellion, rather like smoking cigars.” After reading this article, I looked at the Internet site for the Target Shooting Club and realized that one of club’s organizational purposes is “to help students understand and intelligently contribute to the public policy and constitutional debate on firearms.” My impression now is that this organization is not solely or even primarily about recreational shooting: It is about publicly advancing the beliefs that guns are good, and that those disenchanted with liberal culture can strike back by standing up for guns and gun rights.

I see little wrong with HLS Target Shooters’ advocacy for safe, recreational target shooting. But if the HLS Target Shooters plan to use the media attention that comes with their Harvard Law affiliation to influence the national gun debate, they should strive to make a more balanced and constructive contribution. Volokh’s statement that guns can be used as a “force for good” demonstrates the tendency on both sides of the gun debate to employ overbroad and unhelpful characterizations.

Rather than debating whether guns are “good” or “bad,” the public policy debate on firearms should recognize that: (1) firearms present benefits as well as risks; (2) most Americans agree that the benefits of guns (such as the opportunity to participate in safe recreational target shooting) should be maximized, while the risks of guns should be guarded against; and (3) the process of balancing benefits and risks will benefit more from detailed debate than from cultural rebellion. In fact, the Target Shooting Club’s call for rebelling against a liberal culture resembles the hard line that most gun advocacy groups take against any regulation of firearms. These positions demonstrate an us-against-them mentality, without recognizing that the debate over guns in this country will not be resolved unless both sides reach compromises that accommodate their respective interests.

Because I share Volokh’s goal of making intelligent contributions to the firearms debate, I would like to initiate a public discussion with the HLS Target Shooters Club. We could begin this discussion by addressing a controversial firearms issue: how our nation should try to minimize the risk that unsupervised children will obtain guns and use them to shoot themselves or others. It is incontrovertible that accidental and intentional child shootings are unacceptable in our society, and that precautions should be made to ensure that those shootings cease. However, there is great disagreement over what types of precautions should be imposed. Detailed discussion on how to best structure these precautions would be a truly valuable contribution to the national debate on guns. I call on the HLS Target Shooters to participate in this discussion, starting either this spring or next fall.

Because the HLS Target Shooters are linked to the Harvard Law name, they will attract media attention, and they will have their chance to contribute to the public policy debate on firearms. But their contribution would be more valuable if they abandon their “counter-cultural rebellion” and either advocate for what they enjoy – recreational target shooting by competent legal adults in a safe facility – or else discuss how the interests of those who enjoy firearms can best be balanced with the interests of those who fear them. There are enough gun advocacy organizations already willing to make broad statements about how guns are good and about how to stick it to liberals. The HLS Target Shooters should try to aim for a loftier place in the national gun debate.

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