Browning 1910 FN
We all have opinions on gun laws although not all opinions are created equally. In America gun law means thousands die every year for no reason other than opinions on gun law. Frequently these are opinions from those incapable of critical thought, whose opinionated vote is bought and sold by the NRA. Before I offer my opinion on gun law I would like to declare my familiarity with the subject by disclosing my 40 year experience of guns and law, living in three different societies, all of which adapted their Gun laws during this passage of time.
I grew up in South Africa. My father participated in WW2 as a Captain in the South African Army, in North Africa and Italy. Stored in the safe in the house I grew up in, he had a gun. The same gun he carried as a side arm through the war. I don’t know if he shot any Germans with it, but growing up I was fascinated by it. Locked in the safe in the Bryanston house where one day I saw him putting it away and asked what it was. My first experience of seeing a gun. It was clear my father did not wish to introduce me to the gun at that time. When I learned where the safe key was hidden, every so often I would open the safe and take the gun out. In its original Green box. It had a cleaning kit in there, A little spiral barrel cleaning device, a small green bottle of oil and some cloths that smelled of gun. It was a thing of beauty. Artistically. The color. Gun metal grey. The rounded edges. The story the weighty metal told my 8 year old imagination. Did that gun kill a pile of bad Nazi’s? Did it save my dads life at some critical moment?
I grew older, I was around 9 when my uncle Leonidas gave me an air rifle. I spent hours firing away with pellets. At tin cans. And apricots suspended in the trees in the grove of our 3 acre garden. Marksmanship was the point. I enjoyed the discipline in the lessons of marksmanship. Breathing. Aiming. Getting heart rate to slow into oneness with the moment. Steady pull on trigger. Fire. Exhale. What fun. What valuable development lessons in visualizing, movement and coordination.
We grew up in South Africa in the seventies, a time without TV or TV games. So firing guns provided a great entertainment opportunity for young kids. I enjoyed shooting immensely. A fun game. My friend Craig also had an airgun and we would go out shooting all manner of things. We shot at a passing Putco bus from our concealed lair on the Witkoppen road. On one occasion we decided to shoot a bird. A challenge, because of the distance and size.
I killed a bird. Hit it whilst perched high in a tree from 100 yards with a pellet gun. It fell to the ground. My thrill at the accurate hit lasted until I went over and picked up the still warm body of a bleeding dying sparrow. And in that moment I knew what I had not known when I sighted the bird and pulled the trigger. I never shot another living thing after that. A huge lesson that could not have been learned any better.
After that, my interest in shooting disappeared. I was invited to shoot a .22 rifle by Jonathan Andrews, in my early teens, and I kind of enjoyed that. But then I was invited to go ‘hunting’ and shoot a deer. I thought about what was being offered and tha put me off visiting the Andrews’ home again. That was the end of my teenage shooting experience. My interest was the guitar. Not the gun.
Then in 1979 I was conscripted into the South African Army. I was issued an R1. A 7.62mm Assault rifle. Made under license from FN by Armscor to supply growing demand for the Border war. Twenty round magazine. A fearsome weapon. Along came the first day of shooting range. Where the conscripts would get the chance to fire automatic weapons under supervision with boxes of ammunition piled high for this fun day out. I didn’t have to think about it. I simply decided I would not fire a weapon in the uniform of the Apartheid Army.
A combination of two factors; In case I really enjoyed it, which is likely, because firing guns is fun and it is all too easy to be seduced by the experience into targeting living things. And more significantly because ethically I am anti-war. I would not fire a gun and participate in that life choice.
Although fellow conscripts might wonder “but how did you get away with it” the answer is, no one really checked. I just didn’t show up at the shooting range and they never did a roll call. Because they assumed no one would be stupid enough to miss the big reward of shooting automatic weapons. So I became possibly the only troop in the SADF who never fired a weapon during 2 years of forced conscription. In fact, I misplaced my weapon completely and was court martialed for ‘losing’ my R1. Which could have had serious consequences if I had not had the support of a General (Steenkamp) helping me out of that sticky hole. Come to think of it, that is a badge of honour I carry. Court Martialed by the Apartheid regime for losing my rifle. (The full story is in my book The Emergency Bouzouki Player.)
So here we are. I am at this point 20, and have this extremely limited amount of actual experience with shooting guns. As well as very limited knowledge of the history of the gun. Not in my interest area. I have seen Westerns with Clint Eastwood, swirling six shooters and blazing away, but that has not sparked my copycat interest as much as the smoking he modeled for my developing brain. I was a smoker. Not a shooter.
Unlike America, political assassination was not a bullet business. The most significant South African assassination, Henrik Verwoerd, by the bi racial half Greek Dimitri Tsafendas, was effected by knife to the stomach. In 1966.
After I left the Army, my thoughtful ways were categorized as left wing liberal Atheist by the right wing conservative Christian apartheid controllers. Rightly or wrongly, I felt in danger of being arrested. Especially at 3 in the morning, a favorite time for arrests by the Security Police. John Vorster Square was an ominous place, where ‘people like me’ frequently slipped on soap in the showers on the 11th floor, and fell out of the windows. I identified the need to defend myself. I already had two attack trained German shepherds, but decided the time had come to get a gun. I decided to get the Browning from my Mothers safe. Where it had lain unused since my fathers death in 1971. I applied for a license, which took a few weeks, and started my training with a box of 1,000 9mm rounds. I lived then in a 500 acre farmhouse in Chartwell, northern Johannesburg. The middle of nowhere, with a convenient sandy berm providing a private shooting range. Ironic that I had just come out of a military training, with no shooting skills and was now setting out to acquire some.
The 9mm Browning is a simple gun. The FN Model 1910 is a blowback-operated, semi-automatic pistol designed by John Browning and manufactured by Fabrique Nationale of Belgium. It is not like a computer game gun. I bought two spare magazines. And loaded six rounds into each. Placed a can at stomach height on the post in front of the sandy berm of my shooting range, stepped back twenty paces and aimed. My first shot missed. So did my second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth. I reloaded and stepped forward to ten paces. 6 more shots. Same outcome. This was not as easy as Clint Eastwood makes it look. Over the next six months I fired many thousands of rounds, spending hours every single day towards mastering this challenge. Becoming a marksman with a handgun. And that’s what I became. My goal was to feel confident about shooting 6 policemen in the gap between their eyes, if they came for me at 3 in the morning. Rightly or wrongly, I felt confident that my mastery of the 9mm handgun would ensure that level of accuracy. 6 times in a row.
That 9mm was with me 24/7, under my pillow at night, tucked in my jeans belt when I performed at gigs, until I left for my new life in England at which point returned it to the safe in my Mothers home. I think the reason I never had hecklers at any of my gigs is unrelated. Looking back, owning a gun. Knowing how to use it and having it with me all the time was a wonderful thing. It provided me with a level of confidence that I would not have had otherwise. Being able to protect yourself with a gun was, for me, an important freedom. One that may well have saved my life.
Gun law in South Africa changed after I left. The thinking as the crime rate soared was that you were more likely to be shot with your own gun. Those friends I had who ‘carried’ while I lived there, would disclose that they no longer carried for this reason. Gun law made it hard to get a licensed weapon. Meanwhile, illegal guns abounded. Sales of post Border war weaponry. AK47’s the Russians supplied by the hundreds of thousands to the Cuban troops in Angola, could be had for 500 Rand. Dispossessed young Blacks would aspire to owning a gun so that they could have a career. Getting hold of a gun was a career choice for the ambitious, providing the opportunity to rob and the crime rate soared. Many murders followed. Shot by illegal guns. Those like myself, who might have been able to defend themselves with a handgun, no longer had handguns.
After I moved to the UK, I thought about my lovely Browning, much as I would a precious family heirloom. I considered getting a license to bring it to the UK. I made inquiry’s, It was a possibility, albeit expensive and time consuming involving membership of a club.. I missed not having a gun during my first few years as a Brit. And the fun of shooting. And then I began to see how effective their no-gun policy really was in terms of lifestyle. The UK is simply not a gun culture. I could safely assume that no one was going to pull a gun on me at a traffic light. That realization had an appealing quality. After 29 years in the UK the only shooting I did was occasional shotgun and clay. Fun, but not really the same thing as handguns.
There were two two spree killers during my 29 years of seeing UK gun laws evolve. In 1986 Michael Ryan, an ill man, the unemployed laborer psycho of Hungerford shot 16 dead in his day of madness Before he used his Beretta to kill himself, one of the statements Ryan made towards the end of the negotiations with Police talking him down was: “Hungerford must be a bit of a mess. I wish I had stayed in bed.” Ryan’s collection of weapons had been legally licensed. The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 was passed in the wake of the massacre, which bans the ownership of semi-automatic centre-fire rifles and restricts the use of shotguns with a capacity of more than three cartridges (in magazine plus the breech).
Ten years later, the Janitor at Andy Murray’s school in Dunblane killed 18 after which the government of John Major introduced the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997, which banned all cartridge ammunition handguns with the exception of .22 calibre single-shot weapons in England, Scotland and Wales. Following the 1997 General Election, the Labour government introduced the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning the remaining .22 cartridge handguns as well.
So the England I lived in was very different to the land of my upbringing because; in any potentially dangerous situation it was unlikely there would be a gun involved. If someone broke into your house, almost certainly they would not have a gun. One famous story epitomizes the gun legislation at that time.
On the night of 20 August 1999, two career burglars, Brendon Fearon, 29, and Fred Barras (both Irish Travelers), 16, broke into Tony Martin’s house. Shooting downwards in the dark with his shotgun loaded with birdshot, Martin shot three times towards the intruders (once when they were in the stairwell and twice more when they were trying to flee through the window of an adjacent ground floor room). Barras was hit in the back and both sustained gunshot injuries to their legs. Both escaped through the window but Barras died at the scene. Martin claimed that he opened fire after being woken when the intruders smashed a window. The prosecution accused him of lying in wait for the burglars and opening fire without warning from close range, in retribution for previous break-ins at his home. Farmer Tony Martin was convicted of murder, later reduced to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility and served three years in prison, having been denied parole.
Imagine the same judgement for the same offense in any American state? Different attitudes to guns and home defense.
I have followed the American approach to gun law with keen interest since I saw a powerful documentary called ‘The Killing of America” which provides a timeline of gun deaths that have shaped America’s direction. From Lincoln, to JFK to Martin Luther King. A long list showing clearly how America’s political direction has been shaped by the gun. No culture before or since owes more to assassination and murder than America. For both its social growth as well as economic prosperity.
The Columbine school killing fascinated me. Dylan Klebold, 17, and Eric Harris, 18, who was on Zoloft anti-depression medication. Michael Moore’s documentary was a great resource in understanding the relationship between gun laws and gun crime in America. My interest was in seeing how many people, like Michael Moore, understood exactly what was happening, and yet despite the obvious problems arising from NRA politics running the Gun laws, no moves towards the lessons learned by the rest of the world followed. Hardly a week passes without another spree killer proving what we knew 20 years ago. All kinds of stats follow from which I draw one conclusion.
Insanity. The definition of which is repeating the same thing but expecting a different outcome.
With every death, the failure to amend the law effects one certainty. There will be more of these killings in America. It is insane to leave the law unchanged unless the intention is to allow spree killings to continue in the same uniquely American tradition as Thanksgiving turkey. We do not change the Gun laws because we want the status quo to continue. Not just for the economic benefit in selling guns and bullets. But for protecting a defining American freedom. Freedom to kill. Be it Polar Bears in Alaska, Lions in South Africa, or liberals in Charlottesville.
Researching Gun law in the USA finds an AR-15 automatic rifle in my hands in this picture taken in California, 2015. The model which is being legally offered to me for sale is astonishing in view of the number of times this particular model has appeared in American spree killing.
I told the eager salesman “You couldn’t possibly sell a gun like this in the UK” to which he replied
“They have no freedom over there.”
Here’s the actual conversation that followed this picture.
“I live next door to a school. Filled with Black kids. They scream and shout like savages. Drives me mad. Do you think this is the right gun for me?”
“No doubt. That will take care of your problem.” With a knowing nod.
In the US gun sales are booming. Its good for the economy. Every time you see a spree killing on the news shares in the major gun manufacturers go up.
And there you have it. Guns are an intrinsic part of American culture. You can no sooner expect an American to vote against spree killers freedom to own guns than you could to rename the Star Spangled Banner the ‘Ballad of an anti abolitionist slave owner.’
The good news though, is you can get your own AR-15 for under $500. So you can keep your home safe. Legally. And as I know from the very good salesman I met, the AR-15 pairs up beautifully with the Desert Eagle. .50 Cal. Pricey at $1,600, but gives you seven shots that will stop an Elephant.