It's inevitable when my husband and I visit family these days that the subject of violence in Baltimore comes up. Often, I'm the one who raises it. But when it came up last week on a trip to see my parents in Georgia, I got my back up. I thought of the 11-hour drive south and the billboards we passed along I-81 boasting guns for sale ("A Glock for Christmas"!), and of the story my brother-in-law, who lives in Florida, told of a neighbor stopping by to shoot the breeze in his suburban driveway, a handgun holstered at the man's waist as their kids played nearby.
I'm less afraid of the criminals wielding guns in Baltimore, I declared as we discussed the issue, than I am by those permitted gun owners. I know how to stay out of the line of Baltimore's illegal gunfire; I have the luxury of being white and middle class in a largely segregated city that reserves most of its shootings for poor, black neighborhoods overtaken by "the game." The closest I typically get to the action is feeling the chest-thumping vibrations of the Foxtrot police helicopter flying overhead in pursuit of someone who might be a few streets over, but might as well be a world away. But I don't know where the legal gun owners are or how to ensure that their children, no matter how well versed in respecting firearms, won't one day introduce that weapon to my daughter.
And so, as President Barack Obama announced plans this week to tighten background checks for gun buyers and increase gun tracking and research, I thought, that's all well and good, but how about adding something immediately useful: a gun owner registry available to the public online — something like those for sex offenders. I'm not equating gun owners with predatory perverts, but the model is helpful here; I want a searchable database I can consult to find out whether my kid can have a play date at your house.
Before the 33 percent of U.S. households containing a gun (half of which don't secure them) gets too worked up, they should know that it would likely include many of my relatives and their friends. My parents grew up in small town Minnesota, and hunting was a regular part of their lives before they left for other states, and it still is for many they know. My folks were taught how to handle guns and use them safely. But that doesn't do much to allay my fears; it's the simple presence of the weapon in the home and the possibilities it presents that terrify me.
U.S. toddlers were accidentally shooting people — including themselves — at the rate of one per week last year. More than 21,000 Americans committed suicide with a firearm in 2014 (nearly twice the number of gun homicides), while 586 people were accidentally killed with guns (10 percent of them age 15 and younger). And most of the guns used in the last 15 unpredictable mass shootings — including San Bernardino; Umpqua, Ore.; and Marysville, Wash., where a 15-year-old used his father's Beretta to kill four fellow high school students — were purchased legally. The mother of the Umpqua shooter, who killed nine people at a local community college, had even bragged online a decade ago about her son's "knowledge in this field" of firearms. So much for safety training.
My only exposure to guns has been to legal ones. I remember as a teen-ager spending an afternoon with a couple of boys who were showing off after school, firing a family gun in the backyard and play aiming at one another. And I fired a .22 caliber pistol several years ago as a reporter covering handgun-carry regulations in Maryland; I still have the paper target practice sheet taped to my cubicle to flaunt my bullseye. There was a definite rush to handling the weapon, and I could see the attraction of target practice as a hobby. But the risk to owning the gun isn't worth it to me.
Guns in the home are far more likely to be used accidentally, in suicides or family disputes than in self defense, according to studies based on anecdotal evidence. (Perhaps Mr. Obama's improved research will show for sure.) And I'm pretty certain that if I'd had a gun the one time I was the victim of a violent crime (in upstate New York), the outcome would have been a lot worse than it was, with the firearm turned against me in short order. Instead, I was able to scream and break away from a mugger with a dull knife trying to force me into a vacant lot between rowhouses.
Three years ago, a New York newspaper published a map online showing who owned guns in two counties outside of New York City. The backlash was swift and wide, with the most legitimate complaints being a fear of theft, which the paper said never materialized, and concerns about identifying where law enforcement lived. (I'm willing to compromise by including the officer's name, but not address, in my database.) Much of the response, though, was made up of comments like this one: "so, should we start wearing yellow Stars of David so the general public can be aware of we are??"
Gun owners may feel picked on, but they are not a persecuted class. They are individuals who have chosen to keep in their homes an object whose chief purpose is to injure or kill, whether in self defense or otherwise. The rest of us should have a right to know it's there before we — or our children — enter.
Tricia Bishop is The Sun's deputy editorial page editor. Her column runs every other Friday. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @triciabishop.