That's crazy," said my friend Dee.
"Yeah, it kinda is," I replied.
"Kind of?" shot back Dee. "People like that are lunatics, I don't care what your uncles did."
Dee and I have had this sort of conversation before, this latest back-and-forth brought on by a news story about Dr. Michael Land, a gynecologist in Union County's Wesley Chapel. Forty of Land's neighbors are suing him because he fires weapons, including a Thompson submachine gun that can fire up to 700 rounds per minute, at the 6-acre homemade firing range on his property; they say the firing disturbs their sleep, keeps their kids indoors while the firing is going on, and ruins their "to learn to shoot and be boys." The neighbors' suit claims that Land is breaking N.C. law by firing fully automatic weapons at his range, which is near their properties.
The question Dee and I were discussing, after reading about Land's case, was simple: What makes some people so enamored of firearms? As you've already read, Dee thought Land's gun-love is crazy. Considering that we're talking about submachine guns, I sort of agreed.
Dee dragged my late great-uncles into the conversation because I've told her about two of them who were good examples of sensible gun owners. They only used their rifles and shotguns for hunting, and kept them stored and locked up when the season was over. Target practice for them was a rarity ("Why waste ammo?" Uncle Will would ask). Of course, these were country men, comfortable with themselves, part-time farmers who built barns and could repair anything in sight; if someone had suggested they might want to try a submachine gun, they'd have laughed in the person's face, and probably said, "Hell, that's crazy." Those great-uncles had no need for treating guns as signs of manliness. Dr. Land, maybe -- did I mention he's a gynecologist? -- well, I don't know; I'm just saying.
Land says he's entitled to shoot fully automatic weapons on his property because he bought the land before the neighbors' houses were built. Land's neighbors, though, say he doesn't have a valid permit to shoot a submachine gun, and they seem to have a point. N.C. law generally bars the use of fully automatic weapons unless you're a soldier, law enforcement officer, or a merchant who needs them to defend his/her business. When Land applied for a permit in 2004, he said he needed it for "protection of business," although four years later, he told the Wesley Chapel Board of Adjustments he had never operated a business on his property.
Whether Land's permit is valid or not, there's still this underlying, non-legal issue: What constitutes being a responsible, reasonable neighbor? Chances are the answer doesn't include "firing a submachine gun" over your neighbors' objections. Of course, there's another underlying, but unspoken (at least publicly) issue: "How nuts do you have to be to enjoy firing a submachine gun for the hell of it?"
Figuring out a person's fully-automatic-weapons/sanity interface ratio (a new statistic I just made up) came up during the last election when congressional candidate Tim D'Annunzio hosted a "machine gun social" fundraiser where donors were rewarded with time spent shooting machine guns. A lot of people thought D'Annunzio was an obvious nutcase -- just as many people, though, thought it was a pretty cool idea. In keeping with the national mood, people were so polarized, they may as well have been in different worlds.
Dr. Douglas Kellner of UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Studies, has written extensively about U.S. gun culture and issues of masculinity. Kellner, bringing an authoritative and emphatically non-rural, viewpoint, said the Wesley Chapel case "is a shocking example of an out of control gun culture, where people obsessed with guns are so crazed they have no concern for their neighbors." Dr. Land, on the other hand, is not responding to any press questions about the situation.
My own view is that owning and shooting guns doesn't make someone a Neanderthal savage, just as favoring gun control doesn't make somebody a limp-wristed communist. But to be frank, there are such things as "gun nuts," and the most uncompromising gun fans have seemed increasingly unhinged in the past few years -- that includes the National Rifle Association, which at one time was relatively sane but has gone off the rails. How unhinged are we talking about? Well, NRA honcho Wayne LaPierre recently declared that there's a "massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment in our country." Yep, that's just how sneaky that darned Obama really is: by not proposing new gun laws, says LaPierre, Obama is actually implementing a secret plan to "lull gun owners to sleep," so Obama will "get re-elected" and then "erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights." What's even scarier than LaPierre's paranoia is that plenty of rightwingers out there think the NRA chief's rant actually makes sense. Even scarier than that? Most of those folks are probably armed to the teeth. Like my friend Dee put it, "That's crazy."
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