Assault rifles are on display at a Texas gun shop. (Associated Press )
SACRAMENTO — It was a Christmas a very long time ago that my dad gave my brother and me our first guns. And a stern lecture.
Always assume the gun is loaded. Don't load it until you're ready to shoot. Never point it at anything you wouldn't want to hit. Don't touch the trigger until you want to fire.
The gun is a killing tool. Respect it.
He gave us Remington bolt-action, single-shot .22s.
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Single shot, he said, so we'd learn to hit the target on the first trigger-squeeze. No wasting ammunition, spraying the field with carelessly aimed, dangerous lead.
And another thing: Always keep those guns clean. I grew up savoring the smell of gun solvent and delighting in the smooth gliding mechanisms, the beauty of the glistening steel, the handsome wooden stocks.
So I get it. I get the mystique of firearms and the emotional attachment to them.
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What I don't get is anyone's need for — or obsession to possess — a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds. Neither do I get the objection to registering guns or licensing owners. Or requiring a license to buy ammunition, for that matter — not when a slight inconvenience could save lives.
Does anyone still think that the Nazis or Commies are going to march into America, grab the documents, seize all our weapons and occupy us? If so, these warped people really should not be allowed to own guns.
On that long-ago Christmas morning, living on our small orange ranch in rural Ojai, we could walk out behind the garage that also served as a packing shed, stack up some logs and fire away.
America — especially California — has changed dramatically since then. A lot fewer people today live where there's open space enough to shoot off weapons without endangering the family next door.
Ours was a hunting culture. We could drive a short distance in any direction to good quail habitat. Actually, my brother and I could walk to a covey or two.
Guns weren't especially thought of as protection, except perhaps for chasing off coyotes drooling over our free-ranging chickens.
Today, in suburban California, there are few hunting opportunities unless you belong to a distant, expensive club. Hunting is on the decline. In 1981, roughly 543,000 hunting licenses were sold in California. Last year, the number was 282,000.
While far fewer people are hunting, gun sales are soaring.
Last year, there were a record 601,000 state Justice Department background checks of gun buyers, according to the attorney general's office. Many buyers were purchasing multiple weapons. This year, the background checks are expected to total nearly 800,000.
What all that means is this: the broad support for healthy, recreational gun ownership that my generation grew up with has faded.
It has been replaced with a narrower gun worship based on a fear of other humans. And it's not complete paranoia. Too often powerful weapons are the instruments of some nut job seeking — who really knows? — a kind of revenge.
It's not healthy for any of us.
Much is different from that Christmas of decades past.
Movies then were not loaded with gratuitous violence. There weren't video games that glorified killing.
Hollywood and the entertainment industry can claim these have no affect on people's behavior, but that's nonsense. If video didn't influence conduct, marketers wouldn't advertise on TV. Theaters wouldn't run popcorn ads.
Nobody back then contemplated 30-round magazines. An assault weapon would have been considered an unnecessary squanderer of costly ammo.
Which brings us to the mowing down of 20 first-graders, four teachers, a psychologist and the principal at that suburban Connecticut school.
Besides the massacre, two little things particularly grated.
One was White House spokesman Jay Carney, in the hours after the mass killings, declaring that there'd be a day in the future to discuss strengthening gun controls, but "I don't think today is that day."
Yeah, well, it seemed like the logical day to me.
The other irritation was the common refrain among politicians and commentators that "No words are adequate."
No? How about: "This is unacceptable."
Thank you, President Obama, for saying that Sunday night. "We can't tolerate this any more," he told a memorial service. "We must change."
Slaughtering 6- and 7-year-olds at school. Christmas shoppers in a mall. Moviegoers in a theater. Mass killings — plain and simple — should not be regarded as acceptable in America, 2nd Amendment or not.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) put it this way Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press": "The [gun] rights of the few override the safety of the majority? I don't think so."
So what can be done about it?
Obama and Congress could start by reinstating the national assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Feinstein, who sponsored the ban 1993, announced that she'd push it again next year.
Washington should also adopt the rest of California's toughest-in-the-nation gun control laws, including a magazine capacity of 10 rounds.
California's firearm mortality rate has declined to a new low and is lower than that in the rest of the nation, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Another thing that's unacceptable: The gun lobby claiming that gun controls don't — can't — work. Because if that's true, then we really need to start talking about amending the 2nd Amendment.
We're not going to arm little kids in their classrooms. Or their teachers. That's also unacceptable.
Keep up this gun violence and someday the only acceptable privately owned firearm will be a single-shot .22. It's still my favorite.