I got shot on a fall day in 1974. I was on the Dakota prairie, hunting pheasants with fellow college students. A friend and I were "blocking" -- standing at the mouth of a draw that drained a dry marsh. The rest of our party crashed through the dense, brittle reeds of the slough, driving the game toward us.
But not a creature was stirring ahead of the stalkers. Just as I turned away and set my shotgun down, I heard my blocking partner utter: "Here they come."
I glanced over my shoulder. The sky was full of pheasants. They were flying right at me, very low. As I reached down for my 12-gauge, I was struck in the back by a volley of birdshot fired from the marsh. I went down -- in retrospect, more out of alarm than the force of the pellets. "You shot me!" I screamed. "Stop shooting!"
Nobody heard. Guns blazed. It sounded like Verdun. Beautiful ringnecks flapped furiously overhead. Some fell amid mists of feathers and blood. Rolling onto my back, I raised my shotgun and fired vainly at a rooster fleeing the fusillade.
I was lucky. Whoever hit me was a good distance off. I didn't even bleed. I had a welt on my neck, a few pellet pocks in the back of my faux leather jacket. Everyone thought it was hilarious.
Less funny was the day three years later when one of my hunting pals accidentally shot another student in the chest with a .22. The victim in that incident was lucky, too. I believe he recovered more fully than the shooter.
I relate these anecdotes so you understand that I was reared in a land where firearms were ubiquitous. I got sound training and, like nearly everyone else, I hunted for sport. It was -- and remains -- a wholesome pursuit. I know how to use guns, and know well the damage they do. I respect them so much that in my own household, there have never been guns.
More than once, Alan Korwin reminds me of his favorite dueling truisms: Chairman Mao said that power comes from the barrel of a gun, Ronald Reagan averred that power comes from the barrel of a pen.
Korwin fires both barrels.
He is not your stereotypical Second Amendment crusader. He is prone to garish shirts and plays a mean guitar. He does not wear a sidearm in public. He does not take guests to his home to fondle his arsenal. He won't even admit to owning any guns. He is witty, well-groomed and has enjoyed success as a writer, consultant and lecturer. He speaks not with a squint-eye twang, but articulately, in a measured Bronx brogue. He writes even more elegantly than he speaks. He has authored and published (through his Bloomfield Press) seven books on gun laws. His first tome, The Arizona Gun Owner's Guide, is in its 19th printing. It has sold in excess of 100,000 copies.
Last Friday, Korwin convened his annual Bill of Rights Day luncheon. He and a dozen other men -- mostly professionals -- met at Omaha Steakhouse to observe the birth of the hallowed document, which was ratified on December 15, 1791, in Philadelphia. The parchment was read aloud with reverence. The group broke bread and bemoaned society's indifference to erosion of the rights bestowed in the bill.
These gentlemen venerate the Constitution. As do I. I just can't get past all the cadavers, can't fathom the myopia that renders them invisible -- expendable -- to my fellow patriots.
Korwin and his pals put the most constitutional stock in the Second Amendment, which supposedly guarantees the right to bear arms. I put mine in the First Amendment -- freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly. I also yearn for freedom from mindless bloodshed -- the types of freedoms enjoyed in other Western democracies where guns are not the currency and their victims are scarce.
Korwin is convinced that any tinkering with any part of the Constitution is a full frontal assault on the whole.
I don't see the Constitution as inviolable. The framers weren't atavistic morons. They didn't intend that their Second Amendment would create an environment where in 1998, firearms accounted for 30,708 deaths, and three times that many injuries.
Consider this: There were only 29,000 people living in Philadelphia when the Bill of Rights was drafted. Did the founding fathers envision an annual slaughter equivalent to the erasure of every soul in their City of Brotherly Love? The progenitors of the republic would hang their heads in shame at what their abstruse little "well-regulated militia" provision has wrought.
Not Alan Korwin. He hews steadfastly to the letter of the beloved Second.
"If the solution to the guy in the gutter with a hole in him is to deny my right to guns, I would be against it," he says.
What he is saying, in essence, is that those 30,708 bodies are the price we pay for freedom.
In Arizona, the height of revelry involves shooting guns into the air. With the holidays imminent, it's fitting that Korwin is freshly exorcised by "Shannon's Law," a seemingly innocuous statute designed to reduce random gunfire.
While it's a noble cause -- the law is named after a girl who was killed by an errant bullet -- it occurs to me that gun wielders who fire unrandomly are a much greater threat. One or two people a year might fall victim to celebratory gunfire. In 1998, 833 Arizonans died from firearm misuse -- homicides, suicides, accidents -- according to a recent study issued by the Trauma Program at St. Joseph's Hospital. In the past decade, the toll in Arizona has been 9,766. The state's rate of firearms deaths is nearly double the national rate.
The menace of falling bullets pales in comparison to these numbers, yet they inspire no gun control initiatives.
Shannon's Law gives prosecutors the option of lodging misdemeanor or felony charges against an offender.
Korwin says felony laws already on the books -- endangerment and disorderly conduct -- are enough to deter celebratory gunfire, provided they are enforced. Shannon's Law is one more step into the pit of tyranny.
"It's a do-nothing, feel-good piece of legislation," he says. "The public was hoodwinked, with the help of the media, into believing it was a solution, when everybody involved knew the solution lay elsewhere."
Shannon's Law took effect July 1. In a December 11 press release, Korwin discloses Phoenix police statistics that indicate calls about random gunfire have increased since the statute took effect.
Phoenix City Councilman Phil Gordon, a proponent of Shannon's Law, provides far different numbers. His data show random gunfire complaints declining. A police spokesman wasn't able to reconcile the disparate numbers.
In any case, Gordon wonders: "What's the harm in having additional tools in the tool chest to fight this crazy act? It isn't a publicity stunt, it's serious. This is what the prosecutors said they wanted. This is what the police said they wanted."
Korwin believes Shannon's Law was indeed a publicity stunt. He wants random gunfire to stop, too, he says. New laws only convolute matters.
"The mayor has to tell the police chief that he wants random gunfire arrests, real random gunfire arrests -- stakeouts, shoe-leather police work. Catch the perpetrators and lock them up," Korwin says.
Coincidentally, Gordon and Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley were in Washington, D.C., last week to explain the wonders of Shannon's Law and their anti-slumlord initiative to Attorney General Janet Reno. The councilman says Reno considers both to be national models.
While there, Gordon applied for a $1 million Justice Department grant that would fund equipment capable of tracking the source of gunfire in neighborhoods. He says the grant would pay for four mobile units that can each cover a square mile, discerning gunshots from auto backfires and firecrackers, then triangulating them to pinpoint the source. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl have pledged to support the grant application, according to Gordon.
Alan Korwin's Internet site, gunlaws.com, contains a page devoted to semantical rectitude. Don't say you're "pro-gun," say you're "pro-rights." Refer to the "anti-gun movement" as the "anti-self-defense movement." Correct any reference to "the powerful gun lobby" to "civil rights organizations." "Common sense legislation" should be known as "dangerous utopian ideas." And my personal favorite: "Assault or lethal weapons" are really "household firearms."
But after hours of interviews, Korwin isn't so obdurate as to dismiss the sucking chest wound in our Constitution. He calls the rate of firearms death and disfigurement "horrible."
"Every one of them is a tragedy," he says, then quickly adds, "and they cast aspersions on us good folks who have nothing to do with it."
Korwin is troubled by the depth of firearm carnage. It looks bad, seems indefensible. But things aren't as bad as we think they are. Many of these deaths can be explained and, apparently, tolerated. He harps repeatedly that thousands of the gun deaths in this country every year are geriatric suicides. Better social programs are the cure.
"Half of these deaths are old folks looking for a way out. Maybe some of these . . . people they should come out and take away and put into the right kind of hospital.
"We need more hospice and elder care. We need to examine the issues related to euthanasia. If we're successful on these issues, we will eliminate half of the gun-related deaths in the country."
While he respects a person's right to end his or her own life, he doesn't want them doing it with guns. It hurts the cause.
Suicides made up more than half of the gun deaths in 1998, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. But people older than 65 accounted for not half, but less than a quarter of them. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, reports that from 1980 to 1994, the suicide rate for teens increased by 29 percent. In households with guns, the suicide rate is five times higher than in those without.
Korwin attributes the bulk of the remainder of firearm deaths to gang crime and the government's war on "some drugs." After elder suicides, he says, "most of the rest are gang-related. The rest are practically too small to be on the radar screen, compared to other unacceptable causes of premature death."
I am incredulous.
"I haven't suggested that there aren't outrageous numbers of deaths in this country, but I think that while the government continues to press a war [on drugs], you're going to have people killed."
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Does that mean Korwin favors legalization of drugs?
"I'm not saying I have remedies. But if someone proposes a remedy that infringes on American citizens' fundamental rights, I'd say find another remedy.
"The fact that we are the linchpin of freedom and democracy for the entire planet is a measure of our greatness."
He's forgotten the grave discourse at the Bill of Rights luncheon, which cast the nation as anything but great.