Joseph Castillo and I met in the fall of 1976 as first year students at Yale University. He was from the southwest, I was from the Northeast; he was a science major, and I was an English major. Joe became an engineer and entrepreneur and I became a history professor, he is politically right of center, and I am politically left of center; he is a gun owner and I am not.
Joe lives and works in Texas, an open carry state, and I live and work in New York City, which has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. Below is a conversation that began on February 14 2018, after seventeen students and teachers were killed at a Parkland, Florida high school, by a former student armed with an AR-15.
Claire: I’m not sure how I would describe myself politically anymore, but my views on guns reflect the policy ideas of the liberal wing of the Democratic party. I am not an abolitionist: I understand why responsible people want and need guns for hunting and sport, but I would like to see guns intended to kill people — handguns, automatic and semi-automatic weapons — restricted to the military and the police.
Joe, how do your views on guns relate — or not relate — to your larger political convictions?
Joe: I am a Republican voter, although I had a soft spot for Bernie Sanders: he believed what he said and said what he believed. I also had an initial soft spot for Barack Obama because I thought he was going to be a uniter and would govern from the center. Generally, I believe less government and less regulation is better for citizens. I think taxes are too high, government is too big, and our overall system is very wasteful and inefficient. I am not an avid hunter, and I don’t belong to the NRA. So my views are probably to the left of your typical National Rifle Association member.
I do enjoy the mechanics of rifle and handgun marksmanship as a hobby. I own a variety of weapons including revolvers, semi-auto pistols, hunting rifles, AR-15s, and shotguns. I pray that I will never have to use any of my weapons to defend myself or my family, but I am prepared to do that if necessary. I believe that American citizens have the right to responsible gun ownership in this country, and that those rights should not be infringed upon. Someone asked me why I would want to own an AR-15 since it is truly a weapon of mass destruction. My response was that it is only a weapon of mass destruction in the hands of a deranged person intent on committing mass murder.
I am horrified by the rise of mass shootings in our country. As a society, we have to find a practical way to correct this now chronic problem. Based on the FBI’s definition of mass murder, there have been six mass shootings in the US this year; another source, The Gun Violence Archive, counts 30. Either statistic is unacceptable.
Claire: I don’t own guns, although I partly grew up around them. My friends in Idaho hunted with their parents: it was a bonding experience, and a deer was often necessary to a family economy. Yet, handgun ownership was rarer, and no one talked about needing weapons for self-defense. Our neighbors took care of their guns, paid attention to safety, and never treated them like toys. I never knew anyone who would have kept a gun loaded or unsecured. Locking guns up isn’t a guarantee, of course: the Parkland shooter’s weapons were in a gun safe that the people he lived with insisted on, but he had a duplicate key they were unaware of.
But it isn’t just that we can now obtain powerful weapons of war in Walmart, but also that they are being marketed and purchased by some people both as entertainment and as a domestic necessity. Does that make sense?
Joe: Yes, your sentiments do make sense on a certain level. Growing up, my exposure to guns was like yours: guns owned by friends and family were rifles or shotguns used for hunting. In Boy Scouts, I had to take a “Rifle and Shotgun Safety” course to earn my Marksmanship Merit Badge. Safety and responsibility were key attributes of being given the privilege of owning and operating a rifle or shotgun. Using guns for self-defense was really not considered.
The culture has certainly changed. Over the course of my life, I have seen Christian values chased out of our schools, courts, government, films, and everyday life. The division between right and wrong has become blurred. Free speech means that anything goes. Language that is used by young people today would have gotten me a belt strap on my backside and a mind-numbing lecture. And it was not beyond my parents to ask me what I was up to on a daily basis. Access to pornography and graphic violence has increased to levels that were unimaginable during my youth. I do recall that I arrived at Yale as a good Catholic kid and left there as an atheist. In my sophomore year, upon the realization that God was an invention of Man, I realized that, if there was no God, then there were no rules. All that mattered was what I wanted, and so my behavior adjusted accordingly. Thankfully, I have returned to the religion of my youth and have observed plenty of evidence for the existence of a loving God.
I also think that the growth of fear and uncertainty played a role in advancing gun culture too. Americans now purchase approximately 1.2 million AR-15 style rifles per year at an average cost of $800 per rifle, and the sale of military style weapons is clearly big business. And the marketing of these weapons is largely based on annual technology and capability advances: a weapon purchased five years ago is as outdated as a laptop purchased five years ago. But unlike laptops, that find their way to the landfill, old weapons simply become a part of peoples’ arsenals. I am told that there are as many as 357 million weapons owned by American citizens today. These collections become legacy collections, passed on from parents to children.
So, while the hunting culture of my youth evolved into a different gun culture today, gun ownership has become more embedded in our society tool.
Claire: Let’s presume some people need to be armed — for example, in New York City, we probably have some of the strictest gun laws in the country, but people who can demonstrate a security need can get a permit. However, the restrictions on permits may have something to do with the fact that, while other terrible things happen, we don’t have mass shootings in our schools. Last year a kid stabbed another kid to death and wounded several others in a Bronx school, which was a horrible and preventable tragedy. But he wasn’t able to bring a semi-automatic and a knapsack full of ammo to school and take out a dozen other people. We also know that mass shootings are almost unheard of in countries with strict gun control, like Britain or Australia.
No one on the right or the left wants to say it, but every one of these shootings demonstrates that background checks are about as effective as the bureaucracies that administer them, and the bureaucracies are clearly quite inefficient. You sent me this article from the National Review which advocates for gun violence restraining orders (GVROs) which would allow “a spouse, parent, sibling, or person living with a troubled individual to petition a court for an order enabling law enforcement to temporarily take that individual’s gun rights away.” That’s another tool. But it still seems to me unrealistic that mass-marketed weapons are not going to fall into the hands of troubled people.
Joe: Background checks and waiting periods are valuable. They prevent those with a criminal record from purchasing weapons. But a deranged person with no criminal record can obviously pass a background check. The latest Florida shooter had no criminal record, passed the background check, and had legally purchased his weapon.
Then you have the shooters that obtain their weapons from sources other than the local gun shop or Walmart. The Sandy Hook shooter killed his mother, and then used her legally obtained weapons to commit his carnage at the school. The only effective way to restrict weapons purposed for killing humans is to remove them from the equation altogether. But this is not going to happen in America any time soon: this is a fundamental disagreement between the left and the right.
Claire: And it’s one that cuts across party lines: pro-gun Democrats are a significant voting bloc.
Joe: Correct. Nonetheless, there has to be a simple step that could be added to the process for acquiring a semi-auto weapon that would deprive a potential mass shooter of his weapon(s). Politically, as long as the Left demands a ban on gun ownership altogether, and as long as the Right refuses gun regulation altogether, imagining that next step will be very difficult. But I think this latest mass-shooting case in Florida might provide us with some insight for how to move forward with ways to prevent future tragedies. Why? Because it was almost prevented.
Claire: And the guy is alive. We know very little about most of these shooters because they are so frequently killed by police or take their own lives.
Joe: Right. The shooter acted in a manner consistent with other mass-shooters. He was on the risk radar screen of teachers and administrators, neighbors, acquaintances, and the FBI. He was on several of these radar screens before he purchased his weapon. I really do believe that the gun store that sold him his AR-15 would like to turn back the clock: had they only known this kid’s profile they would not have made the sale. Perhaps state red-flag laws, would provide teachers, parents, administrators, and other social services a method for making sure that at-risk persons do not obtain weapons.
Claire: Being expelled could be one of those flags. I also agree with you about how difficult politically absolutist positions are when it comes to imagining, and acting on, the next policy step. This op-ed in The New York Times by Bret Stephens unhelpfully suggests that we repeal the Second Amendment which, even if it hadn’t become a symbol if individual liberty to many on the right, strikes me as harebrained in a country where we can’t even seem to pass a national budget. On the other hand, Stephens also cites a Washington Post study that suggests the National Rifle Association isn’t as influential as people think. Since 1998 the NRA has invested less than $4 million in the current Congress (Goldman Sachs has invested almost $6 million in both parties since 2016), although they spent more than that in a single ad for Donald Trump. Stephens writes: “The N.R.A. doesn’t need to buy influence: It’s powerful because it’s popular.”
The NRA also promotes gun safety, so I wonder whether, if we who wanted gun control focused on that, would it be a powerful middle ground? No one wants to lose a kid to gun violence.
Despite NRA safety programs aimed at youth, guns seem chronically unsafe when in the hands of young people. We have had approximately one school shooting a week since 2013, which includes kids committing suicide on school grounds with an unsecured gun found at home. If you look at this map produced by Everytown, a gun safety organization, we see a concentration in southern states and in Florida where weapons are easy to buy and little or no training is required. Florida, for example, has very weak gun laws: you don’t have to have a permit or a license, and you aren’t required to register a weapon. School shootings, while they are shocking and tragic, are also not the only metric: Alaska, which has the second weakest gun laws in the United States, had no school shootings in the past five years. but has the highest rate of gun violence in the nation, while more guns subsequently used in crimes are trafficked from Alaska than from any other state.
Clearly who has the gun matters, and whether guns are properly secured matters: state laws are perhaps a more effective place to focus our efforts. My ideal legislation package would allow insurers to set standards for securing guns in the home; require licensing and as much training as anyone must have to drive a car; reporting ammunition purchases larger than a set amount that is the threshold for recreational use; and restrictions on automatic weapons and enhancements like bump stocks. I’m also intrigued by this article you sent me about credit card companies considering the option of withdrawing their services from firearms merchants, which PayPal has already done, to the great displeasure if its founder, Peter Thiel.
Joe: Regarding the Stephens op-ed, I understand his sentiment. But repeal of the 2nd Amendment is simply never going to happen in my opinion. But I also agree that background checks are currently as effective, or ineffective, as the agencies that do them. The CNN trailer in the article you shared about weak gun laws also documented the holes and breaks in communication between different government branches (city, state, and federal) that make background checks unreliable. These dysfunctional communication links and disconnected databases create the gaps through which mass shooters can slip and legally purchase weapons.
Joe: Surely, this is an area of political common ground that both sides can come together on and fix: Stephens pointed this out. His other point is worth repeating: the NRA itself does not “own” very many politicians. Having donated less than $3.6 million to members of Congress since 1998, they are low tier lobbyists. The wizard behind the curtain is the gun manufacturers.
But a bill that legislates a timetable and funding to complete and connect databases on citizens’ criminal and arrest records would close some of these unnecessary gaps. Why not also require that doctors and psychiatrists prescribing psychiatric drugs submit the names, addresses, SSNs, and psychiatric drug prescriptions of their patients to a national database that law enforcement agencies would have access to? I believe one of the commonalities of mass shooters is that they are typically being treated, and medicated, for a psychiatric condition. I would not be opposed to restricting the sale of semi-auto weapons to people being treated for certain psychiatric conditions. We try to prevent blind people from driving. We should try to prevent people being treated for certain psychiatric conditions from purchasing semi-auto weapons.
Claire: This is going to be slightly more controversial because of medical privacy laws — I also worry that people who ought to be being treated for emotional disabilities would avoid seeking help because they fear losing their guns. Ohio may be leading the way by prohibiting medical marijuana users from owning guns, but I think their reasoning is not that they are intoxicated, but that technically they are federal felons.
Joe: That leads to another challenge: as doors to gun purchases close, self-styled commandos will find windows to go through. If you can’t buy a gun and ammo legally, then what are the next options? You can do an illegal person-to-person transaction. You can break into someone’s home or vehicle and steal a gun. You can get your friend to loan. You can kill your mother and steal hers.
I agree with you that many of the requirements we place on people owning and driving a vehicle should be extended to people owning and carrying firearms. It seems like it should be common sense. To drive a car you must take a course and pass a test, both written and operational. You must have insurance. And your insurance requires you to secure your vehicle.
Texas does a pretty good job of this when assigning concealed carry permits. The safety course for the concealed carry license emphasizes gun safety, weapon security, and de-escalation. But really, Claire, I think this also places additional burdens on people wanting to legally own and carry firearms. When the average citizen who has a gun in his or her vehicle is asked to produce a gun permit, many Texans will pull out a small copy of the Constitution. These people are not the problem, and going after them is not productive. Does this really do anything to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of the mass shooter?
Claire: Probably not, although common sense gun handling would prevent tragic domestic accidents, and kids taking an unsecured handgun to school.
Joe: Sure. And many kids aren’t mature enough to have a powerful weapon. In a recent New York Times op-ed, No Country for Young Men with AR-15s, Ross Douthat (he is probably not appreciated by the left as much as he is appreciated on the right) offers another good suggestion. Making purchases of weapons a staged progression, as a function of age versus weapon lethality, would keep the age group that is most responsible for historic mass shootings from owning the most deadly weapons. Is it adequate? I don’t know, but it should be considered. Remember, we are trying to find common ground.
Claire: And not doing anything isn’t an option, so we need to consider partial solutions.
Joe: What other partial solutions might disrupt violence? The grandmother in this Seattle who had a suspicion that her grandson was troubled, and she did what most parents today are afraid to do. She searched his belongings, discovering a weapon and plans for mass murder. She made the difficult decision of calling the police, thereby averting another terrible tragedy. Contrast that with the Parkland shooter’s mother, now deceased, who permitted her son to purchase an AR-15 despite the fact that he had been expelled from school for violent behavior.
The teachers and administrators at Parkland did no better. They expelled him, and took no steps to raise a flag. This tragedy could have been also averted. The “red-flag laws” that I mentioned in a comment above, would enable people to actually do something about thwarting an at-risk person from committing mass murder. Although the NRA doesn’t support these type of laws, I believe that most conservative gun owners would.
Claire: They certainly fit a conservative ethic that people need to take responsibility for themselves, for their families, and for their communities. Liberals also often stress that with rights come responsibilities. Freedom of speech doesn’t mean that you can say anything that you want: you can’t defame people, you can’t lie, and you can’t endanger people by saying things that cause them to panic.
Joe: It is also rarely stressed that most NRA members support background checks for obtaining semi-automatic weapons.
Claire: I didn’t know that. What about some of the cultural issues we were talking about earlier? Mass culture seems to be becoming more and more violent. I teach The Matrix, a 1999 movie that has a video-game like shoot-up at the end that is said to have inspired the Columbine killers.
Joe: As a free society, we have allowed electronic gaming to progress to levels of violence unimaginable when you and I were growing up. This is a another commonality of mass shooters. Most mass shooters have spent hundreds of hours playing video games, where they dole out virtual death and destruction: check out this video about the Top Ten most violent games. I’m not sure how my own brain would function after spending hours shooting and killing people in simulated violent video games. We talk about repealing the 2nd amendment– perhaps we should start with the 1st amendment, or at least some interpretations of it. There is little doubt in my mind that marginalized kids playing hours of violent video games become desensitized to death and violence to the extent that they lose empathy for fellow humans.
As a society, we should be talking about reversing this trend.
Claire: Another thing we agree on. Maybe we should run for office! Joe, thanks for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
Joe Castillo is an oil and gas entrepreneur, a father of four, grandfather of seven, a gun owner, a conservative and a self-described “poor excuse for a Christian.” He lives in Midland, Texas.
Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.