Editor's note: The following is an opinion piece. The writer is not employed by Military Times and the views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of Military Times or its editorial staff.
"I'll be damned if the government takes away my Second Amendment right to protect my family."
My friend, a fellow veteran, shared this opinion with me, one that I had heard many times during my five years in the Marine Corps. I truly sympathize with him. I understand why many people are skeptical about President Obama's Jan. 1 announcement that he will bypass Congress in enacting stricter gun laws. Many military veterans, myself included, feel a need to protect those around them. As crazy as it seems, I think all of us secretly wish we could have been there and done something during the attack in San Bernardino, California, on Dec. 2.
But I have always been perplexed by the knee-jerk opposition of some veterans to any mention of gun control. After all, the military's standards for weapons safety are exceptionally high. Marine recruits train for weeks before ever firing a weapon, and must pass a fairly extensive background check before reporting to boot camp. I remember drilling constantly with my empty rifle in those first weeks of training. We learned everything about our weapons: how to assemble and disassemble them, the name of every part, how to clear, load and fire. We spent hours contorting our bodies into the most uncomfortable of shooting positions, aiming at practice targets. It is not until the seventh week of training that Marine recruits fire live rounds.
Weapons safety is drilled into all Marines repeatedly throughout their service, starting in boot camp. Drill instructors make recruits pay dearly for every mistake. They are constantly on the prowl for recruits who leave their gun's safety mechanism off or has their finger lazily on the trigger. The training is rigorous and stressful, but rightfully so.
Marines emerge from this kind of training with weapons proficiency and a deep respect for their deadly tools. They become very comfortable handling guns, and after leaving active duty many veterans choose to legally purchase guns for hunting, recreation or out of a desire to protect those around them.
But I have found that some of the same people who accept nothing less than perfect weapons handling from their fellow Marines have much lower standards for weapons safety in the civilian world. It seemed contradictory to me. Why did I have to go through such intense training and background clearance, when in some places you don't even need a background check to buy a gun?
While I am concerned that America's current gun laws are too relaxed, this does not mean that I oppose gun ownership. I believe that most gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens. I grew up in Utah — a state known for permissive gun laws — and I have always enjoyed shooting as a hobby. I have taken my younger sisters and my girlfriend to shooting ranges, and I taught them how to safely handle a gun the way the Marine Corps taught me. I do not believe that citizens who pass reasonable background checks and meet eligibility requirements should be prevented from owning guns.
But I must question the yield-no-ground attitude toward gun control that I have heard from many of my friends. Of course, we will never be able to prevent every gun crime or mass shooting, and criminals will always be able to obtain guns illegally. However, responsible gun owners should want to make it more difficult, not easier, for criminals and terrorists to obtain these weapons. Further restrictions on gun ownership would not prevent law-abiding citizens from owning guns. Extensive background checks on gun purchases should be common sense, as should training requirements for concealed carry permits.
Most of us agree that we have a gun violence problem in the United States. There is no simple answer to this problem, and we cannot afford to pretend it is only a mental health issue, just as we cannot pretend it is only a gun law issue. But we can start by making it more difficult for criminals to obtain guns by requiring background checks on all gun purchases. We should be willing to at least consider other forms of gun control, such as prohibitions on military-grade assault rifles, like those used in San Bernardino. I support my friends in their desire to protect themselves and their loved ones, but I do not trust every person in America to own a gun. Veterans — with their weapons experience and training — have a responsibility to lead the fight for more secure gun laws.
Former Sgt. Matthew Hess served in the Marine Corps from 2009-2015 and is now a freshman at Columbia University in New York City.