As a kid growing up in Manhattan, there was nothing I wanted more than a BB gun -- the same one 9-year-old Ralphie pined for in "A Christmas Story": The Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle -- but I couldn't get one. It wasn't just the city's gun laws I had to contend with. It was my father.
He's a combat veteran -- a decorated combat veteran -- and there would be no guns in our home. It didn't matter that a good half of the 45 cousins on my mother's side lived in "the country" and had rifles, or that several aunts and uncles were accomplished hunters. Any gun I had would be limited to the cap variety.
My father fought in the 10th Mountain Division in Italy during World War II, which suffered some of the highest casualty rates in the European theater. At 89, he's the last survivor of his mortar company (85th Infantry, Company M), and after being wounded twice by Nazi artillery and seeing the horrors of what guns did to his friends and enemies in the Po Valley in winter and spring of 1945, he had seen enough of guns. (The last firearm my father handled was an Italian Beretta pistol stripped from a German officer. He traded it for something he could actually use as a returning junior at Notre Dame -- a cashmere sports jacket that he still talks about.)
In time, my father's sensibilities on firearms wore off on my siblings and me -- or so I thought, although I did manage to take a shooting lesson or two some years back.
Shortly after moving out of the city in 2007, I heard words I never expected, and from the unlikeliest source -- my wife. "I really think you should teach the girls how to shoot," she said.
It didn't have to be suggested twice. Within 24 hours, I found myself at a local gun shop looking up at an arsenal on a wall.
These were not the beautiful polished rifles I had seen hanging in the gun room of my grandparent's house as a child. These looked like prop pieces for the filming of "Rambo, Part Nine." I purchased two of the more modest rifles available.
If the gun shop was unsettling, the range was downright unnerving. The look of the weapons being fired there was menacing in the extreme. The vast majority, regardless of caliber, were modeled to look like military weapons. I felt embarrassed to be there. There is something deeply juvenile about suburban men and women playing soldier.
None were fully automatic rifles, mind you. Civilians cannot own those in the United States; only law enforcement officers can. But these single-shot and semiautomatic weapons were made to look like people killers, not sportsmen rifles. And to me, there's a big difference there.
The NRA correctly argues that changes being proposed to U.S. gun laws would be largely cosmetic. A rifle without a pistol grip or a flash suppressor is still a rifle, and two 10-shot ammunition clips pack as much firepower as a 20-round magazine, although the seconds it takes to swap out a clip could be lifesaving ones. I would argue, though, that cosmetic changes are exactly what is needed in U.S. gun culture.
Look at Bushmaster AR-15 sales following the Newtown massacre. That's the weapon Adam Lanza used to slaughter two classrooms full of first graders. It sold out across America within days of the shooting.
There's something deeply disturbing about that. Who on Earth would want to touch, much less own, the weapon that did that? And yet thousands of Americans apparently do.
That's something that needs to be addressed.
I am a libertarian-leaning Republican. I get the arguments the gun lobby is making -- the right to bear arms and the whole slippery slope argument. But I am my father's son first, I suppose, and I just can't understand American gun culture today.
Maybe it's not new laws that we need. Maybe we all just need to grow up a little.
William F. B. O'Reilly is a Newsday columnist and a Republican political consultant.