I was at the National Rifle Association's gun range in Northern Virginia the other day, shooting an AR-15 "assault rifle." It's eerie to hold at first, as if the gun were not merely the same kind used in several recent mass killings but the same one. And when you hear the blast from that supersonic .223-caliber bullet, the thought that someone would use such a weapon on elementary school children makes you want to put it down.
Ban it. Take it away. Beat it into a plowshare. For a moment, the proposal by gun-control advocates to outlaw the rifle actually seemed to make sense. It was the relief that accompanies any quick fix to a vexing problem. Doing something is better than doing nothing, President Barack Obama says.
Except that blaming the gun really is doing nothing. The more I fired the AR-15, the harder it was to pretend that any gun was somehow more dangerous than the person holding it.
Who would use a weapon to kill and why? Those ought to be the most pressing questions in the gun debate, not which weapon they use. There are too many to choose from. And no gun-law magic act will make any of them disappear.
I don't particularly like the AR-15, although it is one of the most popular rifles in the country. Three million have been sold, according to an NRA researcher. But to define it as an assault rifle because of how it looks - with a pistol grip, adjustable stock, flash suppressor and "high-capacity" magazine - is silly.
You want to see a dangerous-looking gun, look at the one Obama was photographed skeet shooting with last summer at Camp David last summer. That shotgun of his was big enough to take down a woolly mammoth. When I pulled the trigger on the AR-15, one high-powered round came out. Maybe I hit something; maybe I didn't. Obama can't miss. He could clear a room with one double-barreled blast.
Why ban one and not the other? And once you start banning semiautomatics, where do you stop?
If gun-control advocates were truly serious and not just well meaning, they'd be focusing a lot more on education and mental health. For instance, everybody knows that our children are being adversely affected by violent video games. So why aren't schools deconstructing video games as part of the curriculum, explaining to students how the military uses these same war games to condition troops to kill without remorse?
Show students, frame by frame, how they are being gamed by the gamers and how profits are made by making them mentally ill.
This is not to give my fellow gun owners a free ride. If gun-control advocates lack imagination, some of the solutions to gun violence offered by the gun lobby strike me as unrealistic.
Arming teachers? George Lyon, with whom I enjoy target shooting and who owns that AR-15, thinks that's the way to go, along with much of the country, according to recent polls.
Lyon, a Washington resident and lawyer, was part of a legal fight against gun control that resulted in the Supreme Court loosening gun laws in Washington. Now he wants the D.C. Council to consider a proposal for protecting the city's public schools:
"On a voluntary basis, school staff would undergo training designed and supervised by the Metropolitan Police Department and be sworn in as DC Reserve Police Officers," the plan reads. The job of these "School Shield Officers," as they are called, would be to "serve as the last line of defense against a lethal threat to innocent students, pending the arrival of responding officers."
To get some idea about the shooting skills that a shield officer would need, Lyon set up a "hostage rescue" exercise for me to try: I would use several kinds of guns - including the AR-15 - to shoot a paper target where the bad guy's head was partially visible behind a "hostage."
At just 20 feet away, muscles in the hand tighten. Just the idea of having to make a sure shot - on a stationary piece of paper, no less - causes the nerves to twitch. No amount of training could prepare a "volunteer" to make that shot in real life.
Keep your guns, folks; but keep them out of the schools. Let that be the place where students learn not to need one.
Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist.