Gun owners are often asked by friends, and rhetorically by politicians and the media, “How can you stand having a gun in your home?” Sometimes we try to bridge the gap by speaking of our love of hunting or target shooting or of our appreciation of the history and craftsmanship of firearms. But this evades the issue. It is the gun’s purpose as a weapon, as a killing machine, that provokes such questions and that also makes firearms so precious to their owners.

Of the two primal purposes of a gun, hunting may no longer be necessary for survival, but self-defense is increasing in importance. When we defend ourselves we are looking not to kill, but to stop, immediately, the actions of a deadly aggressor. To do so we may have to kill, or threaten to kill. The alternative is submission, and a man who submits to violence may or may not survive; if he does he becomes a victim, one whose fate has been controlled by his aggressor, who may continue to prey on others. A civilized order cannot survive if decent men are resigned to be victims.

Almost as basic as self-defense is the defense of the individual against the state itself. If, in a democracy, power is in the hands of the people, then surely guns, the tools of power, belong there as well. As the bumper sticker puts it, “The Second Amendment ain’t about duck hunting.” Americans have chosen never to be helpless before their own government, and the right to keep and bear arms defines our status as free citizens. If that upsets Janet Reno and the BATF, well, that only hardens our resolve.

The smile that springs to a man’s face when he handles a fine weapon is triggered by the feeling of security and self-determination it imparts, but also by an excitement. In the Timid New World of the nanny state, it is bracing to leave the playpen at times and get ahold of something dangerous, to hear the bang and feel the kick. A man doesn’t want to go through life constantly having sharp objects removed from his reach. That a gun is deadly is part of its attraction, and not, I believe, in any pathological sense. The gun puts great power at one’s command, but at the same time it imposes an absolute and unforgiving discipline on the man who accepts it. Not only must he master the gun, he must master himself. Meeting this challenge is one of the gratifications of gun ownership.

As the ultimate power tool, the gun is an unusually satisfying possession. Its mechanism is complex yet reassuringly comprehensible. It is better made than most personal effects, intended to last a lifetime and to be reliable under almost any condition. To function it requires only ammunition, an unusually durable commodity with an indefinite shelf life. This heirloom quality of the firearm appeals to those of us of the conservative temperament. Many of the tools we use every day pass through our lives like so much Kleenex. Our computers, stereo equipment, and electronic gadgets barely outlast their warranties and then are too obsolete to be worth repairing. A gun is something we can hang on to.

The often symbolic aspect of guns adds to their appeal. A friend purchased an Uzi to protect his home, and in his case I understood the choice. The Uzi is the “Kentucky rifle” of the state of Israel, and as an observant Jew, he felt added security and confidence with this historically important weapon. Clearly, a gun picks up some of the honor or ignominy of the causes it has served. The M-I Garand reminds us of World War II, just as the AK-47 is a more fitting symbol of world communism than the hammer and sickle. The gun also acquires a piece of its owner’s soul through long association and use, especially dramatic use. That’s the mystique of the personal weapons of famous gunmen, such as Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Theodore Roosevelt, Melvin Purvis, John Dillinger, and General Patton. There is a special feeling about father’s hunting rifle or the handgun that has been the family’s bulwark for a generation. As a child I occasionally got into my father’s army trunk and examined the pistol he had brought home from World War II. As a medical officer, he was not issued a weapon but commandeered one from a wounded German. He was glad to have it during the war, and years later the threat of it drove a burglar from our home. He had been in a world war and was prepared, as I saw it, to pick up his weapon again if necessary. Of all his possessions, it is the one I value most.

In recent years, the concern with selfdefense has created a market for military-style semiautomatics, or assault weapons. Military-style semiautomatics have been available on the surplus market since the end of World War II, but the market for them did not explode until the 1970’s with the advent of survivalism. Survivalism is an extreme vision of self-defense, but if you think this attitude is rare, confined to the likes of David Koresh, then you travel in different circles than I do. Many who don’t consider themselves survivalists witness the impotence of authorities in the face of crime and rioting and find that they too require powerful reassurance. As weaponry, these guns range from the excellent to the preposterous, but all convey a deadly seriousness. Their black plastic stocks, pistol-grips, ventilated barrel sleeves, bayonet lugs, and flash hiders flaunt their status as killing machines. These accoutrements are more cosmetic than functional, but they provide the desired look of menace, like war paint. And it is their brazen appearance that makes them an easy target for antigun forces, who assert, “They’re not for hunting or target-shooting; they’re designed only to kill!” Few on my side have the temerity to respond that, yes, indeed, that is their legitimate function.

Along with the handgun, the assault weapon draws the sharpest line between the differing views of gun ownership and raises the most basic questions. Is force a constant in our world? Can we evade it, deny it, rise above it? Are we helpless in the face of it, our safety best entrusted to others, or to fate? Or do we accept the reality of force, master it, and resolve to use it if need be?

Some of us recoil from the gun, thinking, “With this, how easily life can be taken.” Others pick it up and say, “With this, my life will not be taken easily.”