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Of Belly Putters and Assault Rifles

Recently, golf’s two governing bodies, the USGA and the Scotland-based R&A, proposed a rule change that would prohibit the use of anchored—or belly—putters. Their rationale is that by anchoring the butt of the club against part of the body, a player gains more control and therefore an unfair advantage.

It’s hard to imagine that the advantage could be so great since relatively few people use these putters. Tiger Woods doesn’t like them and you hardly ever see them employed by casual players. The golfing community seems to be coalescing around the idea that there’s something wrong about these ungainly putters, and that they shouldn’t be part of the game.

I wonder why a similar (although much stronger) distaste for assault rifles hasn’t taken hold among civilians who use guns for work or sport. Nancy Lanza, the first victim in the Newtown massacre, took up target shooting as a hobby about three years ago, according to reports. But she didn’t pursue her new interest with the right equipment—the long-barreled, small-caliber rifles and handguns we see in the Olympics. Instead, she chose Glock and Sig Sauer handguns of the kind favored by law enforcement for their “stopping power,” and a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, which is similar to the military’s M-16. The Bushmaster features a lug for attaching a bayonet and a barrel that can be outfitted with a grenade launcher.

Why do civilian hobbyists choose to shoot targets with high-powered assault rifles specifically designed to kill scores of people on the field of battle? Why don’t their fellow target shooters see how harmful this practice can be to public safety and the reputation of their sport? In other words, why aren’t target shooters packing AF-15’s laughed off the range by their peers and derided as commando wannabes with adolescent Rambo fetishes?

Golf may be persnickety about its rules, but all sports and pastimes have behavioral norms. Backpackers learn to leave the woods in a more pristine state than when they entered them. Anglers eat their catch or throw it back. Can’t we expect gun enthusiasts to carefully select the right tool for the job and to leave combat weapons to soldiers?

News reports suggest that Nancy Lanza may have thought war could come at any moment, and that possibility may have been reason enough for her to buy an assault rifle. But is it reason enough for her fellow gun owners? If I am any guide, unarmed citizens increasingly look at those who purchase or trade in assault rifles, expanding bullets and high-capacity magazines as aiding and abetting mass murder.

Possession of some armaments should be reserved for the military. Protecting you and yours isn’t adequate justification for an AR-15, no matter the law. There are plenty of other firearms suitable for robust self-defense.

I don’t wish to make pariahs of gun owners, but hope they will marginalize the most extreme members of their group, much as golfers are showing belly putters the door.

Walter Verfenstein lives in Port Washington.