I still remember that special Christmas when I was 10 years old, growing up in my small hometown of Farmington. There, under the Manchin family Christmas tree that year, was what I most wanted -- a .22 single shot rifle.
My very own rifle, at last.
Nobody worried about me shooting my eye out, the way everybody did about Ralphie in that popular holiday movie, A Christmas Story. I may have been only 10 years old, but I already knew how to shoot -- and shoot a real rifle, too.
In fact, it seemed every kid in Farmington could shoot. Probably every kid in West Virginia, too.
But more importantly, before Santa brought that .22 rifle for Christmas, I had also been taught how to handle a firearm responsibly. The rules were few and simple, and they started with this: Safety First.
I followed the rules. So it wasn't long before I got another firearm, a .410 shotgun, and, of course, safety and hunting instructions at the Sportsmen's Club in Farmington.
Just like America itself, I grew up with guns. It was impossible for me to read American history without smelling the gunpowder, from Daniel Boone to D-Day.
Over the years, I added three more shotguns to my collection of firearms. And eventually, it came time for me to proudly present a shotgun to my own grandson -- a ritual that I know is repeated in countless families in West Virginia and all across America.
I am a proud gun owner and a staunch defender of the Constitution's Second Amendment guarantee that Americans have the right to bear arms -- for hunting, for sport and for the defense of themselves, their families and their country, just as Americans have throughout our country's history.
For too long now, however, the debate over guns has divided Americans in ways that at times has seemed almost impossible to resolve.
But the tragic deaths of 20 first-graders and six educators last December in Newtown, Connecticut, broke America's heart and changed this country in a profound and permanent way. And I, for one, could not sit by, in good conscience, and not do all I could to make sure a tragedy like Newtown never happened again.
What I've done is to present the Senate with bipartisan legislation that fixes the background check system that is already in place so that gun show sales are treated the same as gun shop sales. The idea is to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and the violently mentally ill.
It's just using common sense to keep people safe and, possibly, save lives.
I've included special exceptions for private sales and gifts of guns among relatives and friends. I've made sure veterans aren't forever banned from owning guns just because the VA says they are ill. And I've made it clear that background records will not be used to compile a national registry of gun owners. Anybody who tries to create a registry can go to prison for 15 years.
My legislation will not bring back the innocent children of Newtown or any other victim of mass violence in our country. I wish to God it would.
It will help keep guns out of dangerous hands, and, at the same time, protect law-abiding, responsible gun owners. We can -- and we must -- find common ground, for the sake of our Constitution and the safety of our children.