As a child, the author fired rounds with his father and believed owning weapons made people safer. Here's what changed his mind.
I grew up with guns around the house. Firearms were an integral part of everyday life, as commonplace as bicycles and silverware. I always expected to hand my guns down to my children, a generational rite of passage among the men in my family. But I can no longer ignore the obvious: The conditions that once allowed owning a gun to become a rite of passage for American men have changed.
My dad was a champion marksman and gun collector, and I was a 6 year-old boy version of Saoirse Ronan's reindeer-hunting Finnish girl in last year's movie Hanna. By the time I entered fourth grade, I knew how to field strip, clean, and reassemble several types of revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles. I knew wadcutters from hollow points. I knew how to ease my breath and relax my trigger pull for a better shot.
As a kid, I associated guns with safety, the right to live in your own home without being afraid.
One of my earliest memories is of the gun range. I was five, maybe six, as my dad drove our family there in our potato-brown Volkswagen Rabbit. It was very early in the morning and bitter cold inside. When my dad handed me his revolver, I turned to face him and he exploded at me. Never point a gun at anyone! Always point the gun at the target! That instruction would eventually evolve into never pointing a gun at anyone whom I didn't intend to kill.
To a kid, a gun range is an inhospitable place. Imagine a giant concrete room, lit by a few lonely bulbs, the floor littered with brass shell casings. You can't see the other shooters behind the booth's sidewalls, so each gunshot catches you by surprise. You can feel the physical force of the shots through the displaced air. The recoil can cause the gun to leap up and back with each shot. If it's a semi-automatic, the spent shells eject from the chamber smoking hot, sometimes shocking you with a quick sizzle if they hit your hands or face.
The cumulative effect is an unrelenting jumpiness that must be overcome in order to hit the target, a twitchiness that remains even after you're driving home in the now-surreal sunlight. The not unpleasant tang of gunpowder stays in your nostrils.
When we got home, my dad would immediately set out cloths, solvents, and gun oil. Like samurai, we laid out each weapon, checking to see if it was loaded and then taking it apart step by step. We'd wipe the powder residue from the firing pins and the cylinders. We'd push solvent-soaked cotton squares through the barrels till we could see the tiny spiral grooves inside, then used an oil-soaked square to set the surface reflective and perfect.
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Piece by piece, we'd reassemble each weapon, the parts joining with delicious metallic clicks and ka-chaks, the satisfying sounds you hear in movies when someone pulls back the slide on a pistol to rack a new bullet. The object-oriented and tinkering part of the male experience was deeply pleasing. After firing these weapons, their awe-inspiring power could now be appreciated on a different level.
As a kid, I associated guns with safety, the right to live in your own home without being afraid. It was ingrained in me early that outsiders were not to be trusted. We had a fallout shelter beneath the house, a Blair Witch hideout rank with musty smells and walls lined with canned food and mason jars. My dad jerry-rigged a wood panel with a holster so he could hide one of his revolvers under the bed ruffle by his dangling hand, loaded with five bullets so the firing pin rested on an empty chamber. (If the gun was dropped, this meant the pin wouldn't accidentally fire a bullet. Gun safety, you see.)
I became an adult who felt uncomfortable in a domicile that didn't have a weapon in it. I imagined the horror stories from the NRA's magazine, The American Rifleman - stories culled from the pages of newspapers of home intruders, usually, foiled with the help of a firearm - and wished for a gun of my own. When I finally got one, at 20, I was able to sleep soundly. When I heard creaks or strange noises in the Chicago house that I rented with a handful of roommates, I wasn't afraid. I felt empowered and in control.
At first, I found it difficult to reconcile all of that with this country's increasing numbers of violent murders. There was the Virginia Tech shooter. And the woman who was denied tenure and blasted several of her colleagues at the University of Alabama. The Columbine killers, of course. The D.C. sniper. The Fort Hood killer. The term "going postal," a reference to a rash of postmen and office workers who shot up their workplaces in the '80s and '90s.
Never mind the drive-bys, the accidental homicides, the random schoolchildren hit by stray gunfire. The statistics began to speak for themselves: Every year there are 30,000 gun deaths and 300,000 gun-related assaults in the U.S. As PBS's Bill Moyers points out in an excellent commentary, far more Americans have been casualties of domestic gunfire than have died in all our wars combined.
Several years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were mugged on the street by an assailant with a gun one block away from a local police station and two blocks away from my home. Despite having only $10 to give him, he graciously opted not to shoot us with the black 9mm he was brandishing in our faces. He was never caught. Conceal-and-carry proponents would have you believe that a secreted snubnose would have changed that outcome. That blithe action-movie attitude ignores the fact that I'd have spent the rest of my life haunted by the memory of the stranger I'd killed over $10. (Then again, Bernhard Goetz, who shot four muggers on the New York subway, was immortalized in a variety of hip-hop songs, so there might have been the rap game to look forward to.)
Whenever America experiences a gun massacre, the media wrings its hands and calls for modest restrictions on firearms. The NRA hits a defensive crouch. And hordes of Second Amendment absolutists emerge from the blogosphere with the certainty of zealots in the desert and the shaky knowledge of junior high kids in a summer civics class.
But the sad fact is that American society can no longer handle the responsibility of private gun ownership. We've lost whatever internal gyroscopes enabled us to monitor ourselves and our conduct. We need stronger legal controls on gun ownership, including not only background checks but mental fitness exams and mandatory training. There should be at least as much required to own a gun as there is to obtain a driver's license. Instead, even people on the government's terrorist watch list are legally able to purchase firearms.
There are obvious reasons that firearms in the hands of civilians make less and less sense: denser populations; higher powered weaponry; ever-looser regulation that prevents weapons from being effectively tracked from owner to owner, better enabling sales to criminals. But just as important is the dissolution of the social mores that once corralled the behavior of civilian gun-owners: the knowledge of one's neighbors; a sense of participation in a community; respect for others, even if their political views didn't align with your own.
Even my dad, of the fallout shelter and the loaded pistol under the bed ruffle, would've viewed someone who owned a semi-automatic assault rifle as dangerously antisocial. You don't shoot paper targets or hunt with an AK-47 or AR-15 with a drum magazine. There's simply no appropriate place for that kind of firepower in civilian society and no justifiable reason for owning such a device.
We're living in the time of conceal-and-carry permits, of "stand your ground" laws that put the onus on the dead, not the shooters, to justify their intentions. The NRA has called for guns to be allowed in bars, in churches, in schools. Such proposals would create a paranoid, jumpy free-for-all far deadlier than anything in the Wild West.
My father often flew into a fury at home, but I remember him losing it badly in public only once. He carried a blackjack in the car, nestled in the hollow behind the gearshift -- it was a thick leather strip with a heavy weight sewn into one end. I'd play with it when we were driving, slapping it against my palm until it hurt, usually about two or three strikes.
One day, my dad got angry at the driver behind us, yelling out the window at top-volume. The light was green when we suddenly came to a stop in the left-hand turn lane. My dad grabbed the blackjack and swooped out of the car. I was afraid to look back, keeping my gaze fixed on the dust motes on the dashboard. As far as I know, he had no physical contact with the person in the car behind us. He came back and slammed the door, glaring into the rearview mirror as the traffic light went through another cycle. Then we drove off.
Would he have behaved the same way in Florida in 2012? Might the man in the car behind us have "stood his ground" and shot my dad dead in the street? It's impossible to know.
We see gun violence - Columbine, gang shootings, this Holmes guy in a movie theatre -- and we buy the rhetoric that we need to defend ourselves - with more guns, of course. We stock up on ammo, get the conceal-and-carry permit, and we complete the process of fulfilling our fears (not our hopes). In other words, we become part of the problem. And now we're standing, guns drawn at ourselves, poised in a standoff that is all too American.
My father died in 1997, and I think of the guns he passed on to me as family heirlooms. Yet I feel a pang when I imagine what guns might do to my own children, what movie they might be watching when a troubled loner descends on them. Two years before I was born, my dad's first wife drove out to a prairie and took her own life with one of his revolvers. In his private moments, I wonder if my father thought about the way the pieces fit together.