I Was a Teenage Gun Nut

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But things were different in the '80s—assault weapons weren't cool, and hardly anybody actually wanted to own one.

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Eddie Adams/AP Images

Ducking behind a concrete wall, I brushed the hot barrel of the M16 against my ear and yelped in pain. The barrel glowed orange against the black sky. They said you could melt the barrel if you fired on full-auto for too long. One of my buddies saw what I had done and shook his head in disdain. We were a rag-tag squad, in hand-me-down fatigues of every style, festooned with canteens and ammo pouches that smelled like mothballs and surplus store mold. Most of us had barely started shaving, and few of us were old enough to drive.

When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't know anyone who owned an assault weapon. No one I knew had parents who owned military-style rifles; or, if they did, the kids didn't talk about it. There were no pop songs that called out brand names of guns, and, if there was such a thing as a first-person shooter videogame back in 1982, they didn't have it at the bowling alley near my suburban townhouse—the only place my friends and I ever played games more sophisticated than Pong.

Guys I went to high school with got drunk, smoked pot, got in fistfights, crashed cars, got bored, stole things, got girls pregnant, and did all the other stupid stuff boys do today. But they didn't really play with guns, or even talk about guns much. Of course, living in the suburbs of D.C., which at the time was essentially still the Virginia countryside, some of my classmates were hunters; but that was considered too rural to be cool. Far more boys would have known that Edelbrock made carburetors than would have recognized Glock as the brand name of a pistol. If you wanted to mess around with military weapons, or simply geek out about them with like-minded peers, you needed to go out of your way.

Today, kids (especially boys) grow up interacting with gun violence in ways that makes it seem sexy and exciting, and they grow up knowing that it will be easy to acquire real guns like the ones they see in movies and games, legally as soon as they're old enough, or illegally whenever they want. Since the 1980s, firearms manufacturers have reacted to declines in demand for hunting rifles by increasingly focusing their production and marketing on pistols and "assault weapons" (a term gun advocates hate, but which I will use here for lack of a better one). And increasingly hyper-realistic videogames have featured recognizable incarnations of those weapons, sometimes even providing links to the manufacturers' website in a macabre product placement scheme. Along with more gun porn in music, movies, and TV, the combination of weapons marketing and violent videogames has helped to make gun fetishism mainstream within the last few decades. However, it was not that long ago when the idea that a civilian would have a desire to own an assault weapon seemed suspicious, or at the very least, odd.

Being an old guy, I can only speak to current attitudes about guns among young people based on my stint teaching high school, and on what I have read about the topic. But I can attest first-hand to the fact that enthusiasm about tactical weapons was not considered normal when I was a 15-year old.

My road to joining a paramilitary scouting group was tortuous. The short version is that I had been a debauched 13-year-old punk rocker, who had become a 14-year-old "straight-edge" (anti-drugs and drinking) punk, and finally an angry 15-year-old with nationalistic views and an aching desire to blow shit up. This is a simplified version of the 15-year-old me: My parents would tell you that I was a friendly, funny, helpful kid who loved playing with his dog and chopping firewood, and that would be true, too.

But I was dealing with a dangerous combination of testosterone, suburban isolation, and an attitude that made it difficult for me to channel the aggression that a lot of teen boys sublimate in socially acceptable ways. I wasn't great at team sports, and so I decided that sports were stupid. I played guitar and bass, but everybody else at my school that I might have played in a band with liked popular (i.e. stupid) music. I had a weight bench in the basement that I used faithfully, and that helped. If I was lucky enough to catch a ride with an older friend to a punk show in D.C., flailing in the pit went a long way toward bleeding off the unfocused anger. When idle, though, I stewed in hatred toward the TV programming that I endlessly stared at out of boredom, the jocks and rednecks who beat me up for being a punk, the stoners who listened to irrelevant classic rock, the girls who wouldn't have anything to do with me, the grownups who oppressed me, and the posers who tried to be friends with me.

So when one of my classmates, a nerdy reject I tolerated because he liked punk rock and, like me, hated everyone in our school, told me about this group he was in where they got to shoot real assault rifles and machine guns, my interest was piqued.

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Andy Hinds is a stay-at-home dad to twin girls. He's the author of the website Beta Dad and a contributor to DadCentric.  

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