Growing Up With Guns

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As we start to wind down this series, here are five great snapshots from readers raised in families with a strong hunting culture. For our first reader, guns were a necessity:

I only ever knew guns to be for hunting. Nobody in my family ever touched a gun except my father when he hunted. We ate tons of game when I was little because we were poor. I picked a lot of buckshot out of my food, but the gun was a tool to feed us—not a weapon of harm. Once we got rich enough to raise livestock to butcher, the gun was left to rust.

Another reader also got food through guns:

We lived in southwestern Colorado my first six years of life (1949-1955). My father had a double-barrel shotgun, and a single-barrel one, a .22 rifle, and a “deer rifle.” We ate more venison than beef and almost as much pheasant as chicken. He prided himself on using the .22 to shoot the head off a pheasant because he couldn’t abide biting down on buckshot. I never saw him do any target practice. Bullets cost too much, I think.

I never knew where he kept those guns; I never touched one that he didn’t offer. We only saw them when he cleaned them or packed them to go hunting. He let my older sister and me shoot one of them to feel the kick and power and hear the loudness.

After we moved to a town in Texas and my father took a job as a mechanic, he didn’t have to hunt meat; we could afford to buy it. Then I only saw the guns when he cleaned them.

When he passed away in 1981, a year after my mother had passed away, we took inventory of their estate, but we never found those guns. Perhaps he sold them or gave them away or simply kept them hidden somewhere so that no one would be able to find them and shoot someone accidentally.

She ends on a darker note:

This wasn’t your question, but I sometimes ask people if they know anyone who has been shot. I know two. My cousin got shot in the knee by accident at a gun show in Lubbock, Texas, and still walks with a limp. That was at least 30 years ago. The other was my best friend who shot herself in the chest when we were in 8th grade because her brother was arrested for burglary. She survived but dropped out of school. I don’t know who the gun belonged to.

Another reader has fonder memories:

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, with all of the extended maternal side of my family belonging to various hunting camps, and my grandfather, grandmother, father, uncles, and brothers all active hunters, guns were a normal part of life. I wasn’t left out of the fun; my dad taught me how to shoot a gun when I was probably seven or eight years old, always at targets, never at anything alive (I had no interest in killing animals myself).

I actually didn’t know what beef tasted like until I was a teenager, since we grew up eating venison everything: steaks, tenderloins, roasts, burgers, sausage, scrapple, bologna, jerky. Venison could be hunted cheaply, and it was infinitely better for us than other red meats, lower in fat and cholesterol, but still delicious. I prefer venison to beef to this day. It amuses me to see it priced as a luxury item on restaurant menus in the D.C. area, where I now live.

As my brothers grew up and lost interest in hunting, and my dad’s hunting trips became more and more rare, the gun cabinet has been moved to an upstairs guest bedroom, more for show than use. Many of my extended family still hunt; my 94-year-old grandfather still loves it and manages to safely shoot from tree stands and blinds.

This reader, Bobby Mathews, emphasizes how responsible most gun owners are:

When I was six or seven years old, my dad took me along on several hunting trips. I believe I had a small shotgun, a .20-gauge. Prior to going hunting, my father took us both to a safety course—a refresher for himself and a first-time experience for me. I learned how to handle the weapon, how to break the breech and load or eject shells, how to carry the unloaded shotgun over my shoulder with the barrel pointed down toward the ground.

I also learned how to use the safety—when to leave it on (almost always), and when to take it off (when you’re actually ready to take your shot). And I learned to never, ever point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. I was taught that a gun is a tool and not a toy. That’s a pretty good deterrent, by the way. Who wants to work for goodness’ sake? Not a seven year old.

So I have a very positive association with guns and spending time with my father. Currently I own two guns: a .32-caliber revolver and a 12-gauge shotgun. I have no concealed carry license and don’t need one. The handgun is a weapon of last resort, and it stays locked and away from everyone else in the house.

The shotgun is a little more complicated. Even though I don’t hunt anymore, I do enjoy going to the shooting range. And when my sons are old enough, I will do what my own father did—take them to a safety course to demystify the weapons. And whether or note they like guns, they’ll understand their use and the seriousness of owning a weapon that can kill so easily.

I do want to add that, although I’m a gun owner, I don’t support the NRA’s view that the First Amendment means everyone should be allowed to own a gun, and I find the idea of open carry to be ludicrous and offensive on its face. I got a gun at a young age because my father wanted to take me hunting with him. When we weren’t hunting? The guns were locked in a cabinet.

One more reader, Ted Stanfield, talks about growing up on a ranch in southeastern Wyoming and ends with an impassioned point about our cultural divide over guns:

My earliest memories involving guns are of walking with my dad hunting rabbits, ducks, and deer when I was around five or six. From the time I was old enough to keep up, he took me with him. The memories of cool fall days, fallen leaves, the smell of gun smoke, the laughter of friends will stay with me always.

My father died when I was eight, but other men—neighbors and uncles and family friends—continued my introduction to guns and hunting. Great people, great memories.

P.S. The inability or unwillingness of those raised in urban America to understand how deeply guns are embedded in rural culture is very difficult to combat. In rural America, guns accompany us nearly everywhere: to the pasture, to the field, to the water holes, to town. They are as much a part of our daily lives as your cell-phone.

We cannot imagine a world in which that is somehow denied us. We have lots of political differences in rural America—economics, abortion, inequality, injustice, environmental degradation, conservation—and how to deal with those issues keep us arguing over who to support in local and state elections; but threats of increased gun regulation will make us all single-issue voters. The void between rural and urban is much deeper than conservative vs. liberal or Democrat vs. Republican.

Update from another reader, Steve Merlan, who taught me a new word today, plinking—the casual shooting of targets like tin cans and glass bottles, based on the onomatopoeia of “plink” when the bullet hits a metal surface. I’ve done a good amount of .22 plinking myself, mostly when visiting family in Door County, Wisconsin, so it’s good to have a name for it now. Here’s Steve:

When I was a child in New Mexico and Colorado, most people hunted. We had a couple of hunting rifles—one for my father, one for myself or my brother, whichever was out—a .22 for plinking, and a shotgun that we traded pretty soon for something else, since we weren’t much interested in wing shooting. A deer was more our idea of meat, and we made a good deal of venison sausage, besides eating roast venison haunch and the like.

One Colorado town we lived in had a target practice program in the basement of the Elks lodge. You showed up and got a  .22 with a heavy target barrel and scope sights and brought your ammo. It was a kind of social occasion for us junior high and high schoolers.

No one had ever heard of a gun rampage and none of us thought of any danger. But we were drilled in careful handling of firearms. (God help you if you brought a loaded gun into the house.) We looked down on people who bought military surplus; it was a second-best choice for the poor. A good hunting rifle with fine workmanship in the stock was a point of pride.