Reporter's Notebook

Your Earliest Experience With Guns
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Readers from across the U.S. share what they remember about their introduction to firearms. To tell your story, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 7 Newer Notes

A First Gun Encounter, With Lifelong Consequences

It’s not often we can cross-reference a personal anecdote from a reader with Google News archives reaching back 40 years. John Poirier’s first experience with guns—the theme of our new reader thread—was noted in the newspaper of his hometown of Lewiston, Maine, following his interview with the Boston Globe. Here’s John’s story in his own words:

I was 23 years old, a newly minted pharmacist living in the South End of Boston, which was beginning the process of gentrification in 1976. I was an idealistic young white gay man, who having witnessed the racially charged effects of forced busing, believed that it was better to integrate the neighborhoods instead of the schools. So I had just moved into a refurbished old brick building on Pembroke Street.

One dreary winter afternoon 40 years ago this January, I returned to my apartment to find the door jimmied open by a crowbar. Not thinking that the burglar might still be inside, I entered and went to the phone to call 911. Within a few seconds of picking up the receiver an armed black man appeared behind me and demanded all my money.

Summer camp carries with it a particular kind of nostalgia. In memories, conditions were perfect: You were away from your parents, away from school, away from your regular ol’ friends—and hey, there was a whole new batch to bond with.

Much of that bonding takes place over shared activities, a brilliant effort by camp directors and counselors-in-training everywhere to further hone a developing person’s dependence on schedules. For some of us, “activities” meant sessions on the loom or crowded around a table making God’s eyes from rainbow yarn (it was the ‘90s and no one had thought to tell us about cultural appropriation yet).

For others, like these readers, it meant guns:

My first experience with guns was at an all-boys summer camp in 1984. I was 11 years old. It was the first time I was away from home.

We shot .22s, single-bolt action. I remember being very careful handling and carrying the rifle. Even at that age, I knew this was the real deal and not the toy guns I played Army with my friends at home.

Similar to what I’ve heard from my extended family in the Midwest, a good number of readers wrote about positive first experiences with guns, which led to a lifelong respect and passion for firearms. Our first reader:

When I was about age seven and living in semi-rural Illinois outside of Chicago, I remember my Aunt Marge inviting me to go outdoors with her and watch her fire a .22 rifle at a target hung from the apple tree. She was wearing a suede jacket, which seemed unusual to me, since she was a businesswoman and an accountant for a string of movie theaters.  

I remember her giving me safety instructions, including where to stand and how to remain alert around a shooter to avoid mishaps. It was very cold and windy. And I remember, most of all, the sweet smell of gunsmoke—which I enjoyed.

Then, we went inside, and I watched her carefully unload the gun and put it away in a long, cardboard box—with the ammunition put up high in a safe place separate from the gun. She gave me repeated warnings about “not playing” with any firearms.

So my earliest memory of guns is that Aunt Marge really knew how to use them. They were dangerous but useful, and you needed to respect them and be very grown-up before you could be trusted to use one for target practice. I like guns, and I have a healthy respect for them because of early exposure to good training about their purpose and use.

Another reader:

I was four years old when I announced that I wanted a BB gun.

“What would you do with a BB gun?” Pappy asked. “They’re no good for anything but making noise. A real man uses a real gun.”

We’ve heard from many of you about your first experience with guns, so thanks to everyone who’s emailed so far. The details of this reader’s account jumped out among the dozens in our inbox:

When I was maybe four years old, my father brought my older brother and me along with him to the shooting range. He and a friend brought a variety of shotguns and pistols, as well as a supply of cotton balls to stuff into our ears.

Now, this range was an outdoor range, and it was just a bit windy. In the course of watching the others shoot, one of the cotton balls fell out of my ear and went blowing down the shooting range. I—of course—chased it.

Having grown up in Indiana, and with family in rural Illinois (where the itinerary for a family reunion in 2014 included a trick shooting show and a two-hour block of time for “introduction to firearms”), I know more than a few people for whom owning guns is a significant part of their lives. When I’ve asked an ex’s father or a second cousin why they hunt or maintain a collection of firearms, they’ve typically said something about growing up with them in the house, or that they were the focal accessory in bonding time with a mentor.

That’s also the gist of several comments in this discussion thread I found. This passage in particular shows a striking dichotomy of early exposure to guns:

I have an extremely negative memory for my first experience with a gun. My older cousin (who was about 16 or 18 at the time) tried to shoot me. I was about five years old.