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:

Show 4 Newer Notes

Growing Up With Guns

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 just learned the movie Natural Born Killers was inspired by two teenagers on a murder spree in 1950s Nebraska. This reader remembers it all too well:

My earliest memory of guns was in the late 1950s, when Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Fugate, were terrorizing Nebraska. In my memory, Fugate’s parents, two of the early victims, lived within walking distance of my grade school.  

At the time, my father drove a late ‘40s car, and all children walked to and from school (about a mile, in our case). One day, my dad arrived to pick up my sister and me in the middle of the afternoon, which was highly unusual. As I crawled up the running board and onto the bench front seat, I saw a pistol in a holster strapped to his right thigh.  

My father had grown up on a farm in rural Oklahoma and was comfortable with guns, but he had by that point finished a Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska and was about to join the faculty. We never spoke of that day, and Starkweather was quickly caught.

A reader recalls a frightening childhood:

Guns were a big part of my life growing up in rural Florida. I had a small, lightweight rifle my step-father gave me to shoot with out back. My mom (born and raised in suburban New Jersey) learned to shoot and used a pistol to shoot critters who came in our back yard.

My step-father was a skilled gunsmith who did repairs in our family-owned gun shop while my mom worked the counter. Between the ages of three and six, I went to work with them during the day. Unfortunately, a gun shop even then was a target for thieves. The shop was broken into several times. My parents got guard dogs and the dogs were poisoned and the shop still broken into. Eventually they gave up.

Unfortunately, my step-father continued his love affair with guns.

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.