Men, Boys, and Guns

This past weekend, I was pulled away from the computer, from a sprinkler system that needs to be fixed, from a garden wall that needs to be built, from grading papers and tests, and from all the other vicissitudes of my life as a hopefully middle-class, home-owning, academic professional, to go on a Boy Scout campout with our church’s troop. The big appeal of this particular trip? Guns.

I was not raised in a hunting family. My paternal grandfather was a hunter–and there were the antlers and an honest-to-goodness moose head on the walls of his home to prove it–but the hunting life he lived in the mountains and valleys of Washington, Idaho and Montana in the 1940s and 50s weren’t passed on to his children. Though considering the fondness many of my extended family have for fishing, I guess strictly speaking it wasn’t the mere idea of obtaining and eating wild game that failed to make the leap from one generation to the next: it was, quite specifically, shooting animals, and really just shooting period that just didn’t quite take. My father told me about going with his father, just once, on a deer hunt, and finding himself disturbed and sad at the death which brought them the venison they later are, and resolving right then not to partake in such activities further. The result was that my father’s rifles and pistols–he has a half-dozen or so–were rarely used around our home, and we grew up mostly unfamiliar with how to use a scope or clean a barrel. My older brother Daniel did receive a .22 hunting rifle for his birthday, and my grandfather employed him to shoot gophers on his property, where cattle and horses (depending on the season) were set out to graze. He paid him a quarter for every tail he brought in. But he essentially taught himself how to shoot, and none of the rest of us gained even that much knowledge. I went gopher hunting with him one afternoon; he came home about $2.50 richer, while I got nothing.

Though I live in Kansas now, I think my experience was pretty similar to that of most of the boys in our church’s troop. Some shooting at Scout camp, perhaps; maybe a grandfather or an uncle or other relative who are serious hunters; probably some relatives who served in the military as well. But, broadly speaking, they just hadn’t done much with guns. And the announcement that this Scouting trip would include target practice with a wide range of firearms, the boys came from out of the woodwork to get on board. And not just boys either: we had adults that hadn’t shot much at all in their lives who wanted to sign up and come along. One of the participants was a dentist in our congregation who had a beautiful .270 rifle, one that he’d never used, though he’d owned it for seven years. Why’d you buy it if you don’t even hunt?, I asked. Well, in case the bad times come, I’ll need to be able to kill a deer to feed my family…besides, he asked me back, shouldn’t everyone have a gun?

It’s a fair question, one that my feelings have changed on. When I was an undergraduate and still exploring my new-found realization that my politics ran to the left rather than the right, I figured it was obvious that America would eventually have to get serious–really serious–about controlling access to firearms. I’d just returned from two years of living in East Asia, where, whatever other legitimate complaints might be made about life in that part of the world, violent crime and gun deaths are far, far, far less common than in the U.S.; to me, the issue was cut and dried. Though interestingly, one of the strongest advocates of gun rights I knew was a convinced Marxist–he wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the rich corporations that would be able to arm themselves when the revolution came.

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