Men, Boys, and Guns

by Russell Arben Fox on March 24, 2009 · 23 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Culture, High & Low

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.

I never quite came around to his point of view, but I did the next best thing: I spent ten years living in Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. And more than that, I got over my youthful cosmopolitan liberalism, and began to re-acquaint myself with the better, more localized, more authentic leftist tradition America had to offer: namely, populism. And the populism which emerges from the American West and South and Midwest…well, it’s not entirely tied up with the “gun culture,” which I’ll happily grant is often poisoned with an unthinking or even abusive misogyny and drunkenness and violence, all of which is often a source of real, all too often terrible, harm. But the connection between a tool that can help you feed your family and protect your property, and the populist notion of people being able to be, to whatever degree possible, sovereign in their own places, is nonetheless real. Hence, to be unreasonably hostile to the very fact of guns is to be suspicious and hostile to every father (and yes, it is mostly still fathers) who takes his son (and yes, it is mostly still sons) out into the woods to teach them about how to use this very important tool. And suspicion is no way to run a democracy.

Such were the thoughts that ran through my mind as some of my fellow church leaders and Scouters laughing took into upon themselves to teach their neighborhood liberal (and yes, that’s their name for me; trying to explain that I use “liberal” only as an adjective rather than a descriptive noun, that I’m really more a communitarian or socialist or Christian democrat…well, it just wasn’t worth it) how to load and clean and shoot. To be frank, I stank at hitting anything, but I insist I wasn’t the worst one out there. The .22s we mainly left for the younger boys; the older ones we allowed to use–after proper training, I assure you!–the .243, .270, and .30-06 caliber rifles, the .357 Magnum snub-nose (I particularly liked that one, though one of my friends referred to it as a “pansy” gun), the 9mm semi-automatics, even the beautiful old .45 Colt one fellow brought. We also all did some skeet shooting with shotguns, and even fired a few rounds off on the ridiculously expensive semi-automatic rifle that one of the adults on the trip brought with him. I know, I know–the way to tell the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys; I know the saying. Well, it’s not $2000+ that I’d spend, I can tell you that much. But at the same time, I suspect that blowing apart a target with that thing was a lot more fun than anyone could have had on a Wii.

I’m not sure what the point of all this is. My wife and I still have no plans to bring guns into our home; that’s just not something we’re comfortable with, I suppose. (My wife didn’t sign up for the Million Mom March while we lived in Washington DC for nothing.) And I’m no less suspicious than before of the National Rifle Association and all the paranoid nonsense they regularly spread to enflame gun owners into panicked buying sprees and foolish voting choices. (As if Obama’s primary plan for rescuing the nation’s banks depends on taxing ammunition at 800%.) But if nothing else, it was another element of the “crunchy” life, another element of a life which obliges oneself to get past the supposedly orderly and pristine world we’ve levereged and consumed ourselves into accepting, and dig deeper into what it means to be familiar with the basic tools and skills of self-preservation, that I’m glad to have exposed myself too. In all likelihood, the majority of the people reading this are, like me, professionals and academics and office workers, and you don’t know much of anything about guns, except that you want to get them off the streets. Well, fine; I do too. (Concealed carry permits are their own separate issue.) But in the meantime, get some knowledge here–some knowledge about guns, of course, but also, and perhaps more importantly, some knowledge about the men and boys (and, yes, women and daughters too; one friend of mine takes his oldest daughter with him boar hunting every year) whose lives and families and histories have been shaped by guns, like my grandfather’s was. It may not get you a moose head on your wall, but if nothing else it may mean that you’ll be able to relate better to, and hopefully be more neighborly towards, the fellow down the street who produces that fine rabbit stew.

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Bart March 24, 2009 at 11:09 am

This reminds me of a discussion I had with some of my buddies in my dorm room: what are the things that a man should know? Vehicle care, house repair, outdoorsmanship, gun handling and care, plumbing, horticulture (vegetables), and basic athletic skill were the chosen topics. These are the proper things that are generally passed on from man to man. A man can learn how to cook, clean, and dress from a woman, but there are some skills that an independent life requires that are primarily masculine. Also, we noticed that many of these skills we learned while in the Boy Scouts. Isn’t it significant that the BSA has suffered a severe drop in numbers in the past decades? Our sons know how to install software, talk sports, dress fashionably, and bears the trinkets of fashion; but can they get their hands dirty? It seems we a creating a generation of fops, blowhards, and metrosexuals.

avatar Mark March 24, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Russell — You observe (beautifully) that we share a place with people with whom we may not share common experience. And in your effort to create common experience you come to understand the guy down the street who produces rabbit stew — and he becomes your neighbor, not the easily dismissed “other.” Then I read Bart’s comment and felt dismissed as a foppish, blowhard metrosexual. Bart reminds us that we are all someone’s “other.” Rediscovering and rebuilding a front porch culture isn’t easy, is it?

Are we forever destined to categorize ourselves and others in groups that harbor contempt for one another?

avatar Bart March 24, 2009 at 1:03 pm

I suppose I am brazen. I speak to parents–fathers especially. Skills need to be taught and preserved. I now fear my fiestiness may deter others from learning. However, the virtual and services culture is destroying itself and our independence. There is something amiss about our culture of dependence.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 24, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Bart and Mark,

I don’t know how firmly I would hold to the idea that things like “vehicle care, house repair, outdoorsmanship, gun handling and care, plumbing, horticulture (vegetables), and basic athletic skill” are in any substantive sense “primarily masculine.” It may well be the case–as I think it usually is with guns–that the division of labor that you traditionally see amongst heterosexual couples tends to make some of them more “properly” the responsibility of the husband and father rather than the wife and mother, but I doubt there are any hard-wired natural divisions here, or at least I hope there isn’t. (If so, what to make of my aspirations to become a better cook?) The main thing, I think, is strive to preserve in ourselves and inculcate in our loved ones a familiarity with those things that keep our lives and families as secure and in touch with the natural order of the world as possible; whether or not that happens in line with one or another set of social, gender-based conventions is a secondary concern, not a primary one.

(Not that those secondary concerns are irrelevant; I appreciate the fact that Boy Scouts of America–as much as modern technology and mobility and secularity and individualism has made the notion of going out camping and doing service projects unpopular with many of our nation’s Game Boy and iPhone-addicted young men–is still around and still focused on training boys on becoming men in its own inimitable way. But it’s still just a program, like many other programs, and there’s no need to read into it more than that. I say this as a father of daughters, who mainly finds himself thinking about Girl Scouts, these days.)

Oh, and as for being categorized and trying to make connections with other men with whom one shares a space if not a lifestyle…I can’t say enough good about the adult men I work with in our Scout troop. One is an aircraft engineer, the other is an all-around construction worker and handyman. I’ve learned more about water heaters, sprinklery systems, car repair and a dozen more topics from them than I can ever repay. And I’m grateful that they’ve been willing to teach and work with an intellectual Obama-voter. I figure putting up with a little good-natured sarcasm from them is a small price to pay.

avatar Mark March 24, 2009 at 2:18 pm

@Bart — I don’t understand the need create binary classifications. As a fop, blowhard and metrosexual, I have taught my sons how to bake bread using artisanal methods. I’ve taught them about gardening and how to raise vegetables. We’ve made a little cheese. Yes, I’m also guilty of teaching them to install software, and they do sport a certain kind of sartorial identity that you might describe as fashion. I’m not a hunter, but I don’t harbor any ill will towards those who hunt. As far as I know, my sons haven’t shot a gun. Not that it would bother me if they did. They have skills. And we live in culture, not the wilderness, so their skills are useful.

Do you really foresee a future where culture disappears and where we will live in isolation, needing to provide for ourselves, relying on no one else?

avatar Bart March 24, 2009 at 2:48 pm

This wasn’t my main point. I didn’t think my point would’ve been so controversial on FPR. Mark, you’re teaching your sons how to take care of themselves and getting dirt under your fingernails–something we don’t see as often as we should. I’m concerned with what Russell called “Gameboy and iPhone addicted”–the ones who depend on Jiffy Lube for automobiles, who rely on Domino’s for supper, who spectate but cannot throw a baseball. I’m not advocating a individualist destruction of community either.

avatar Bart March 24, 2009 at 2:57 pm

I see what might be the problem: among my many spelling and grammar errors, I neglected to type “were AMONG the chosen topics.” I did not mean to say that such skills are necessary or the sole definition for masculinity.

avatar Kevin J Jones March 24, 2009 at 5:15 pm

From the Associated Press: “New figures from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 — from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The drop was most acute in New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific states, which lost 400,000 hunters in that span…”

Hunters are among the most enthusiastic outdoorsmen and conservationists. They preserve knowledge of the wilderness while keeping down the numbers of animals whose other natural predators have been killed off.

They also know the “blood and guts” of carnivorism in a way we customers of the meat and poultry industry do not. Many hunters still counsel respect for the animal they’ve killed, a tradition possibly stretching back to the Stone Age.

Also worrisome: “the number of Americans who fish also has dropped sharply — down 15 percent, from 35.2 million in 1996 to 30 million in 2006″

avatar D.W. Sabin March 24, 2009 at 5:26 pm

This puts me in mind of a tart rejoinder proffered by a surveyor-gunman I enjoy the company of:
“I’d rather go hunting with Dick Cheney than take a car ride on the Vineyard with Ted Kennedy.” Personally, I’d avoid either. That people who enjoy hunting are popularly considered, as a class, a bunch of drunken brutes with anger management issues is belied by the majority of gunners that I have enjoyed the companionship of. Some of them have had downright poetic and intensely sweet feelings for the natural world and possess as good a sense of ecological niche and habitat as the academically learned of those sciences. Habitat investments by anglers and gunners are huge. Guns also give one a real respect for danger and finality, something we seem to think we can weasel around in this “civilized age”. That the NRA, like every damnable other lobbying organization takes foolhardy stances in Washington should surprise nobody. Washington is, after all, the center of the fool’s Universe.

As to the daughters Mr. Fox…enjoy them heartily and introduce them to the many quixotic charms of male behavior so that they develop a sense of humor about their cohort instead of some kind of missionary sense that we must be somehow improved. My daughters once elected me to drive what seemed like half the Field Hockey team up to some outdoor venue for the dread Lilith Fair. It was a terrifying experience for me to be sure but they were all highly entertained by the fact that I took a deeply sound nap while sitting up on a stadium seat through the last 2 sets. I cannot explain it but Estrogenal Wiccan Conclaves seem to put me right out. Defensive Somnolence is the medical term i believe…similar to playin possum. I was the brunt of jokes by Junior and his delinquent friends for many weeks after that but I forgave him because of the time when his sisters and mother had harried him for 3 days while I was away …he was about 4 at the time and as soon as I set my bags down, he shot me a look of mortified desperation and squeaked “WIMMIN!” May the battle lines be drawn but detente always present.

avatar Typical Whitey March 25, 2009 at 11:44 pm

Get some stones. Grow a pair. You all sound like a bunch of wusses. I am an NRA member and proud of it. If it weren’t for guns and grown men we would be under the British crown yet.

As Rush so eloquently states it, our society is now full of the “New Castrati”. God help us. BO is the pinnacle of this situation.

My daughters and son learned how to shoot, employ judo, and play musical instruments. They are the better for it to. Self defense is an obligation to your family!

avatar Mark March 26, 2009 at 4:23 am

Typical Whitey — If I send a check to the NRA and listen to Rush Limbaugh will my balls grow big like yours?

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 26, 2009 at 9:24 am

Kevin Jones: I agree with everything you say; while I have known more than a few gun-owners and hunters who treat their guns and the nature they shoot up with them casually and disrespectfully–sometimes, as I said in my post, with terrible consequences–for the most part hunters are both more knowlegable about and more respectful of the wild places of our country. Their decline in numbers is probably not as worrisome as the decline in farmers nationwide, but it is worrisome all the same.

D.W. Sabin: I also agree with you in regards to hunters. As for what you say about women, well, let’s just say that I was raised in a family of nine kids, seven of them sons, by a very charismatic and patriarchal father; I think I know what it means to live in a “male” household pretty well, and frankly, right now I’m very content with my strong-willed wife, my four daughters, and my plans to attend Girls Camp. As for Lilith Fair, I never made it out, but I’m quite happy to proclaim my affection for the Indigo Girls, among many others fine female sing-songwriters. All hail Joni Mitchell!

Typical Whitey: That you for confirming the all too-numerous (and perhaps accurate?) stereotypes out there about the intelligence and obsessions of your typical NRA member. And your ridiculous attempt to compare Rush Limbaugh’s “eloquence” with that of President Obama–leave completely aside the question of which one any of us may happen to agree with–speaks for itself. But thanks for the self-defense class recommendation; that is something that my wife (who once grabbed a ball-point pen from the dashboard of her car and stabbed in the face a date of hers who was getting too “friendly”) I and have long planned for our girls.

Mark: Touche.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 26, 2009 at 9:52 am

R. Arben-Fox, for the record, I was neither assailing your understanding of “maleness” nor doing anything more in my comments about woman than extolling the differences between us that the prevailing culture wants to mongrelize. Frankly, with your essay, I was missing those many years when they were still home, driving me crazy. Now, the only noises in the house are the dog and my Wife and I am fortunate that she’s feisty as hell….the wife, not the dog.

Limbaugh and Karl Rove, the twin towers of a complete scuttling of the Republican Party, how testosteronal. Listening to these two harlots, preening like peacocks and talking about liberty and fiscal prudence is like watching the Town Whore give a lecture on chastity. Rush may be many things and he is actually correct sometimes in what he asserts but eloquent he aint.

avatar Russell Arben Fox March 26, 2009 at 10:02 am

D.W.–thanks for the addendum, and my apologies for reading into your comment anything more than you intended. And you can just call me “Russell”; I just sign everything with my full name for professional reasons.

“Watching the Town Whore give a lecture on chastity”–awesome! You have a gift for words, Mr. Sabin.

avatar Bart March 26, 2009 at 12:28 pm

“In April 1775, shortly after news reached Virginia that American colonists had clashed with British troops in Lexington, Massachusetts, Henry learned that Governor Dunmore had seized gunpowder from the Magazine in Williamsburg. Henry collected the militia of Hanover County and marched toward Williamsburg. He sent a message to the governor demanding that the gunpowder be returned to representatives of the colony. Governor Dunmore paid the Virginians money equal to the value of the powder, then issued a proclamation outlawing “a certain Patrick Henry” for disturbing the peace of the colony.”
http://www.history.org/Almanack/people/bios/biohen2.cfm

avatar Typical Whitey March 26, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Mark – apparently you have no balls.

Russell – I expected this type of reaction. Effetes love to look down their noses at us common folk. Rush has stood firm against the liberal assault on this nation for 20 years.

BO is a fraud. Better wake up.

Those of you who do not know how to hunt and grow food will be crying like babies when this economy implodes under the weight of all the false promises.

avatar Mark March 26, 2009 at 11:06 pm

@Typical Whitey — your concern for my balls is intriguing.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

Whitey: On the contrary my good commoner, Rush Limbaugh has rode the wave of so called “liberal” rationalism and made a pile of money doing so. He knows that human resentments are fertile territory for personal wealth building and he, quite frankly, doesn’t care a whit for anything besides his own glorious image. His is a type of Conservatism that likes to hang around the shadows, whispering….or bellowing into the mobs ears and inciting them to riot whereupon, like Yassir Arafat in a Mossad Raid, he’s the first one out the window and on his way to check his bank account.

Ressentiment is one of the terms for it, a long process of adjustment based upon sneaking hunches that all aint right with the world and those who make the most out of this malady are those who truck in base emotions and are utterly unconcerned about the real issues at stake.

This “effete looking down on the little folk” , anti-intellectualism has gutted the Republican Party and left it swinging in the wind so that precisely at the time we need traditional Republican notions of foreign policy restraint, preservation of individual liberty and financial probity, the party is, instead, a damned laughing stock.

Mr. Obama may very well be way off base but those who think their Republican Party is looking out for the interests of the individual….and in particular, the interests of those who want to disdain the so called effetes, well, they had best wake up because 8 years of this GOP has just left the base pistol-whipped and cleaned out while handing the government off to a group that has no compunction whatsoever about spending money they do not have.

Do yourself a favor, turn your frustration on your own party…not to benefit the Democrat but to smack a little sense into the GOP and restore a deliberative government. The GOP , something I’ve supported for many many years specifically because I felt it the vehicle to promote the opportunities of ALL People through freeing the people to operate in their own benefit is utterly beyond redemption.

avatar Typical Whitey March 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm

Mark – as I said before “apparently you don’t have any”. You are the one obsessed with testicles. Look under your skirt and see if there is any plumbing. If not, as I suspect, go see Oprah and Dr. Phil for direction to the local LGBT treatment facility.

avatar Mark March 29, 2009 at 12:26 am

Typical Whitey — I think I’ll just pass on trading further insults with you. Thanks for your suggestions.

avatar Lewis August 13, 2009 at 10:28 pm

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Yes, the famous Bob Heinlein quote.

In the modern world, fighting efficiently requires at least a passing familiarity and rough competence with firearms. (And, probably, a grappling or striking art.)

A firearm is a tool, and we are tool making (and using) animals. Tools enhance human potential. Familiarity with the Bible should make comforting the dying easier, and familiarity with firearms should make fighting efficiently easier. Familiarity with a Dutch oven (or a gas range) should make cooking a tasty meal easier. A pitchfork makes pitching manure vastly easier. Tools.

Since I prefer to reason from my own personal experience, I will relate a short anecdote about my wife. She was born in Kazakhstan, in what was at the time a constituent republic of the Soviet Union. (I met her, fell for her, wooed and wed her in Kazakhstan, purely by way of information, while I was working there.) She had an absolute horror of firearms. When we were expecting our first child, she said, “No guns in the house.” (Here in Texas.)

I carefully explained that while I am a firearms enthusiast (a Webley top break revolver is really almost steam-punk in its Victorian symphony of operation) the main reason I believed in having guns around was for negative violence: the deterrent and possibly repelling effect on people who might wish to do us harm. I asked her what she would do if someone tried to harm either me, or our daughter Masha. She said, with Mama Bear instantantness, “I would kill them.” My response was, “With what?”

She has since become an infrequent but quite competent handgun shot.

As regards the comments to this thread: Heinlein’s quote addresses “human beings” and not the subdivisions of men and women. We divide up our responsibilities by frequency in our household, but each of us can do any of the things that need doing. The NRA is a bought and paid for shill for the GOP, far divorced from it’s original mission. Personally, I prefer Jews for the Protection of Firearms Ownership, which is most notably not based in Washington, D.C.

I see Rush Limbaugh and his “mini-mes” (Hannity, Levin, et al) as entertaining buffoons. Rush is not a conservative, Rush is a “Rushist.”

As for Typical Whitey’s instructions to check beneath the skirt, I just did that. I wear a kilt, quite frequently. It’s a kilt I hand-sewed my own self, in sixteen ounce worsted wool from Scotland in the Leatherneck tartan (reflecting my tribal loyalties), incorporating modifications I made based on some fair amount of study and thought regarding kilts. My man bits are still intact and in place.

I will agree with Whitey that Barack Obama is a fraud; so was George W. Bush. Neither is either conservative nor liberal, but establishment.

My thanks to the author for an interesting article, on a newly discovered website.

avatar jason taylor April 6, 2012 at 9:54 am

For non-vegetarians at least, there is something to be said for hunting. Eating meat you don’t kill gives an unwholesome oversantitization to life, and eating meat slaughtered mechanically takes a small amount from the dignity of life and is unsporting. Perhaps it is far better to eat meat which had a fair chance to get away, which comes from prey that knows you are a predator, and under conditions where you can self-limit your power until you are only one predator in the ecological system even if the top predator. A human hunter is little more then a wolf; he has a gun, but he hasn’t the keen senses and other advantages. A butcher has so much advantage as to make his calling something on another level entirely.

avatar VikingLS February 21, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Lewis,

I am married to a woman from Saint Petersburg, Russia (Whom I married wile living and working in Russia) who has recently expressed an interest in learning to use a firearm to protect our daughter who is also named Masha.

I also wear a kilt and I have to say it gives the balls real freedom.

Agree with you across the board, i personally like The Liberal Gun Club, not familiar with the organization you mentioned but will look into it.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: