I do not recall the first time I shot a gun. It was that long ago. I was that young. Shooting was always just part of my life. We were mostly, but not exclusively, a black powder family.
I recall two muzzle loaders kept in sleeves in the back of Dad’s closet, I’m guessing the 30.06 was back there too. There was also a child’s sized rifle kept under their bed. This was the one I remember best. Not because it fit my shoulder better but because its dark cherry stalk was beautiful. It also had a tendency to just go to half-cock rather than firing when you pulled the trigger. It exposed me as a horrible flincher. For a while there was a flint-lock pistol that lived in the gun chest, the chest filled with led balls, canisters of powder, and ripped up cotton patches. I hated the sulfur smell when we sat in the kitchen swabbing out barrels and wiping them down with oil. I fancied myself a good shot.
I can still hear Dad’s humorless voice ordering me to keep my finger away from the trigger unless I plan to fire, never under any circumstances point the barrel towards another person, and don’t dry-fire, even if you have already inspected the chamber. Always set up the range toward the side of a hill, inspect it for metal or other rick-o-shay hazards, and wear ear protection. These were all non-negotiable. Guns are tools not toys.
Venison was our winter staple. The family got three “tags” every season. Dad got a buck permit for the regular hunt, then grandma and mom each got a doe permit for the black powder hunt. Dad used all three, the doe permits were to make sure we would have something to eat, the buck permit was in hopes of getting the “big one.” Sitting still in the snow with my father is where and when I learned you don’t always have to talk. It is okay to just sit there. It is also the first time I threw a rock at a bull moose in hopes it would go away.
The guys and I used to drive out to the west desert on Saturdays. Most all of them carried semi-auto .22s, except Trevor and I. I used a .22/.20 over under shotgun, Trevor brought a Mak10. That thing never hit a rabbit but it was very fun to fire. I’m pretty sure that out of the ten of us who went out regularly, I was the only one to ever hit anything. A rabbit would pop out and make a break for it, and despite all the noise, it would just zig zag off into the distance. I remember walking next to Mitch. As he was emptying his magazine I calmly lifted the shotgun to my shoulder and and squoze. “I think it was me who got that one,” he would say time after time. I would just nod and pump the empty out of the chamber.
The first time I heard a bullet in flight. Jimmy Cowley was about thirty yards to my left, my dad about thirty yards to my right, and the rabbit popped out of the sage about thirty yards to my front. Jimmy had a semi-automatic .22 with a forty round clip and he opened fire on the mangy jack rabbit. Rather than running away, it ran right for me. Jimmy was not looking at me, he was looking down the barrel toward the rabbit. He kept pulling the trigger as the rabbit ran between us and by the time he and I realized what had just happened, my father’s barrel was pointing at Jimmy. We were both about 12.
The second time I heard a bullet in flight was while riding a bike in Atlanta. My missionary companion and I were pedaling down the street when I heard a whiz then a slap against the wall behind me. The two of us froze in place while people scattered in all directions. A teenage girl ran by with her coat pulled up over her head. I saw a man crouched behind a half wall with a silver revolver in hand. From somewhere else I heard the “pop—-pop–pop.pop.pop” of return fire. We turned the corner and just kept going.
Most all of us “inner-city” missionaries had tape recordings of machine gun fire made on the fourth of July. I never knew people fired guns on the fourth till my downstairs neighbors made it obvious. His was obviously a shotgun.
We were already married before my wife ever fired a gun. Under close supervision she shot a beautiful Smith & Wesson chrome revolver at a dirt clod. She pulled the trigger, handed me the pistol, and walked away shaking. She says she was unprepared for how violent it was. She has no desire to ever fire one again.
We don’t keep a gun in our house. I would love too. I miss that part of my life but not enough to make my wife uncomfortable in her own home. I suppose she could learn to get comfortable but that isn’t on her to-do list. I guess there is some irony in that I lived in a house full of guns in one of the safest neighborhoods in America, but lack firearms now that I live in one of the most dangerous. Maybe it is ironic, but it is exactly this situation that has taught me a few things.
Safety and rights are relative.
One of the major hurdles Martin Luther King Jr., SNCC, and other non-violent civil rights organizers faced was convincing the general Black population to put away their guns. For Black people in the rural south the danger of a lynch party showing up on your doorstep, often led by local authorities, was very real. Most every home had a shotgun behind the door as a Black family’s only possible defense. The courts and local laws would not help them. Non-violence was not only a public relations victory, but a daily life miracle of self restraint on the part of an oppressed people.
The net result of these people’s 2nd amendment restraint was the passing of civil rights legislation and the assassination of MLK.
On the other side of the country, and the tactical spectrum, other Black people took the opposite tact and began carrying guns out in the open. The White establishment would have none of this. The self destruction and implosion of the Black Panther Party has made most of us forget that these were not just a bunch of leather clad fools. The Panthers not only organized a militia and bore arms but crafted a constitutional argument defending their right to do so. The idea that the only thing that would stop a bad guy with a gun was a good guy with a gun, was preached by the Panthers. They also happened to believe that a large majority of the bad guys were wearing badges and the good guys were wearing black berets. And really, if one looks at things through the historical lens of a Black American… they had a lot of evidence to prove their point. The Panther’s guns were confiscated. The NRA did not defend them.
Skipping forward to today, most of the Black people I know want guns gone. Gone from the streets, gone from their homes, just gone. I sit in church and listen as month after month someone from the congregation will stand up and tell of someone they love who has been shot, or about when they themselves were hit by flying bullets. I have yet to hear one of these people stand up and pray for more firepower.
My Facebook feed is alive with memes and sound bites taking this position or that on gun control. The newspaper and radio give arguments for restricting guns or arming more citizens. I have seen dozens of stories praising gun owners who have shot intruders in the act of invading their homes. I have also followed a story of man licensed to carry a concealed gun who shot and killed an unarmed kid who was walking home from the convenience store. Where I grew up Elementary school teachers are being taught how to use guns to defend their classroom. Where I live now, a police task force is going to trial for running its own citywide drug ring. A couple of years ago a cop in my neighborhood got drunk, got angry at some noisy kids, went inside to get his gun and killed someone.
I hear and read a lot of arguments, not normally about what to do, but about how the other side is stupid. I talk to people on both sides but I get the feeling they don’t really talk to each other. How does this help? Every kid I know in the city can get their hands on a gun if they want one. Many see guns even when they are trying not too. Would more guns really make these kids safer?
Do I think I have a right to own a gun? Yes I do.
Do I want everyone to own a gun? No I do not. I know plenty of people that would terrify me if they were armed. I know other perfectly law abiding people that I would not trust with a gun in a million years.
I’ll tell every bad guy out there right now, odds are, if you break into my home I will not shoot you.
I do not care how bad you are, I do not think my TV is worth your life.
If my wife were to ever relent and let me keep a gun in the house, it would be unloaded and locked away some place making it impossible to be of any use in the event some burglar comes a prowling. This is because I know I can only control certain things in my life and will do everything in my power to make sure no one accidentally, or intentionally, kills someone with a gun I own. But I can only control so much.
I can’t control others who may wish me harm, just like I can’t control an out of control car coming my way.
But I can do my best. I register my car. I get my car inspected for safety every year and get my picture taken at the DMV. I can keep my home gun free to keep my wife happy but mostly because there are no deer or rabbits anywhere near my door.
Lets go ahead and disagree. If you can show me where I am wrong, please help me out. If I think you are wrong maybe I should try to find a way to effectively communicate why. But please, lets do so in hopes of making things better, not in the name of proving a point. Comparing your apples to another person’s oranges does not make things better. Claiming to know what the other side “really” means or what their ulterior motives are is equally unproductive. Realize that for many people, mostly for the victims of violence, this is not a philosophical discussion. It is real life. It is too often real death.
One of my favorite memories from youth, one I fall back too when I’m feeling old and nostalgic, was the day Jake and I spent at the gun club. It was just the two of us, a .12 gauge, and about ten dozen clay pigeons. I don’t remember any real conversation, and I may have separated my shoulder, but I know I was happy that day. It was a good day, but not the only way to have one.
How do we ensure more good days for everyone?