A few weeks ago, I turned on the radio to hear some armed militants took over an abandoned visitor center on federal grounds. A week or two before that, a couple of religious zealots 'borrowed' someone's automatic rifles, and tragically killed several people at a health center. The president recently spoke out against the ongoing incidents of gun violence.
So what the hell was I thinking, buying my 8 year old son a rifle?
OK. It's an air rifle. It shoots .177 caliber pellets. Or the classic, good old fashioned BB's. It's not exactly something he's about to take out and bag a deer with. But I'm quite, quite sure that there are folks who would still raise an eyebrow.
I went to class with one of them.
A few years ago, I took a Massachusetts certified gun safety class. It's a requirement for obtaining a gun license in Massachusetts. (Massachusetts has very interesting laws on gun licensing - beyond a couple of basic statewide rules like the safety class, the final issuance and requirements for a gun license are down to the town police chief. In our former town, the additional requirements included obtaining two letters of reference from other residents. Which I actually think is a pretty clever rule. If you're crazy, your neighbors will probably know better than anyone.)
There were 8 or 10 of us in the class, which met in a training room in the police station. The instructor was an off duty cop, earning an extra few bucks on his weekend. I remember there were a couple of folks in their 20's. A retired Air Force colonel that I had met previously through a mutual neighbor. A 70-something farmer who had lived all his life in town, raising cattle. And a few other random residents. I put myself in that last bucket.
There was one woman in the class who waited about half an hour into the class before making it clear that she was uncomfortable with firearms in general, and with people who liked them in particular. The instructor looked at her askew once or twice, but he was unfailingly patient and polite. An hour or two into the class, the woman told a story about a recent trip down to Florida, and her horror at the number of gun stores, and people that frequented them.
"Those people," she said, "even bring their kids along."
Finally, even the instructor was driven to ask. "Lady, why are you here?"
"My father used to work for Colt. And I'm probably going to inherit his antique handgun collection. But I still don't like guns."
Yeah. Ok then.
Towards the end of class, we shifted to the practical part of the lesson. I hadn't said much during the class. I think I was near the end of the list to load the pistols and dry fire as a demonstration that we had listened and understood the instructions. Even the colonel struggled with this. (In fairness, he was Air Force. My expectations weren't high).
I loaded, readied and squeezed the trigger. The instructor chuckled. "Not your first time?"
"I learned to shoot from my grandfather when I was 6. I served five years active duty army. I'm from Georgia. I'm basically the guy that lady over there was talking about."
That earned me a couple of chuckles, and at least one dirty look.
My snarkiness aside, I do find myself a bit conflicted about it all. My Bride has never been comfortable with keeping a gun in the house while the children are small. There truly are too many preventable accidents. And I'm not a gun advocate for reasons of self-defense. Or for hunting. (Though both are perfectly valid arguments). Personally, I enjoy the engineering and the craftsmanship of gun smithing. I'm an engineer by training and inclination. And operating a finely made machine of any sort is a pleasure. There is something intimate and personal about the learning to operate a tool like a gun. It's a process that is generally taught one on one. Like my grandfather taught me in his backyard, with a .22 bolt action that he had owned for more than 40 years at the time.
Of course, by now I also know all of the arguments against gun ownership. We lived in Europe for several years. And I still haven't bought a firearm for myself. When/as I buy one, I want it to be the right one for me (a .44 caliber Winchester 1873 rifle. I've become pretty specific in my want), but I haven't really gotten around to it.
I am a lifetime member of the NRA, but I do believe in universal background checks. And I do believe in reasonable limits on the types of firearms that should be available to the public. I've fired fully automatic weapons of various kinds, both in and since my time in uniform. And the power is both exhilarating and terrifying. And even though we moved to a state that doesn't require a license to buy and carry a firearm, I think we probably should. If I have to take a test to get behind the wheel of a 2,000 pound potential weapon and take it out on the roads, I should probably be ok with taking a test before picking up and carrying a device intended to be a weapon.
The Boy had taken 'riflery' at summer camp last year, firing more or less the same kind of air rifle. I was certainly supportive. He spends enough time shooting zombies, Nazis, or zombie-Nazis on video games. Understanding the difference between a gun in a video game and handling a real weapon that has no extra lives or restarts is a worthy lesson.
And we do live in Maine. Many of his friends come from houses with guns in the home. My neighbor takes his three boys bear hunting. There's a tradition and culture of hunting and independence here that - whatever your political sway may be - you simply can't ignore. And when he's at a friend's house and sees a gun, I want him to be comfortable enough and know enough to recognize all the many reasons why his hands should stay safely away. It is not a toy. It is a responsibility.
So when the pre-Christmas thought arose that this might be the year to bring a 'starter' rifle into our house, I broached the topic with my Bride. I was armed with all the stories, logic and arguments above.
She was, as usual, three steps ahead of me. "Of course. That makes sense. Get it."
Yes, it's only an air rifle. And it only shoots pellets. But we established some firm, but simple rules up front.:
- Always treat the rifle as if it is loaded.
- We shoot together. He never shoots on his own.
- The rifle stays in my office until/unless we are ready to shoot.
That's pretty much it. We reviewed safe handling, and all the components of the rifle together. He's actually a pretty good shot, considering that it's a pretty basic rifle. It's not a toy to take out and play 'Cowboy' with.
It's a serious item, and a mark of my trust in his good judgment. And he has responded with a sense of responsibility and maturity that impressed me. He's got a very healthy sense of respect for the trust placed in him.
The role of gun owner rights in our society is a complicated one, and considering the history, traditions, and prevalence of firearms in distribution, we're not going to solve it any time soon. (For context: there are 14.5 million hunting licenses distributed in the US last year, per the national Fish & Wildlife services. Compared to 125,000 active duty members of the Syrian Army. That's a lot of guns in distribution).
The discussion is not a theoretical one. It's a practical one. And teaching respect & safety is core to how I want to arm our kids for handling it when it's their turn.
Pun very much intended.