On children and guns

August 26, 1999

“K” posted a query/comment filled to the brim with one of the most haunting issues of our age. I first read it late in the evening before I attended a birthday party for my own much loved, now four year old, grandson. I considered it too important to answer under pressure from the alarm clock, and decided to save it till now. I didn’t sleep well that night. This issue was with me all night and when I showed at the party I must have looked like a man lost in the woods for a month.

Let me start with this: I’m 55 and have sons, daughters and grand-kids. I’m a good shot, experienced, and capable with either pistol or rifle over almost any range.

I’ve shot exactly one living thing in my life. I was 11 and shot a bird on a power line with my new BB gun. The bird struggled to fly away, finally dropping within my view. It struggled to breath for a while, fluttering its wings. The bird was the first and last living thing I ever aimed at.

I can’t wait to tell this story to my grandson, as I have to my sons. The memory has stayed with me in order to be told.

To shoot a living being for sport is not good — for me. This is not to say it isn’t good, just that it isn’t good for me. Those I love should understand every side of this.

I’ve never hunted but have fished many, many times for food — starting as a boy. In Florida I’d bring home dinner for 3 or 4 two or three times a week. The fish had exactly the same trauma and will to live as the bird but I was looking for food and was willing to kill. Today there are countless fishermen who fish for sport. They’ll unhook the fish, gently, and ease it back into the water. I can’t do that. Why should the fish have this nightmare?

Hunting “game” animals for sport has its place in today’s over-populated world. Humans procreate damn near as fast as bugs or rabbits. Wild animals lose their homesteads by the day and are shot as a means to preempt the slower death … starvation. In this sense sports hunting has its dark place.

Though I never have, I would hunt – and kill – for food, if required. I’d personally skin and cut the animal whose life I had taken. I would eat or use every molecule of the precious life I was destined/enabled to absorb. He or she would be my friend. We will have lived and served, with honor, the great unrelenting stream.

Before the invasion American Indians lived as a part of the dying process — and paid homage to their fellow creatures as they were absorbed.

Having said all that I am not prepared to cast a final stone in regard to what about our sons right now. I would take the words above to make sure the kid gets the full picture. But I would submit the following as well.

There is a social aspect.

When my oldest son, now near 16, was 10 I bought him a BB gun, BBS, and a target. I taught him hour after hour the safe way to handle a rifle (and later – a pistol, also BB.) I mean it was drilled. I also taught him how to aim, and reach the “bulls-eye”. We shot only the targets, and no other use was permitted, or even considered seriously. I told him the bird story and more.

I did all this because I knew that sooner or later he’d run into a situation where he’d be introduced to a gun and be expected to handle it. I did not want him to have a short hand in a fast game, or to be forced outside. He was a willing, but not easy, student. For some reason getting his eyes to focus correctly was problematic and was never resolved completely. But he did learn, absolutely learn, the tenets of safety and principal.

A few years later he was a guest at his older sister’s home and was invited by her husband to go hunting. They lived at a place where hunting and eating game animals was a part of a day’s work. From a tree my son – having been unceremoniously handed the rifle as only an in-law can do – shot dead a duck from 150 feet with one shot from a .22. To this day my daughter’s husband, dumbstruck then, says that’s the finest shot he’s ever seen.

Jerry, my son-in-law, retrieved and saved the duck thinking I’d want to stuff it for my son’s trophy shelf. No. Though I didn’t respond in such a way as to criticize Jerry’s thinking, I never really responded. Months later he threw the body away, wasted entirely.

But I would not have denied my son the supreme feeling he gained by rising to that occasion, rather unexpectedly too.

I’ve taken cruises on ships in the past and one of the funnest things to do on an otherwise uneventful, perhaps boring day is to shoot “skeet” off the stern. At the very rear end of the boat there’s a sling that propels clay disks into the retreating wind and folks aim shotguns and try to blow them apart. Yes, perhaps there’s a leftover here from war days or from the days of Theodore Roosevelt (whose happiest ambition was to shoot game animals) but it is now a social thing. I’d want my son, and my grandson, to be able to participate without embarrassment.

Mostly, I want my sons and grandsons to confidently participate in all the events thrown at them, knowing full well that they can, while knowing also that some of them are very poorly grounded, and why.

The larger issue is about the gun. The gun exists.

From cowboy days boys have been fascinated by guns. At 9 I found a blank gun hidden deeply within my mother’s private space. Nine year old boys can find anything. Later, she explained that a yo-yo had given it to her at a party where he had pulled it out and shot it, deafening everyone, and especially her. She was highly pissed and the man, the yo-yo, gave it to her in retribution. At 9 I showed it to all my friends and a few parents. No, I wasn’t arrested but calls to my mother were made.

That same year I decided I was part Indian, if not entirely, and said so to whoever would listen. I also found (again — looking deep) some of my long lost father’s Air Force things and wore them around the neighborhood. Boys for sure explore, and some girls do too. My point is that I want a kid to explore with as full a deck as can be provided.

The kid will be provided the challenge. The idea is to prepare the kid.

Yes, Batman. Not only my favorite hero long ago, but still today. I liked (like) Superman, too. Clean as a pin. Nice guy. No guns. Plastic Man, Spider-man, Mighty Mouse, Wonder Woman, and countless others – no guns.

Not one of them uses a gun.

K’s theory on guns (“when they are mature enough to know what guns do …”) and “– to each his own –” is almost sound. But it is not sound. “They” are going to be exposed. Someone is going to hand them a gun someday, or try to. At that moment in time your kid needs to know the truth and exactly how to handle it.

The idea is to prepare the kid. Your way.

Yes, it is a “necessary item for them to get acquainted with” — so that the idea of using it in a negative way is not an option.

As a boy I was privileged to have been taught by the NRA – National Rifle Association – how to shoot, and how to respect the rifle/gun in my hands. This was a long time ago when they were into teaching, not lobbying. I was aggressive and looked them up, then joined. I bicycled to the range twice a week.

At 12-13 I became an expert shot and an avowed safety aficionado. I was on their junior rifle team. They provided the single shot .22 rifles and all equipment. I was enabled to, later, be a member of the Georgia Military Academy Rifle Team (11th grade) and, later, in the Army … well, the experience served me well.

Now I have a grandson, newly four, who needs to know as much as he can know. He has a good mind and soul, and needs to be able to walk in today’s world with a full deck, confidently, and in as full possession of truth as is possible.

My youngest son has a close friend whose mother will not allow him to ride a bicycle. She is afraid for what might happen to him. He is 10 years old now and has never ridden a bicycle. He doesn’t know what it is good for, or bad for. When I take my son there occasionally, to spend a half day or so, I caution him not to mention the bicycle thing (my kid is an avid and capable rider who knows how to be safe) but am I doing the right thing? Perhaps I should insist on teaching her kid how to ride safely. Perhaps I should seriously insist, and even supply the bike. Maybe it would open a new dimension for the boy, or save him from untold embarrassment or worse, later.

My theory, I suppose, is that those under my tutelage should know the “availables” as soon as they are capable of absorbing them, along with my view of what makes them relevant, manageable, and meaningful. I’d prefer that a kid didn’t have to walk into a wall face-up, or a pit.

In any case, I can tell my bird story well enough to break a kid’s heart and, without another word or action, inform the kid about … guns … and life and death.

My theory on guns is not “to each his own”. It is to teach the full story. This applies to every other “weapon” as well — bow and arrow, blow gun, sling shot, fist, words .. you name it.

As I run off at the mouth here, I must say that some of the Oriental disciplines — Karate, for example — teach cleanly that an ability to hurt is no justification for doing so.

Reading over K’s own words, though: “Or is it, with this day and age, a necessary item for them to get acquainted with for when they mature?”

Yes. And not only for this day and age. For all days and ages before us. It has always been necessary.

And the time, gently, is now.

As an aside, I’ve been preparing a hiking stick for my grandson. Well into it, I realized the wood I was working on was imperfect, not safe or durable. It is a boy I am talking about. When he goes to hike, and needs a stick to cross a treacherous stream, I want him to have, first time out, something he can lean on against the slope. I’m making another for him and it is filled – stiff, flexible, durable – with all that I know.

Another day, another challenge.

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