On Guns And Ignorance

 

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The country folk have strange customs and are a danger to themselves.

In upstate New York they refer to folks from the Big Apple as City-iots. In the Big Apple they maliciously joke about the ignorance and barbarism of the inbred yokels of upstate. The City-iots aren’t entirely wrong. New York’s burned-over district of the early 19th century has now become the Rust Belt and folks there are hard up for Jesus and cash.

Based on the Trump phenomenon, they’re as mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. Who knows where that might lead. I digress. The City-iots definitely have a leg up in more ways than one.

Guns: so much ink has been spilled on the topic, and a good deal of blood (if you pay heed to the media). It is one of the fault lines between country and city. And yet it is one area where the country folk have an advantage. City-iots, for all their intelligence, have an experience gap. Guns, in the abstract, frighten them. But the abstract is not where life is lived. Their general lack of tactile experience, understandable though it is, leads to ignorance and an impasse in the discussion over firearms in society.

Anecdotes: The Near Perils Of Growing Up with “Guns”

I admit from the start that I’m more of a city boy these days. Even when I lived in the wilds of South Dakota guns only mildly interested me. I have no desire to retread the well-worn pathways of the gun debate. But I do have a series of gun-experiences that should caution City-iots jumping to conclusions. This is, of course, a somewhat precarious position to write from as I risk incurring the contempt of both sides. Yet if policy at its best stems from the examination of life and society, it cannot depend merely on a collection of graphs and charts but also stories and experiences that suggest the possibility of a certain kind of reality or future. To this end, I figure I might as well take a shot (Yes, yes, that was intentional and lame. Please laugh, or groan.).

Anyway.

July 5th, 1973, a different world. The night before her family had been on lake Mendota watching fireworks. Now she and her little sister donned their parkas in the dim of the basement in anticipation. Her brother eventually arrived with his BB gun. “Come on, hide!” he yelled. A moment later the “pff” of the rifle spake forth. She dove behind a couch as the shot puffed into the soft cushions. She had dodged the pellet and laughed with glee. Susi: 1. Tim: 0. For the next half hour the sisters scurried about the dingy basement as metal balls chased them. Occasionally they were hit. Tim wasn’t the best shot, but he kept it interesting. Eventually they grew bored and wandered upstairs to make chocolate chip cookies. She always took charge of the baking endeavors and unfortunately this time she got her hair caught in the mixer as she turned and sought to silence her expectant siblings. Granted, losing an eye to a BB ranked higher than a losing a headful of hair, but they were young and invulnerable. Hair grows back and eyes cannot be lost, can they?

As young kids, my mother told us this story from her childhood with a youthful cackle. And then, when I was ten, she and my dad gifted me a BB gun for Christmas. Almost immediately a WWII German training (BB) rifle appeared out of my dad’s closet. Apparently my great uncle, paralyzed by friendly fire during the war, acquired it before he lost the use of his legs. With these two guns, my brother and I in inner city Oakland, California, took to shooting cans off of a bench my dad had built on the hillside behind our home. It was slow going. The German rifle could only take a single pump with a velocity slow enough to see the ball fly all the way to the target. The new BB gun could be pumped up as much as one might want, but the old gun had a mystique to it and even more so when we managed to fit an old Japanese bayonet to it that we had found in the basement of an old widower whose husband had fought in the Pacific.

The bayonet may or may not have inspired our reckless banzai charges up the hill to slay cans of off brand coca-cola. We would load the rifles and fire from the hip, pause, reload, and then continue the charge before eventually braining the cans with our rifle butts, or better yet, stabbing them with our single bayonet.

And then one day, as our parents sat on the front porch of our home and we wreaked vengeance  on our foe, collateral damage occurred.  Firing on the move, my BB flew low, perfectly striking my dad’s bench and ricocheting back, striking me in the mouth. Stunned, I stopped dead in my tracks as my lip swelled and I tasted blood. Turning in disbelief, and not sure whether to laugh or be horrified, I shouted to my parents, “Mom…dad… I just shot myself!” They glanced up and declared, “Ok, so be more careful!”

Eyes can’t be lost, can they? But I was more careful and never charged that bench again without intentionally erring on the side of firing high. This early misfire tempered my youthful naiveté. Although my parents had taught me to treat the gun with respect, they had erred in not considering BB ricochet. The lesson was learned relatively painlessly, but learned nonetheless. Another lesson: at a shooting range up in Northern Wisconsin my .22 jammed, and shifting it to get better leverage, the barrel swung in my dad’s direction. His horrified reaction and my mortified realization of what I had done (and knew not to do) made an impression. Guns are fun (the shooting range was great), but they must be handled with a great deal of care.

That said, my family is not a “gun family”. Even when we moved to South Dakota and purchased a .22, we did it to kill rabbits eating our garden and feral cats eating our kitten’s food. Periodically we would also take it down the river for target shooting. And this was all very normal. In South Dakota it was not uncommon to see much larger rifles (really, a .22 is barely a gun) in the back of pickup trucks. In my experience, a gun was a source of pleasure and utility. It was not a political statement. It was not out of fear for our safety (although I must admit running through a home-intruder situation in my head and knowing exactly what I’d do). It was there to simply get a job done.

The Experiential Gap

Living in NYC, it has occurred to me how much growing up in the “gun culture” of the American plains formed my opinions about firearms. I’ve discussed guns with NYC born-and-raised colleagues and to them such weapons are utterly terrifying and barbaric. They have never handled such a tool of destruction nor have their parents. Further, their exposure to guns is formed by ghastly tales from abroad: mass shootings, crime in the inner cities, and tragic accidental deaths. The media frenzy only heightens these emotions and drives a wedge between the urban and rural ways of life in America; indeed, what is perfectly normal and safe in one place is seen as freakish by another. Guns in South Dakota are not only non-controversial (1 gun murder per 100,000 people), they are a non-issue (56% of people in South Dakota own a gun). South Dakota is in fact far safer than NY in terms of gun violence despite high levels of gun ownership.

My colleagues aren’t wholly wrong. Guns are scary. Wrong angle, wrong pressure on a trigger, and an “oops” becomes a dead human. I get it. Do the country bumpkins realize this? Of course they do. But let’s put this into perspective: shooting a gun is like driving a car. Think back to when you started driving. Yes, you thought you were impervious, but you quickly realized how frail life is. You see the oncoming car and it occurs to you, with no suicidal intention, that you could end it all. A twitch of the wheel, poof, a smashing of steel and glass, and goodbye. This is a healthy acknowledgment of mortality—the acknowledgment that we could kill and be killed in a moment speeding down the road. But we don’t kill. And suddenly driving isn’t so scary. To the folk that are terrified of firearms, just remember that every time you commandeer a vehicle how much damage you could inflict on the world. In a single moment you could wipe out more than you ever could with a single pull of the trigger. This isn’t to terrify one of driving, its to normalize the handling of a firearm. It’s dangerous, yes, but properly handled its a tool like any other.

A less innocuous point: one day, as a young kid, I was at a friend’s home and we were shooting arrows. The tips were dull, but he overshot and the arrow went over the fence. I didn’t worry for my sake because, hey, my finger wasn’t on the string. But an hour later, my already terrified friend, was confronted by his father. The neighbor had called and wanted to know why there was an arrow stuck in the siding of their house. A fair question. I don’t recall what happened to my friend. A reprimand I assume (we didn’t shoot any more arrows after that). And yet, despite my initial nonchalance, I realized the misfire had been a potentially bloody moment (imagine the arrow impaling the neighbor.) Even this was dangerous business. But once again, so was driving to my friend’s home.

Policy Suggestions…?

I don’t wholly blame my colleagues for their reaction to firearms. If they had grown up in my home, I imagine they’d see things differently, and vis versa. As much as gun-control is discussed at the national level, the problem strikes me as fundamentally provincial. New York City is not South Dakota. The fact that a misfire in Harlem could fly through the homes of multiple people, something that could never happen in the open plains of America, strikes me as something worth considering. What works for one state, locale, and culture may not work for another. This is why I’m apprehensive about a one-size-fits-all policy either pro or anti-gun. Call me a federalist.

Regardless, the reality: guns are sometimes necessary, always fun, and always dangerous (that’s the point). They are also constitutional. I won’t let my kids take potshots at each other with BB guns, but they will know how to shoot. And if they want, I’ll let them get airsoft or paintball guns and have at it. “Just be sure,” I’ll tell them, “to never start firing till you’ve put on your goggles. Protect your eyes. You only get two of them.”

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