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When I was very young, probably no older than 10, my dad, brother and I went to a gun safety class that was held in the high school cafeteria. Kids and parents, mostly boys and fathers, sat at round, brightly colored tables learning about the dangers of guns, how to properly carry a gun, how to properly clean a gun, etc. I think this class was mandatory for youth to get a hunting license, and in Northern Wisconsin, everyone hunted. The week before opening weekend was like a holiday, half of the kids absent from class to go on hunting expeditions with their families. Hunting season was almost more exciting than Christmas.
I was at the gun safety class probably because I had nowhere else to be. My mother was probably working, and my father likely thought it useful for me to be exposed to a gun safety course. That way, I’d have a healthy fear of and respect for weapons, and I did.
The instructors told us stories about harrowing hunting accidents-- a woman who was walking down the road wearing a white scarf. A hunter who mistook her scarf for the tail of a deer. The heartache that ensued. The instructors also taught us how to load a rifle, set the safety, clean it, et cetera. This sort of talk was less exciting: 10-year-old me was interested in blood and gore and drama and tragedy, not the inner workings of a rifle.
My father always had guns though, locked in a cabinet in our basement. I don’t know where he kept the key, and I never tried to find it. Guns were, to me, just another household item, as common as dish soap or lighting fixtures. I never actually knew to be afraid of guns until I learned that guns were bad. I believe fear is always learned, a cultural response to an impending threat, real or imagined. I was only six when the Columbine shooting took place, and I later read a book entitled A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, written by the mother of the shooter. (Fair warning, it was a tough read.)
Guns have become a recurring talking point on the news, more divisive and pervasive than almost anything else. In the U.S., there are 120 guns per every 100 residents, the highest rate of gun ownership in the world. Figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show there were a total of more than 38,300 deaths from guns in 2019 - of which more than 23,900 were suicides.
Gun control is a hot topic and we've unwittingly divided ourselves into camps. There are the people who think guns are bad, who want to control access to them and regulate them heavily. Then there are the people who know that criminals were not waiting around for a legal gun with which to shoot up a school, and who defend the 2nd Amendment with fervor. And then, there are people like me and my family, who shoot guns for fun, who use guns to access food, who clean them and lock them up in a cabinet in the basement, who understand and respect guns and so, are less afraid of them.
I was taught that guns are not inherently dangerous. They are tools built and used by people to either sustain life or destroy someone else’s. The underlying factor, I learned, was the person wielding the weapon. So instead of fearing the gun, I learned to fear people, which is a more useful fear to hold since all the world’s traumas have been executed by humans. We are an imperfect and struggling species. For all our progress, we are still largely dysfunctional, our brains not quite suited to our bodies, our temperaments highly dependent upon our environment, and our happiness as fleeting as our pain.
For one of my biology classes in high school, we were instructed to either find or kill a dead animal, remove the meat from its bones, disassemble the bones, and put the skeleton of the animal back together again. My brother shot a rabbit for me, and my friend and I skinned the rabbit, boiled the meat off its bones, bleached and dried the bones, and slowly glued them back together. I did not find it macabre. I found it interesting, to pull apart each unique body part. To see how tiny a rabbit’s heart is, to study its sturdy hind feet. Most of all, I thought about how much like a human a rabbit is, how we are made of the same stuff: skin, organs, bones. How we need the same basic things to survive: water, food, family. But when I tell my friends now about this biology project, most are taken aback. Most assume cruelty where there was none and infer malintent where there was only curiosity and learning.
I was born and raised in a place where excuses were scoffed at and grit was rewarded. I left that place to enter a world where that equation was suddenly flipped. I was suddenly among people who did not know what it is to work with their bodies. To spend all day on one’s knees, scraping the earth. To wake up with the sun and take care of something other than themselves.
I was plopped into Southern California not knowing what to expect but finding myself confused by my surroundings. Who were these people who sat in fat office chairs, madly typing, and talking and selling and buying? Who spent money on expensive gyms only to remain out of shape and paid 20 dollars for a drink at a fancy rooftop bar, having inauthentic conversations with people they don’t know or care about? Who were these people? Who drove luxury cares and injected their faces with Botox and fillers and vitamin C? Who were these people, who found cutting apart an animal heinous beyond measure, yet cheated on their spouses, lived in constant debt, idolized fame, or bent over backward maintaining their public persona? Who were these people, who thought that hustling would bring them happiness, who thought that money was synonymous with success, who lived less than an hour drive from a mountain range but never bothered to climb a peak?
My relative neutrality regarding guns is born from a place of ease: I don't need a gun to survive or to protect myself. In this way, I am lucky and privileged. But I also grew up in a way that helped me understand that the world is not always good or safe. Our paths forward are not always comfortable and easy. I learned the value of hard work and had a strict moral compass embedded in my chest. I know that this problem, like most problems, does not have one simple solution. What I do know is that the demonization of guns and the people who use them is anything but helpful.