Commentary: Putting guns in context
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 2, 2013 - It was a few months before the killings in Newtown when I learned what an AR-15 was … is. A 9-year-old boy in rural Missouri taught me. I was interviewing him and two classmates for a book I am writing and had just asked if they had any personal heroes, real or imaginary.
“Firefighters or cops or something,” said this boy, whom I will call Blake.
“My dad,” said his classmate, a girl I will call Savannah. “He said that if anyone breaks in he won’t let them get to our rooms or anything. He just said, ‘They’ll have to go through me first before they get to you.’”
At which point Blake quietly said, “My dad has a 10-gauge double barrel under his bed [chuckling]. And an AR-15 in the basement for me and Jesse to use or sumpn if somebody goes to the basement.”
“What’s an AR-15?” I said.
“It’s like a, one a-those Army guns. … It’s semi-automatic so you can go boom boom boom, it’ll go tchtsss.”
“Have you ever shot it before?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’ve shot it.”
“Like, do you guys hunt for fun?”
“I’ve shot all the animals almost.”
“Yeah, deer, I’ve shot a duck…”
Blake and I had a couple more exchanges about the animals he had shot – a goose, a possum. And then I said this: “But you don’t use, you use like a rifle or something to hunt, you don’t use that AR thing for hunting, right?”
“Well,” Blake said, with the kind of confidence and affinity for his topic I reserve for talking about the symbolism of the color red in “The Scarlet Letter.” “The AR-15 is got all tricked out for like, it’s for coyote hunting but we haven’t went yet, we have, we’ve went, but not with that gun, cause it’s a $5,000 gun. Dad don’t wanna get it dirty or anything. He got a $2,000 scope on it. The cross hairs light up and everything.”
“So how far away can you be from a coyote?”
“About, to shoot it with the AR-15, I’d say about 400 or 500 yards.”
“That is so far away! That’s like five football fields. That’s really far away!”
“It’s really hard to see at 500 yards. Gotta have a really powerful scope.”
Setting aside the deep despair many of us feel at this moment, we must understand the culture of gun ownership – as we must understand everything about being human – in context. I have shared just one brief conversation, and don’t mean to generalize. Nevertheless, Savannah and Blake show us how children can understand the possession of guns as an indication of the love and protection their family (their fathers, especially) provide.
Savannah feels good when her father says that any potential home-violator will have to “go through me first before they get to you.” Indeed, her father is her hero for the very fact that he says this to her.
That, to me, her father’s words sound depressingly like a ventriloquated speech of an action movie hero means nothing at all in the context of Savannah’s experience, or of her father’s presumed sincerity. The Daddy-as-Hero rhetoric is part of what makes Savannah feel that all is right with the world.
As for Blake, he respects and admires “firefighters and cops” and is proud of the gun under his dad’s bed and the AR-15 in the basement, there for him to use on an intruder. The semi-automatic rifle is an expensive thing to have acquired; it signals an impressive level of dedication to the idea of protection, and itself requires protecting: “Dad don’t wanna get it dirty or anything.” The gun has special features: the $2000 scope, the cross hairs that light up. The idea that a 9-year-old boy and his brother have the ability to take this item and massacre other people at will — what people like me never forget — is, in context, secondary.
Children need to feel safe and protected by the adults who care for them, and these weapons are part of the protective web. They are part of family identity.
Those of us who fear and loathe guns, and say we want to ban and regulate them, are perceived as violators of home. We figure as intruders, not the flesh-and-blood hypothetical people at whom the weapons are intended to be aimed, but some other kind. Maybe even a worse kind. The kind of intruders who try to prevent other people from keeping their own kids safe.
In contexts large and small, living among guns is what we do. As far as I can tell, it’s what we are going to be doing for a long time.
We can do what we can to license and regulate the possession of firearms. We can educate toward civility, enlightenment, and peaceful conflict resolution. We can limit young children’s exposure to violent entertainment.
Of course this is all very difficult in a country where soldiering on is not merely a figure of speech. Our 2012 military spending was $817 billion, out of our roughly $1.2 trillion budget. About 28 percent of our taxes go to military-related expenditures. Locally, pre-Christmas gun sales in Missouri skyrocketed. It is estimated that 25 percent of our state representatives carry concealed weapons in the capitol.
As individuals, as families, as communities, as a nation, we put our money where our guns are and the kids are paying attention. The world’s not safe. Where is the surprise in this?
What we can do, as we bustle about trying to make the world a better place, is resolve to be like good soldiers everywhere: get along as best we can around people we can’t relate to, look out for our buddies, and try not to get shot.
Inda Schaenen is a frequent contributor to Beacon commentaries.