In my extended family, a generation ago, it was the odd household that didn’t have guns. I think that for my father’s father, a gun served mainly as another mechanical thing to tinker with. For years, my mother’s father hunted regularly—deer and rabbits. I remember when I was five or six getting my pick of rabbit’s feet, running my fingers across the soft brown fur, gradually imagining the creature that had lived, and putting the foot away, unable in its presence to shake the sense that I had held absence and been somehow culpable in an irrevocable, unnecessary end.
My grandfather didn’t care primarily about bringing home game. (When he returned from World War II, he found that his Irish setter was ruined for birding after years of chasing geese on my great grandparents’ farm, and the story was added affectionately to the evidence of what made the setter his own dog—and the smartest dog you could ask for.) What he loved most about hunting was the woods, knowing birds and trees, tracks, how to find your way, what would make cuts feel better and what tasted good, what would kill you if you ate it. In that part of the country, for men, going into the woods meant going with a gun. From my grandparents’ porch, when the maples went red between the pines, you could hear the report of guns from the mountains, shotguns and .22s. My grandparents, even my parents, could identify all the calibers by sound.
My mother wasn’t taught to use a gun—nor were girls allowed to run the motor on the little aluminum fishing boat—but girls were taught about guns, the rules, because guns were another element of the household. Never point a gun at anyone, even in jest. Never leave a gun loaded. Assume every gun is loaded. Keep guns locked and out of sight. If you’re not going to train and practice, don’t have a gun. If you don’t trust someone to be prudent, avoid that person if you know they have a gun on them (no one would have been assumed to be carrying a concealed gun). Never hunt with people you don’t trust. When hunting in a group, never get out in front, never assume you’ve been seen and recognized.
When my parents briefly considered having a gun in the house, for safety, my grandfather’s advice—that guns purchased for self-defense were more likely to be used against their owners than by them—had the weight of his experience and seriousness. He thought training made little difference. A robber (home invasion was the imagined scenario) would in all likelihood be more skilled, more willing to shoot, and have the tactical advantage of surprise. So if you pulled a gun—and you’d better be fast and sure—you had to be prepared to shoot immediately, no questions; shoot to kill, and you were a fool if you thought you knew how you’d react, or that you could predict the circumstances.
Talk of Sandy Hook inevitably entered the holiday party I went to the night after. I think we were as relieved as we were glad to see to friendly faces. We were dismayed, terrified. What could be done, even if stringent new regulations were signed into law, about the thousands of military-grade weapons already at large? No one was as alarmed as the one veteran present. The rest of us, as wrenched with empathy as we were, as justified as we were to imagine how we would respond if someone opened fire on us in a store or school, had no comparisons by which to measure our competence, our willingness to take a life, or our judgment about when that would be justified (or, perhaps a better term, the lesser evil).
It is unbearable to contemplate how no one at Sandy Hook was able to do more than hide, plead, luck out, or, heroically, confront the killer unarmed. If only someone in his path had had the means to stop him. But when anyone—whether a respected journalist or the speaker of the Michigan State House—suggests arming teachers in lieu of regulating the weapons the teachers would be arming themselves against, I hear a grotesquely simplified logic: defense cancels assailant, x = y, equation solved, problem over. No doubts about readiness to shoot, no classes suffering lifelong PTSD, no teachers or principals, even supposing one were to somehow miraculously kill only the killer, with the permanent burden of having taken a life.
Arguments for guns in America are couched in terms of freedom—the right (freedom) to bear arms, the freedom from tyranny that bearing arms supposedly guarantees (though good luck with that in the era of the modern security state)—with gun regulation portrayed as a necessary constraint. I don’t know what to call the idea that at any moment you might have to kill someone to stay alive—Hobbesian, primeval—but I wouldn’t call it freedom or liberty.
I hope Senator Feinstein’s proposed assault-weapons ban becomes law. I hope action on guns is federal, so that stricter states don’t have to deal with guns purchased under laxer states’ laws. I hope mental health and social services are funded, and evaluated to best serve those who can benefit from them. I hope we begin a bigger conversation about citizen and state, self and society. Those of us on the left may too easily take self-declared judicial originalism and the Tea Party’s embrace of colonial imagery as evidence that anyone pro-gun and anti-healthcare simply needs to get with the twenty-first century. Maybe certain long-held concepts or images of American individualism are indeed incompatible with a complex, multicultural society.
But I think about the towns my parents came out of, small towns with mills that no one imagined would close within ten or fifteen years, towns where American exceptionalism and all the prejudices that the multicultural movement has striven against went unchallenged, towns where most households had guns. And I think the idea of guns in the classroom would have seemed as alien there as it seems to me. Concealed weapons were for detectives, who were mostly in the movies and on TV, and automatic weapons were for the military (at least, no one else had them). Movie cowboys carried guns because there was no law and order on the old frontier, and everyone was relieved when a new marshal rode into town and put things right, and you always knew the marshal because he wore a star and took an oath, and upholding the law was his job, and in a year or two the railroad would come through, and the telegraph, and real soon they would have progress and civilization, just like the East, where the frontier had long been over. You might daydream about the frontier and enjoy it in movies, but you knew that it would have been a brutal place to live.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.