Family History, Guns, Sabbatical, Suicide

A Fork and Knife (On Guns)

My father had a collection of duck decoys so numerous you might have reasonably assumed he hunted. And he did. Once. Oh, he didn’t have a gun. But my mother’s Cousin Jimmy coaxed him along to the duck blind once. Once. Daddy bought the right kind of jacket, and after he died in 1997, I found it hanging in the upstairs back closet with the hunting license still in the pocket, dated in the early 1950s, when he and my mother were newlyweds.

I was a grown-up before I thought of the decoys as tools. To me they were just pretty. We like ducks, I thought. (They’re all living at my brother’s house now, or I would include a picture.)

During the time we lived in Northern Virginia, we would go to church on Sundays at the Old Presbyterian Meeting House, and often we would stop after church to visit one of Daddy’s law school classmates, known fondly to us as Uncle Willie. We would go into his rather fabulous den, decorated with animal heads and shiny firearms and lie on the rug and read the funny papers while the grown-ups drank a fabulous Bloody Mary, usually with the little celery leaves still on the stalk. The walls also featured prints of people on horses wearing scarlet jackets and jumping horses over fences. I knew about hunting from “Mary Poppins.” I felt sorry for the fox. Uncle Willie’s house seemed entirely exotic. It bore no resemblance to my reality.

Going Out at Epsom, Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959) -- My dad bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII.
Going Out at Epsom,
Sir Alfred James Munnings (1878-1959)

My father liked to go to the races. The prints at our house included this one. (#1 Son now has custody.) Daddy bought the print in England, while serving in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Of course he learned how to fire a weapon in basic training, but his job was behind the lines, installing radar systems in airplanes. And I’ll never know now whether it was his Methodist “Mumma” or his knowledge of the ways his friends were killed and maimed in the war, or his own fairly peaceful temperament, or even his lack of ease with technology of all sorts that made him not a gun person.

But he was not a gun person.

People use the resources available to them and for the most part embody the values and practices learned unconsciously in the homes where they are raised. Yes, some people are “raised right” and go in another direction, and yes, some people are raised terribly and turn out, by the grace of God, beautifully. But most of us spend a lifetime either unconsciously living out what we learned in childhood or trying hard to overturn the patterns of many generations.

If you grow up in a house with guns, you will think of them as a tool people use.

A person raised in a house where books and music and writing are the tools employed might write a scathing letter or a heart-wrenching poem or a grief-struck ballad or a piece of painful electronic music to  express anger at bullies. If guns aren’t as common in your life as a fork and knife, you’re less likely to consider them a tool for personal use when you’re beset by social rejection. I’ve been plenty hurt and plenty mad (or angry, as my father always told me to say instead), but I DID NOT GROW UP WITH GUNS and therefore no matter how oppressed I felt as a bullied grade school student or an unpopular teenager or an unhappy young wife or a depressed new mother, I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.

Read that sentence above again: “I never thought of harming myself or others with a gun.” To be clear, I never thought of harming others, but I certainly thought of harming myself in one of those periods in particular. By the grace of God, I asked for help and got some.

When I thought of harming myself, I considered doing it with a tool in common use in my life. I’m writing this weeks after Newtown and a day after a young man walked into a classroom in California to shoot at kids who bullied him. There’s no question we need services for people who are troubled and support for parents raising kids with mental illness. But we also need guns to be categorized as something a little less ordinary, acceptable and available, as expected in everyday existence as a knife and fork.

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6 thoughts on “A Fork and Knife (On Guns)”

  1. My daddy had guns and hunted a little when we were young. But he enjoyed fishing much more. My brother and I took the NRA safe gun courses, so that we could go out with our cousins who lived in the country and hunted (a lot). I went shooting once and found it infinitely more boring than fishing with Dad.

    In the years between and after Dad was hunting, the guns were locked away. I almost forgot we had them, until the weekend I drove home from college to surprise my folks with a visit. When I struggled to open the front door at midnight after a 10-hour drive, Dad opened it, gun drawn.

    That moment was more formative than years of watching safe and sane people hunting and responsibly practicing on the range. Outside of television or movies, that was the first time I’d seen a gun purposefully pointed at another human. The tool’s purpose had changed.

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  2. I agree completely, and I’ll add that we, as a society, have become WAY too desensitized to violence as a whole. Nothing seems too bloody or gory anymore. Our kids spend down time “killing” things (and people) in video games, and we watch movies where guns are an integral part of the plot. And then we are surprised when people deal with anger and depression using them?

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  3. Learning more productive ways to deal with anger, hurt, and stress are imperative. Providing money for mental health services is imperative. I grew up in a gun-less household , at least until I was in college when for some unknown reason, my father decided to purchase a shotgun so he could hunt deer on his 100 acre farm. To my knowledge, he went hunting only once or twice. I have no problem with hunters, especially in my neck of the woods (almost literally!) because hunters here in my rural area eat what they kill. But as a teacher, it worries me to hear kids talk about the guns that their families own, and to know how accessible they are. It worries me to hear them talk about needing guns to protect their homes. Somehow we are sending and receiving the wrong messages.

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