An education in firearms

I heard the news of the shooting in Newtown, Conn., while sitting in a plastic child-sized chair outside my sons’ second-grade classroom. I was waiting for a student to come out and read a poem to me, as I do every Friday from 1 to 2 p.m. The alert came over my phone from the New York Times, and my heart sunk.

When I finished going through the roll of students, I packed up my things and walked down the hall where I ran into a teacher whom I know. We talked for a moment about the tragedy unfolding. All I could think was, what if this were the school? What if someone had come in to my children’s school and opened fire? It was entirely plausible—all too plausible.

I climbed in my car and turned on the radio. A reporter started sharing details of the scene in Newtown. The town sounded similar to the town where we live: suburban, upper income, safe. Even here, in what I’ve come to call Pleasantville, we are not safe from this kind of horror. This kind of terror.

And why?

Guns.

When we moved to Iowa from California, I knew no one who hunted or boasted about guns. My stepfather had a gun for a while that he hid in a top drawer of his dresser, but he soon got rid of it. Guns were not a part of our culture. They were violent and unnecessary and scary. They hurt people.

During the opening of deer hunting season in Iowa, my small boys and I were at a sporting goods store and there were hoards of people—mostly men and their sons—shopping for guns, ammo, camouflage gear and other hunting necessities. I was shocked, but I realized that this was the culture. When hunting season begins in Iowa, people go shopping, then they hit the open lands and shoot away.

I befriended a co-worker who took week-long hunting trips during deer season and turkey season. He liked to taunt me with photos of his trophy carcasses. I learned what a twelve-point buck was, and what it looked like hanging upside down and then made into a string of jerky.

Sharing his love of hunting with me was not meant to traumatize me but to share his culture with me, to share something that made up a part of who he was as a person, as a man. We’d argue about the virtues and pitfalls of hunting, of having guns, of the death of innocent animal lives and the service hunting provides, as many see it, in controlling a species’ population.

But I was not swayed by his passion. I remained confirmed in my beliefs that hunting is wrong in most cases and that guns are not something to be celebrated or paraded. Iowa introduced me to gun culture.

And then there was the shooting at Virginia Tech in 2007 that killed 33 people. The public was outraged. Memories of the horrific scene at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., resurfaced. Since that 1999 tragedy that left 12 students and one teacher dead, it would have seemed prudent to analyze the country’s position on gun rights. But then there was a deadly shooting in an Omaha, Neb., mall. The public again was outraged. But nothing changed. The mantra: “Guns don’t kill people, people do,” rang out. The National Rifle Association continued its stranglehold on politicians moral compasses, and life went on.

When President Obama entered office 10 years after Columbine, gun-owners were concerned about their rights. They feared the new “socialist” president would repeal the Second Amendment that gives Americans the right to bear arms. I interviewed a gun shop owner in northwest Iowa who shared his concerns with his perceived Obama’s anti-gun sentiments. He said the gun owners he knew were all bracing for the worst and stocking up on ammo and guns while they could.

We moved to Ohio last year, and I had become complacent. When someone talked about going hunting or going to the shooting range, I no longer flinched. I guess I was assimilating.

And then the shooting in Aurora, Colo., happened. Again, public outrage surged. But still no talk of real gun control. We were on the brink of a presidential election. The subject was too charged. Some media outlets called it disrespectful to bring up gun control. Yet, people continued to believe that if Obama was re-elected, he’d repeal the Second Amendment.

And now this. Twenty children, six adults killed in a suburban Connecticut elementary school. The 20-year-old gunman who suffered from mental illness is also dead.

Senseless.

And now we’re talking about gun control. Activists have been calling on Obama to stand up to the gun lobby today. A group held a candlelight vigil outside the White House. The people are ready to talk. But is Washington ready to listen? There is a great difference between repealing the Second Amendment and enacting serious gun control to make it harder for people to obtain weapons and ammunition. This is not about our constitutional rights, it’s about reality and protecting innocent lives. We can try to prevent another massacre. We can try to do what’s right.

The Washington Post writes that the increase in public support for gun control arises after a mass shooting—incidents that happen too often in this country. The United States is an outlier in gun violence among developed countries. And while gun ownership is declining in America, violence is not, and these senseless acts of violence and death come upon us all too often.

This could have been my kids’ school. This could have been my children. This could have happened anywhere. We are not immune to the violence. But we can rise up to stop it.

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