On Kids & Guns

Dad loved guns and hunting. Hunting pheasants was one of his favorite things to do. Dad hunted everything and enjoyed a broad spectrum of weaponry. He grew up that way. Got his first gun at age 8.

I liked being outside and would do anything to hang out with Dad because he traveled constantly for work and I couldn’t be sure when I’d see him again. If he invited me to hunt, fish, or poke around in some marina, given an opportunity to do anything at all with him, I said, “Yes!”

Dad gave me my first gun when I was 8. It was a single-shot .410 shotgun. I remember mostly that it was loud and scared the crap out of me. Dad’s favorite at the time was a Remington over-and-under 12-gauge. It was louder and scarier. I wanted to like guns but it was work for me.

In no time, I knew how to safely handle, load/unload, field strip, and properly clean all of Dad’s standard guns: shotguns of various makes/configurations, handguns (mostly Glocks chambered in a variety of calibers – Dad would whittle these down to a single G43 shortly before he passed) and a few rifles including a high-powered .30-06 and a lighter, more versatile .22 Magnum.

I enjoyed target shooting, trap & skeet. I enjoyed the way Dad explained specific weapons architecture. He used creative and friendly analogies to teach me about the engineering that safely creates a controlled explosion in my hand. The way he explained complicated things in general was uniquely accessible and memorable.

While I enjoyed spending time with Dad, I didn’t enjoy hunting. I more than once endured the scorn of one of some of his hunting pals for pulling an easy shot. “You PUSSY!” one of them shouted once. I was maybe 12 or 13. After that, I never went hunting again.

That’s about the time I remember beginning to feel angry about “gun people.” I’d carry that anger with me for decades as gun violence in the US continued to increase and create more and more controversy. I decided I didn’t want anything to do with guns or people who like guns. I didn’t want the knowledge. I wanted to separate myself from it.

I carried those complicated feelings around right up until a random, unplanned afternoon more than 30 years later. I drove from Chicago to the University of Iowa Hospitals, and playing radio potluck stumbled onto a broadcast about guns. When I arrived and met up with Dad, that baggage emerged and set heavy on my mind.

As I sat down in a room with him for the first of many chemo treatments he’d endure in the weeks that followed, after some initial, nervous chit-chat with the nurses, Dad settled in. We were otherwise alone in that room. I leaned over and casually asked, “So how come you taught me so much about guns so early in my life?”

Dad told me a story that changed everything.

Dad was honorably discharged from the US Army in 1965. Shortly after resuming civilian life, he visited his pal who’d just started a family. A couple days after Dad’s visit, the same friend called him & through tears explained how, while showing off his “daddy’s gun”, a neighbor kid accidentally shot & killed his 7-year-old.

Dad told me straight-up about a choice he’d made. He started by saying he’d prefer there were no guns on Earth, that his natural impulse, especially around kids, is to pretend that guns don’t exist.

Then came the twist, that living with that mindset puts everyone he loves at risk.

I came clean, told Dad how I’d carried anger and sadness around about it. I didn’t know that story. I apologized to him and turned into a sobbing, wet mess. Dad did, too.

It was an unforgettable moment.

I’m grateful I asked him. I’d have carried all that around forever. Even better, we reached a new level of understanding and I have another great reminder not to jump to conclusions.

Now I’m a grown up with my own family. About a year-and-a-half ago, my wife and I started having conversations about situations that may one day require us to suddenly leave our home for unplanned reasons – war, bio-agents, and pandemics (!) We agreed to be practical but prepared for a broad spectrum of scenarios.

Are we preppers? Far from it. Will I be buying guns for my own kids? No. Will I give them ample knowledge appropriate for their threat model? Yes. Because too many incidents are happening every day.

To accept that responsibility, honor what I learned from Dad, and nudge myself gently out of the comfort zone, I enrolled in some tactical weapons training to update my knowledge (the laws have changed since I last paid attention) and recharge my skills.

COVID19 is shaping the world in ways we won’t be able to see right away. More people than ever are buying guns. I hope the number of accidental deaths doesn’t increase in direct/indirect proportion due to many of the numbers being first-time buyers who have no training or experience.

The tactical trainings I participated in were full of folks with diverse backgrounds, politics, values, and skill levels. I made some unlikely connections with my cohort. As different as we all were, we found more common ground than anything. We all share the same fate in a survival scenario. Like it or not, no cavalry is coming to save anyone.

Living and working in remote Southeast Alaska for a few years meant I generally and consistently had pretty decent preparations, knowledge, and skills. Living in a remote area brings clarity to the essentials. It’s easy to slack-off in other parts of the world, like the Lower 48. where I’m not reminded of those responsibilities as frequently.

One example, most parents down here don’t ask their kids’ friends’ parents’: “Do you have any guns in the house?” before allowing them to play there. It’s important to always ask. There are dozens of examples like this that hopefully won’t be anecdotes for future tragedies. Some risks are preventable.

I’m not as pro-gun as I am pro-at-least-try-and-understand-the-risks and pro-there-is-no-cavalry-coming-to-save-anyone. I’ll continue to value lessons Dad learned the hard way so I might be able to minimize the chances my family, friends, and I will have to.