I have a gun hanging over my bed. Make whatever you want of that as a marital symbol, but several years ago, my father gave us five siblings a choice of some inheritable items and, rather than the set of china or some jewelry, the Civil War muzzle loader was what I chose. I’ve never shot it. I’m told by the Civil War experts by the Battlefield near our house that it’s valuable, but that’s not why I wanted it. It was my grandfather’s. He was a man of such integrity and gentleness that I just wanted it as a reminder of his kind of character.
In his younger days, he actually engineered rifles that he used in competitions for pheasant hunting in Wisconsin. I have some dated black and white photos of him with my dad, their dogs, and the pheasants they’d bagged for the day. A different time.
Last year for Christmas my then twelve-year-old son received a shotgun from his other grandfather, my husband’s dad. He couldn’t have been happier. It was a generational “moment” where the three of them could now share a skill and experience that is passed down from man to man. I was the skittish mom in the room, picturing my baby boy as a soldier with a deadly weapon in his hands. A few weeks later, we all piled into the car and drove to the grandparents’ farm, where multi generations assembled in the back pasture. My son learned how to safely and responsibly handle the shotgun, watching and listening to his grandfather and great-grandfather as they showed him what to do. We spent an afternoon shooting skeet, enjoying the camaraderie of the day. And it turns out my son was pretty good. Over the next year, he ended up taking a gun safety course not once, but twice, as preparation for participation in his school’s trap shooting team.
I didn’t grow up with guns being a weighty presence in our house. Although my father undoubtedly had some, I never saw them. When my brother got old enough, I suppose my father was the one who eventually taught him to hunt, because I do remember him bringing home a deer once, and he would often rid the henhouse of foxes and weasels that raided our small flock of chickens. I never had much interest. I fired the shotgun once or twice, but it always left a bruise on my rookie shoulder because I didn’t hold it snug enough to inhibit the recoil, and I’m not a fan of loud noises.
In my husband’s family, however, it was a pretty regular thing for them to go hunting. Some of his cousins count on their deer quota to fill their deep freeze for the year. His family had their own deer stands in their woods, and they’d head out early on a frosty morning to sit quietly in nature, watch the sunrise, and hope a deer crossed their path. It wasn’t the blood sport that became ingrained in my husband. He loved it for the solitude and the beauty of the woods. Eventually, he ended up taking only a camera with him on these mornings instead of a weapon since they didn’t really need venison for dinner. It was in one of these deer stands that he eventually proposed to me, sans gun.
Full disclosure: my family has a solid military history. My father is a retired USAF Lt. Col., my sister is a USAF brigadier general, my step mother was in the Army, and two of her sons are military officers as well, one of them a Special Forces soldier. One Christmas he gave his fiance a sniper-type rifle to use in the shooting competitions she enjoys. Not exactly a diamond ring, but she was thrilled. So I get the military angle on weaponry. I see the necessity of it in our country’s defense. My exposure to the military has only given me respect for the soldiers who defend us. Growing up on multiple military bases, I have never witnessed one person, all of whom are required to know how to handle a gun, whip it out to impress someone or increase their swag. Military weapons training is ingrained with other words like respect, honor, discipline, and sacrifice.
Lest you think I am painting an idyllic gun-loving picture here, I am not immune to the kind of tragedy and violence that the misuse of guns can wreak. When my husband turned 20 in college, he went on a memorable European tour with a childhood friend. A couple years later, that friend stopped taking his medication and shot both his parents in their home one winter afternoon. His sister was out that day, which is the only reason we still get a Christmas card from her every year and are able to see updates of her children on Facebook instead of her being counted with her parents as fatality number three. This will forever haunt my husband and his family.
Fast forward a few more years, when a very dear friend was doing an internship for college. She came back to her apartment one night only to be hijacked by four punks with a gun, who, it turns out, had previously murdered someone. She spent the evening being terrorized just because they wanted some drug money. By God’s grace she was freed, and I get to enjoy her friendship and she gets to be a great mom.
Then there’s my friend who’s divorced, who’s more than a little creeped out by her ex-husband parking a few houses down and watching her house. She’s just recently started going to target practice with her handgun so she can feel safer alone in the house with her two daughters.
All that’s personal. But I see the news like everyone else. I witness the horrors of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Columbine, Sandy Hook Elementary. I weep for those families and my own school-aged children who have to know what a Code Red is and whose school regularly goes on lockdown because there may or may not have been a shooter seen at the university just a few streets away. I am angry as I take my 16-year-old daughter to a police department rape defense class because I know the statistics, and she is a year away from college.
I am sad that my children must grow up like this. Our society seems to lie in shards, and we no longer pass along values from grandparent to grandson because all too often, families are fractured or too busy to spend any real time with each other. As we add more and more convenience and technology, we lose connectedness and gentility. We trade family conversation for video games and cell phones. We trade empathy, service, and sacrifice for entertainment and gratuitous sex and violence. What else do my children grow up with? Isolation, bullying, the quick-barbed quip at someone’s expense, boredom, and rage. Images in the media and music videos that tell girls they are objects for someone else’s pleasure and that tell boys it is their right to take that pleasure. An environment that makes them ill, with rampant allergies and disorders being diagnosed right and left.
Desperate or mentally ill people don’t need a gun to inflict harm. The same day as the Newtown, CT incident, 22 children were stabbed in a school yard in China. YouTube will gallantly show you how to construct homemade bombs out of hardware parts. Visit any domestic violence shelter, and the residents can tell you bare hands can be all too damaging. As our country knows too well, box cutters and airplanes can be pretty effective. Such pathetic grabs for imagined power, respect, and importance through the use of fear and domination will continue, I suppose, just as they have since Cain and Abel.
In the aftermath of Sandy Hook, I saw the seed of our nation’s compassionate impulse. We saw it so clearly in the nation’s mourning after 9/11, when neighborhoods and states came together to help and to grieve. It was clearly visible in the Amish response to the Lancaster school shooting, where members of the Amish community visited the shooter’s family that same day, in forgiveness. We need to tip the balance. We need to teach compassion and empathy to our children daily, not just in 26 random acts of kindness, but always. Yes, get help for the mentally ill. Yes, befriend the loner kid who’s not popular. Yes, consider decreasing the availability of rapid-fire weapons and increasing the penalties for illegal ownership. But mostly, love, respect, honor, sacrifice. We must do this in our families and for strangers. We must teach these things to our own children and to other people’s children so that they feel important in their own right and will not need a gun or violence to make them feel it.
The muzzle loader still hangs over my bed. I don’t plan to take it down. I know my gentle grandfather would be sad and bewildered to know what happened in Connecticut. He used his hands to raise three amazing sons and to create beautiful things from wood. If he thought his hands holding a gun could ever cause such devastation, he would literally cut them from his body before that could happen. For those beautiful kids and teachers in Newtown, and for all the others who daily have gun violence change their lives forever, let us make it our mission to regain the best of what our society has lost. Let’s make it matter.