Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Men, Boys, and Guns

[Cross posted to Front Porch Republic]

This past weekend, I was pulled away from the computer, from a sprinkler system that needs to be fixed, from a garden wall that needs to be built, from grading papers and tests, and from all the other vicissitudes of my life as a hopefully middle-class, home-owning, academic professional, to go on a Boy Scout campout with our church's troop. The big appeal of this particular trip? Guns.

I was not raised in a hunting family. My paternal grandfather was a hunter--and there were the antlers and an honest-to-goodness moose head on the walls of his home to prove it--but the hunting life he lived in the mountains and valleys of Washington, Idaho and Montana in the 1940s and 50s weren't passed on to his children. Though considering the fondness many of my extended family have for fishing, I guess strictly speaking it wasn't the mere idea of obtaining and eating wild game that failed to make the leap from one generation to the next: it was, quite specifically, shooting animals, and really just shooting period that just didn't quite take. My father told me about going with his father, just once, on a deer hunt, and finding himself disturbed and sad at the death which brought them the venison they later are, and resolving right then not to partake in such activities further. The result was that my father's rifles and pistols--he has a half-dozen or so--were rarely used around our home, and we grew up mostly unfamiliar with how to use a scope or clean a barrel. My older brother Daniel did receive a .22 hunting rifle for his birthday, and my grandfather employed him to shoot gophers on his property, where cattle and horses (depending on the season) were set out to graze. He paid him a quarter for every tail he brought in. But he essentially taught himself how to shoot, and none of the rest of us gained even that much knowledge. I went gopher hunting with him one afternoon; he came home about $2.50 richer, while I got nothing.

Though I live in Kansas now, I think my experience was pretty similar to that of most of the boys in our church's troop. Some shooting at Scout camp, perhaps; maybe a grandfather or an uncle or other relative who are serious hunters; probably some relatives who served in the military as well. But, broadly speaking, they just hadn't done much with guns. And the announcement that this Scouting trip would include target practice with a wide range of firearms, the boys came from out of the woodwork to get on board. And not just boys either: we had adults that hadn't shot much at all in their lives who wanted to sign up and come along. One of the participants was a dentist in our congregation who had a beautiful .270 rifle, one that he'd never used, though he'd owned it for seven years. Why'd you buy it if you don't even hunt?, I asked. Well, in case the bad times come, I'll need to be able to kill a deer to feed my family...besides, he asked me back, shouldn't everyone have a gun?

It's a fair question, one that my feelings have changed on. When I was an undergraduate and still exploring my new-found realization that my politics ran to the left rather than the right, I figured it was obvious that America would eventually have to get serious--really serious--about controlling access to firearms. I'd just returned from two years of living in East Asia, where, whatever other legitimate complaints might be made about life in that part of the world, violent crime and gun deaths are far, far, far less common than in the U.S.; to me, the issue was cut and dried. Though interestingly, one of the strongest advocates of gun rights I knew was a convinced Marxist--he wanted to make sure it wasn't just the rich corporations that would be able to arm themselves when the revolution came.

I never quite came around to his point of view, but I did the next best thing: I spent ten years living in Virginia, Mississippi, and Arkansas. And more than that, I got over my youthful cosmopolitan liberalism, and began to re-acquaint myself with the better, more localized, more authentic leftist tradition America had to offer: namely, populism. And the populism which emerges from the American West and South and Midwest...well, it's not entirely tied up with the "gun culture," which I'll happily grant is often poisoned with an unthinking or even abusive misogyny and drunkenness and violence, all of which is often a source of real, all too often terrible, harm. But the connection between a tool that can help you feed your family and protect your property, and the populist notion of people being able to be, to whatever degree possible, sovereign in their own places, is real. Hence, to be unreasonably hostile to the very fact of guns is to be suspicious and hostile to every father (and yes, it is mostly still fathers) who takes his son (and yes, it is mostly still sons) out into the woods to teach them about how to use this very important tool. And suspicion is no way to run a democracy.

Such were the thoughts that ran through my mind as some of my fellow church leaders and Scouters laughing took into upon themselves to teach their neighborhood liberal (and yes, that's their name for me; trying to explain that I use "liberal" only as an adjective rather than a descriptive noun, that I'm really more a communitarian or socialist or Christian democrat...well, it just wasn't worth it) how to load and clean and shoot. To be frank, I stank at hitting anything, but I insist I wasn't the worst one out there. The .22s we mainly left for the younger boys; the older ones we allowed to use--after proper training, I assure you!--the .243, .270, and .30-06 caliber rifles, the .357 Magnum snub-nose (I particularly that one, though one of my friends referred to it as a "pansy" gun), the 9mm semi-automatics, even the beautiful old .45 Colt one fellow brought. We also all did some skeet shooting with shotguns, and even fired a few rounds off on the ridiculously expensive semi-automatic rifle that one of the adults on the trip brought with him. I know, I know--the way to tell the difference between men and boys is in their price of their toys; I know the saying. Well, it's not $2000 that I'd spend, I can tell you that much. But at the same time, I suspect that blowing apart a target with that thing was a lot more fun than anyone could have had on a Wii.

I'm not sure what the point of all this is. My wife and I still have no plans to bring guns into our home; that's just not something we're comfortable with, I suppose. (My wife didn't sign up for the Million Mom March while we lived in Washington DC for nothing.) And I'm no less suspicious than before of the National Rifle Association and all the paranoid nonsense they regularly spread to enflame gun owners into panicked buying sprees and foolish voting choices. (As if Obama's primary plan for rescuing the nation's banks depends on taxing ammunition at 800%.) But if nothing else, it was another element of the "crunchy" life, another element of a life which obliges oneself to get past the supposedly orderly and pristine world we've levereged and consumed ourselves into accepting, and dig deeper into what it means to be familiar with the basic tools and skills of self-preservation, that I'm glad to have exposed myself too. In all likelihood, the majority of the people reading this are, like me, professionals and academics and office workers, and you don't know much of anything about guns, except that you want to get them off the streets. Well, fine; I do too. (Concealed carry permits are their own separate issue.) But in the meantime, get some knowledge here--some knowledge about guns, of course, but also, and perhaps more importantly, some knowledge about the men and boys (and, yes, women and daughters too; one friend of mine takes his oldest daughter with him boar hunting every year) whose lives and families and histories have been shaped by guns, like my grandfather's was. It may not get you a moose head on your wall, but if nothing else it may mean that you'll be able to relate better to, and hopefully be more neighborly towards, the fellow down the street who produces that fine rabbit stew.


MH said...

I never took-up hunting anything but birds, and I've not done that for years. My dad used to hunt deer and everytime he left, mom would say dad was "Going to shoot Bambi."

Camassia said...

I've been through a somewhat similar arc. I grew up in an environment hostile to guns, but then my sister married a guy from Mississippi and moved south, so I became a bit more acquainted with the hunting and shooting culture. I also developed a firmer opposition to factory farming, which actually makes me more sanguine about hunting -- not that there aren't cruel ways to hunt, but that seems to be the least of modern animals' problems.

On a deeper level though, I'm still unnerved by what hunting and shooting seem to stir up in the human, and particularly male, psyche. That is, people don't just do it out of necessity but because they enjoy it (as you've noted here). There's a real question about how well modern society can function if large numbers of citizens identify themselves, on some level, as predators. Even the more benign guardian role seems to depend on there being some threat to guard against, hence the outlandish scenarios that the NRA sometimes comes up with (we have to have guns if there's a military coup!). And since guns are still largely a guy thing, this relates to the larger question of whether there's a uniquely male role in modern society that isn't inherently dangerous, which is certainly a live issue these days.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I knew a guy in college who was a deer hunter, and he was so incensed by that whole "shooting Bambi" meme. I mean, it really angered him. He played Walt Disney for making all sorts of things difficult for hunters. I though I was kind of funny myself.


Great comment. I like how you also connect your growing acceptance of hunting with your opposition to factory farming, because I suspect, on a fairly deep and inarticulate level, something of the same thing happened with me: as I thought more clearly about what it means to have a proper, non-commodified, respectful, healthy relationship with the animals we eat, my preference of the boar hunter over the shrink-wrapped bacon available at the grocery store became more explicit.

Good questions about the role of men, particularly armed men, in modern society. This post is easily the most positive thing I've ever written about guns, and it's been a long time coming; when we lived in Mississippi and Arkansas, while a sense of the positive role they can play slowly seeped into my thoughts, my wife and I were more immediately struck by the very negative role they often play in specific relationships. Casual gun violence in the South (and everywhere in the U.S., but especially there) is far more common than it ought to be in a civilized society, and while much of that can be blamed on any number of social and economic dislocations, the bare facts are that where you have a lot of guns, male competition and bull-headedness and resentment will result in a lot of violence, not to mention just a lot of horrible stupidity. (The town we lived in, Jonesboro, AR, had been the site of one of those ugly school shootings back in the 90s: a couple of little kids, stealing their dad's rifle, and mindlessly shooting at kids and teachers, killing several. Horrific stuff.) So yes, I don't want my positive thoughts about their place in elements of local American culture to overlook the threat they always pose.

MH said...

In western Pennsylvania, it's either hunt deer or quit driving and gardening. Except for Pittsburgh itself, the first day of the season is a day-off for most schools.

Anonymous said...

I've come to terms with gun culture, and seen the cultural biases in gun control culture, along the lines that you trace in this post. So I've ended up also on the left, being pro-gun.

But I think there's a poor fit between the culture of gun ownership--which is largely connected to recreation--and the ideology of gun rights. Hunting is recreation, but very important *as* recreation, as culture, as tradition. And yet the second amendment isn't about these things.

Millenialist as I am, I really think revolutionary, apocalyptic scenarios used to defend gun rights are an embarrassment to the gun rights movement. Society rests upon the fact that its members take its foundatuions for granted, and aren't preparing for their demise. If that sounds like a criticism of prevailing premillenialism as much as it is of Marxist revolutionary hope, it is. A society where one side is amassing arms to someday use against the other side is a sick one.


You're working on a book on Fred? Please do fill me in on the progress of the book by email. Fred is one of my most dear teachers. As I said in my voicemail a while ago, I'm having trouble getting through your email filter, but I'm still at jeremiah. john at svu. edu (I also have gmail which I'll use to reply).

Jeremiah J.

Anonymous said...

I grew up with stories of my father's hunting prowess but we had no guns because of my mother's fears. I am now in my mid-50s and for the first time there is a gun in our home. I believe in the rights of property and that sometimes you have to be prepared to protect your property.

The gun hasn't been taken out of its box. It is only a contingency for the eventuality of large scale civil unrest.

Actually I have little to fear. I live in Texas and there is some evidence to suggest that there is at least one long gun in Texas for every man woman and child and that there ware more than enough handguns.

I rather suspect that that fact alone is enough to keep peace down here. But everyone must do one's part.

Bull Moose said...

Anonymous said, "But I think there's a poor fit between the culture of gun ownership--which is largely connected to recreation--and the ideology of gun rights. Hunting is recreation, but very important *as* recreation, as culture, as tradition. And yet the second amendment isn't about these things."

But any responsible gun owner will tell you that you must be comfortable and competent using your gun, which means you need to shoot it regularly. To get a gun and never use it is a very dangerous way to treat it.

Guns are not a magical talisman of evil. They are a powerful tool, and like any other powerful tool, skill and care are required for their proper use.

I remember taking a hunter safety course in 7th grade. Every citizen should take a similar course to understand and respect guns, as well as demystify them.

Russell Arben Fox said...


I think I agree with Bull Moose, at least on the very narrow point of the 2nd Amendment. Though I tend, as you know, to prefer a communitarian/civic reading of things whenever possible, I do think that the presumption of responsible gun use/recreation which that amendment obviously involves requires a general, underlying defense of individual gun use and/or recreation. Hence, the often abused and angry rhetoric of "gun rights" is, unfortunately, probably necessary to accomplish the civic ends the amendment is formally about.

Why the unfortunate disconnect? As usual, I blame the NRA.

Bobby Rozzell said...

I appreciate the thoughtful approach you have taken with this subject. I live in both worlds (pro and anti gun) and I think I understand the range of thought and feeling on both sides.
The actual presence of a gun brings a visceral reaction (either positive or negative)from almost everyone in our culture today.
It is an odd time we live in (types the man on his computer connected to everyone else in the world). There are very few things in modern life that children come in contact with that bring home the lessons of care and consequences. I am not sad that power tools and wild animals and firearms are not the every day dangers they once were. I am sad that the lessons of respectful handling of powerful tools has been lost. The expectancy of safety has eroded the expectancy of personal care.
The car is one of the few big dangerous tools that we still wield and its respectful handling is, like the gun in some cultures, often overlooked. It is interesting that the most recent discussion about licensing our children to drive centered on the limits of acceptable distraction, and how old someone can be, before they are not expected to give full attention to the potentially lethal device they control.

Anonymous said...

Nice to see you soften in your antipathy towards one of the defining tools of civilization (and its opposite).