On Kids & Guns

Dad gave me my first gun when I was 8. It was a single-shot .410 shotgun. It was loud and scary but Dad’s favorite at the time was a Remington over-and-under 12-gauge. It was even louder and scarier. I didn’t like guns much then and I don’t like them now. However, that doesn’t mean I get to live life in ignorant bliss. I’m a parent. It’s my responsibility to have an informed opinion on such things if I’m doing my job well.

Dad liked hunting and fishing. Hunting pheasants was one of his favorite things to do. I liked being outside and I’d do anything to hang out with Dad because he traveled constantly for work and I couldn’t ever be sure when I was going to see him again. So if he ever invited me to hunt, fish, or do anything at all, I went.

By age 10, I knew how to safely handle, field strip, and clean all of Dad’s weapons: 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. The way he taught me about the engineering that safely creates a controlled explosion in my hand using friendly analogies 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 11 or 12. After that, I never went hunting again.

That’s about the time I remember beginning to feel angry. 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 didn’t want the knowledge, I wanted to separate myself from guns. Period.

I carried it right up until a random, unplanned afternoon more than 30 years later. While driving 9 hours from Chicago to the University of Iowa Hospitals, I just happened to catch a podcast about gun control and some oppositional viewpoints. When I finally arrived, it was still fresh on my mind as I sat down in a room with Dad 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 a bit. We were otherwise alone in that room. I leaned over and asked him, “So how come you chose to teach me so much about guns so early in my life?”

Without pause, Dad told me a story that changed my life. I’ll paraphrase:

Dad was honorably discharged from the US Army in 1965. Shortly after resuming civilian life, he went to visit his best friend who’d just started a family. Just a couple days after Dad’s visit, the friend called him in tears. A neighbor kid showed his 7-year-old son “daddy’s gun” then accidentally shot and killed him.

Dad turned, looked me clear in the eyes and said, “I made a choice. I’d prefer there were no guns on Earth but to pretend that and potentially put someone you love at risk because someone’s afraid to talk about gun safety? I chose not to take that chance. I decided right there to ensure my kids have knowledge to help them survive a situation like that.”

I came clean, told Dad how I’d carried so much anger around about it. I didn’t know that story. I apologized over and over and broke down into a sobbing, wet mess. Dad did, too. It was an unforgettable and important moment.

I’m grateful I had the stones to ask. I’d have carried misguided anger around forever. We reached a new level of understanding and now I have a new reminder not to jump to any conclusions without getting the whole story, if possible.

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

Will I be buying guns for my kids? No. Will I give them ample knowledge appropriate for their threat model? Yes.

To honor that responsibility, what I learned from Dad, and to nudge myself gently out of my 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 clearly right away. More people than ever are buying guns now. 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 classes were full of people with all different backgrounds, politics, and values. I made some unlikely connections with my cohort. As different as we all were, we found common ground. 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 meant I always had general preparations, knowledge, and pretty sharp skills. When I moved to the Lower 48 a few years ago, I noticed right away the common mindset seems to be that there’s a cavalry coming to protect everyone from whatever all the time. Most people haven’t ever had a reason to believe otherwise so they generally don’t think it’s their responsibility.

For example, most parents 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.

I’m not as pro-gun as I am pro-there-is-no-cavalry-coming-to-save-me from some of the uncertainties in life. I’ll continue to honor the lessons Dad learned the hard way so my family, friends, and I won’t have to.