We can change, as the past has shown us

My grandfather loved guns. He had a magnificent collection, including a dazzling array of pistols, shotguns, and rifles, some very old and exotic. These he kept locked in a gun cabinet that was strictly off limits not just to children, but to anyone. Most days, he wore a pistol strapped to his side just like Wyatt Earp, though his was more likely to be used to shoot a copperhead or water moccasin than some rounder in a saloon.

When I was 10 or 11, he decided I was old enough to learn about guns, so he taught me how to shoot a pistol. The very first and most important lesson was about safety. I should always assume any gun was loaded, but never leave a gun loaded. I should never point a gun at anyone, loaded or not. He taught me how to grip it, how to stand, how much pressure to put on the trigger, how to absorb the kickback. Then he set up a target on the dirt bank across the road, and we took turns firing off rounds to see how close I could come to the bulls-eye. I remember the smell of the gunpowder, acrid and hot, the ringing in my ears after each shot, and the thrill of having something so powerful in my hands. I remember how proud he was when I hit the target, the way he called me “Chris-TOE-fer” when he was feeling playful, which was not all that often.

A year or so later, he taught me how to shoot a rifle and a shotgun. I got a double barrel shotgun for Christmas that year and took an NRA gun safety class as a condition of getting my own gun, which I had to promise never to load in the house.

He taught me how to hunt rabbits, squirrels, and pheasants, how to lead them in the sights of the gun so as not to miss behind every time. When I killed my first rabbit, he showed me how to skin it. After I went hunting with him five or six times, he said I had learned enough to go out on my own, which was one of the proudest memories of my childhood. I never felt more grown up than the first time I took my shotgun out into the woods to hunt rabbits and squirrels all by myself, so fully alert to every noise, so careful to remember all of his rules, tips, and advice.

In those days, a whole bunch of guys at my school had gun racks in their trucks, and a lot of them had training very similar to mine. Hunting was — and still is — a part of the culture. I remember several fist-fights and a lot of bullying, but nobody ever brought a rifle into the school and shot a bunch of people.

It was a different time and place, different in so many ways. Most people, including a lot of my classmates, smoked cigarettes — my school had a smoking area where people could go smoke between classes — and almost nobody wore a seat belt. Gay people kept quiet about it and went out of town on the weekends.

When I went off to college, I lost interest in hunting and in guns in general. I sold my shotgun to fund a trip to the beach with some buddies, and I have not been hunting since.

My grandfather never lost interest in his guns. Many years later, when he began to get more forgetful and confused, we wrote it off as a natural part of the aging process. He’d forget where he put his keys, or why he had come into the kitchen, or when was the last time he mowed the yard. Harmless. Almost cute.

One day, he became convinced that a man he knew had stolen his banjo. He went to the sheriff’s office to swear out a warrant. But the man had been dead for a few years, and his banjo was safe at home. Just like that, he had slipped over from forgetfulness and into another reality. Suspicion turned into psychosis. Skepticism turned into paranoia.

We knew that we had to talk about his guns. Would he actually shoot someone? By then, he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so we knew it was only going to get worse. He would have days that were more or less lucid, and other days when he just could not dial in reality. Those were the days that scared us the most.

I have been thinking a lot about my grandpa after the latest mass shooting in Florida that left 17 people dead, wondering what he would think about it all, what he would think about what the NRA has become and of the irony in its focus on gun safety back in those days. These days, it is a powerful political lobby dedicated to the prevention of even the most basic safety measures such as background checks and a ban on semi-automatic guns.

Guns have always been part of American culture, but like my grandfather, America has gotten sick and lost touch with reality. I have seen a lot of people pining for those days of relative innocence and sanity, people who seem to have forgotten the cultural battles that were fought — and won — to protect people from the lies of the tobacco lobby. We held tobacco companies responsible, and the culture changed when nobody thought it could. Now, there are no smoking areas in our schools, a tiny fraction of the population smokes, and the difference in tobacco-related deaths and health problems is staggeringly better. We passed seatbelt laws because too many people were dying because they would not buckle up. Again, hundreds of thousands of lives saved, and the culture changed.

Even lawn darts were banned because they were dangerous. There were other games people could play that wouldn’t kill them. Case closed.

Now, we live in a country in which mass shootings are a regular occurrence. We know this. It has become depressingly, agonizingly predictable. We know politicians will offer “thoughts and prayers” for the victims and their families. We know they will do nothing else. It is a cycle of tragedy, grief, frustration, and repeat. “Thoughts and prayers” is now just a sad punchline, a placeholder, a platitude. Without a commitment to repent of our sins — the sins of neglect, the sins of complicity, the sins of a “me-first culture” that prizes guns above the lives of its children — those prayers ring hollow.

We are told that nothing can be done. That the problem is people, not guns. That the Second Amendment must not be infringed. Yes, something can be done. Yes, we have a gun problem. Yes, we can preserve the right to bear arms without permitting any gun that can fire off 45-60 rounds in less than a minute into the hands of mentally ill teenagers. Or into anyone’s hands.

People pine for saner times. I do, too. Did you know that Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the right wing, supported a ban on assault weapons in 1994, as well as the Brady Bill, with a whole slew of restrictions on gun ownership? Today, he would be branded as weak and a sell-out.

Above all, we need to realize that our country is sick with this violence and quit whining and insisting that our right to own any weapon of our choosing is sacrosanct. There is no valid reason that any citizen needs to own or possess semi-automatic weapons. You don’t need one to hunt rabbits, you don’t need one to protect your family, and you don’t need one for target practice. They were made to kill people, and they need to be banned. We ought to begin a buyback program tomorrow, and the week after that, we ought to make it a felony if anyone is caught with one. You can get by just fine with a revolver, a shotgun, and a bolt action rifle, just as my gun-loving grandfather did for his entire life.

That is not all that needs to be done, and it will not solve the problem or change the culture overnight. But it is a good first step. It is sane. It’s common sense. The culture can change. We’ve seen it happen before. When you are remembering the good old days, remember that part of it as well.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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