Growing up with Guns

I have no interest in guns. I've never owned anything more powerful than a BB gun. I've never been hunting. Growing up, I was more of an exception to the norm — people around me loved guns.

My father owned a double-barreled, break-action 12-gauge shotgun propped up in the closet with buckshot shells in a nearby dresser drawer. Part of the physical education course we all had to take in high school involved a hunter's safety section that culminated by skeet-shooting on the football field with real rifles with real ammunition. People would call out of work or school on the beginning of hunting seasons.

My brother is not like me in that he loves guns. He collects them and now has a small arsenal consisting of handguns, a shotgun or two, and a few rifles. He has a concealed carry permit, meaning that he has a legal right to carry a handgun on his person. One of the guns he owns, I bought for him, meaning I've gone through distinctly American process of purchasing a weapon.

It was the Christmas after I graduated college and had started to make a little money. I wanted to buy larger gifts for my immediate family than my former college student budget could afford, so I decided to buy my brother a shotgun. I walked into a Dick's Sporting Goods, straight back to the gun counter and got the rundown on the various models in my given price range.

At the counter, I got the various specs of all manner of weaponry: muzzle velocities, magazine counts, and bore sizes. The sales pitch was analytical: scientific and all numbers, vaguely militaristic. Like most things where we don't want to acknowledge the true nature of, this specific jargon was a disguised way of asking, “If I were to point and shoot this gun at something, how big of a hole will it leave? What kind of damage can I, as a small human, do to something?”

The gun I selected was a Mossberg 12-gauge, pump-action shotgun: a black, all-metal, military-looking affair. The man behind the counter took my driver's license to the computer, entered in my information, and then a few minutes later gave me a ticket to take to the front registers in order to pay for the gun. I was a bit confused by the process so I asked him to clarify. He said, “For safety reasons, we don't want our customers carrying guns and ammo around the store.” That seemed perfectly reasonable.

He walked up to the front counter with me, carrying the gun and ammunition. He waited until I had paid, then, while standing not 6 feet away from the register, he handed me the gun and wished me a good night. So here I was, standing in a crowded store, near registers overflowing with Christmas money, holding a very powerful weapon. I was shaking from nervousness, not because I wasn't doing anything wrong, but from the complete disjointedness of holding a gun in a public place and how it all just felt wrong.

Getting a gun was too easy and I had to prove too little about my skills and mental capacity to be an owner of that weapon. For comparison, in North Carolina, in order to get my full driver's license, I had to take a multi-week written course, followed by a multi-week driving course, with a multi-month probationary period, followed by another written course and one more in-car test, just in order to legally drive a car. I probably waited longer in line at the DMV than it took for me to go from non-gun-owner to gun-owner. Our bureaucratic government showers every piece of its workings with red tape yet, for some reason, makes it simple to acquire something that is so closely associated with crime, civil unrest, and some of the worst massacres outside of acts of war on American soil.

As an American, from a gun-loving area of the country, do I know why Americans are so weird about guns? No, not really. I honestly believe that the overwhelming majority of gun owners I've met are well-trained and take proper precautions (Dad with the shotgun in the closet not withstanding). But it's the crazy people that I worry about. And people aren't always crazy. Some perfectly sane, say-hi-at-the-market people have minds that turn and need professional help. Combine this with how easy it is to acquire guns with a society that has choked down that visceral reaction to weaponry, and in fact celebrates it (either through movies that glorify outlaws or war, or as some twisted symbol of citizenry in contentious political times), and the ingredients are there for the terrible things like the past few months happening.