My first gun: Looking for safe ground in the middle of the gun debate

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The Crickett is a bolt action .22, 30 inches long, with a black metal barrel and a plastic body. The box has a big cartoon cricket on the front (Davey Crickett is his name) and says “My First Rifle” in large green letters. Just below that, in very small letters, it says “NOT A TOY.” The Crickett is a bolt action .22, 30 inches long, with a black metal barrel and a plastic body. The box has a big cartoon cricket on the front (Davey Crickett is his name) and says “My First Rifle” in large green letters. Just below that, in very small letters, it says “NOT A TOY.”

The decision to buy a gun came suddenly. I was gulping down coffee before work and reading about the latest shooting, when my right to bear arms overwhelmed me. I ran out into the Virginia sunshine, jumped in my Prius, and headed to Walmart.

Ever since the Aurora movie theater shooting, I’ve been consumed by the gun debate, righteously posting articles on Facebook and arguing out loud with my shadow. As a child, I’d loved guns as much as the next American boy, but politics, and the fear that another madman was lurking right around the corner, had turned me into a raving, anti-gun nut.

If I bought a gun, I thought, maybe it would come with some new understanding.

Because a question had been nagging at me for a long time. Did they, the rabid gun owners and Second Amendment defenders, at the very least understand why, after what happened in Newtown, some people might want to ban guns like the AR-15?

More even than a change of mind, I think I was looking for empathy, just one person on the other side of the issue who could admit that in the first few seconds after hearing that 20 children and six adults were shot and killed in an elementary school, he paused for a moment, looked at his gun collection and thought, “What the hell am I doing with these?”

The Walmart sports and leisure department was quiet, display cases only half full, and the ammo shelves practically empty. I asked a passing sales associate if someone could help me with the guns.

“I want to buy the Crickett,” I said. “The pink one.”

It took 25 minutes for me to become a gun owner. At that point I’d been working on this story for about two weeks. There would be many more weeks to come, during which the six month anniversary of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School would come and go, and a man would walk through downtown Santa Monica firing a semi-automatic rifle, killing five people before he was shot and killed by the police. Two thousand one hundred and twenty Americans would be killed by guns during the 12 weeks I worked on the story; 50 of them in Virginia, and two in Albemarle County.

The manager had to carry the box through the store. Once we were outside, she handed it over. She asked me who I was buying it for.

“Me,” I said. “It’s my first gun.”

She gave me a look. “They do come in black, you know.”

 

Small arms for small arms

At 1pm on April 30, three days before I bought my gun, a mother in Burkesville, Kentucky stepped outside onto the porch to empty a mop bucket and in that brief moment her 5-year-old son shot and killed his 2-year-old sister with a Crickett he’d been given for his birthday. The gun, which only holds one bullet, had accidentally been left loaded, leaning in a corner.

“Just one of those crazy accidents,” the coroner told the Lexington Herald-Leader. It was in fact the fourth such crazy accident that month. In New Jersey, a 6-year-old and a 4-year-old friend were playing “pretend shooting” with another .22 caliber rifle, resulting in the 4-year-old being shot. The next day, a woman in Tennessee was shot and killed by her 4-year-old, and then later in the month, in Washington state, a 7-year-old boy grabbed his older brother’s .22 and accidently shot his 9-year-old sister, who thankfully lived. Also in April, a Political Action Committee called the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC held a rally at the New Hampshire Statehouse. In the crowd was an 11-year-old boy carrying an AR-15 and waving a flag that said “Come and Take It.” The boy told the local paper he was there to stand up for gun rights.

My father doesn’t target shoot and he hates hunting. He was a hippie who dodged the draft and drove a VW bus from Virginia out to Haight-Ashbury in time to catch the Late Summer/Early Fall of Love. Yet he owns guns, likes them even. There were five in the house I grew up in, including a Vietnam era Colt AR-15, the semi-auto, civilian version of the M-16 he would have carried, and perhaps used, if he’d fulfilled his patriotic duty and gone to war.

Maybe that’s the seed of my internal conflict, a house full of guns that no one wants to shoot. A long haired Deadhead in my youth, I nevertheless grew up playing soldier, and even as my politics grew increasingly, and angrily, leftist, I never considered guns a problem.

It was Columbine that did it. Columbine scared me.

After some time off, I went back to college in 1997, just in time for a string of school shootings to hit the news. I was pretty cynical about most of them, making macabre, juvenile jokes with a similarly angry friend about starting a Kip Kinkle defense fund, Kinkle being the 15-year-old from Oregon, who, in 1998 shot and killed his parents and then walked to his high school with two knives, two pistols, a rifle, and over a thousand rounds hidden under his trench coat. He killed two students and wounded 25, and my friend and I were young and angry and when Kinkle said, “If there was a God he wouldn’t let me feel the way I do. There is no God, only hate,” we thought it was cool.

Then came Virginia Tech, which didn’t feel that far away, because if you grew up in Charlottesville, you had lots of friends who went to school there, probably hung out in Blacksburg more than once, and maybe even knew someone who lost someone. I drove to Blacksburg a week after the shooting, uncertain whether I was there as a journalist or a tourist, recording for some sort of posterity the prayer circles, the candles and flowers and tears, and the long lines for merchandise in the school bookstore.

And then Aurora, and Newtown, and I began to feel worn down and worn out, but also angry at the people whose only response to all this horror was to circle the wagons, plant an American flag, and buy more guns.

In many ways, I’m not that different from the people on the other side of this debate. My heroes, people like William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, are just as infatuated with guns, and just as prone to confusing self indulgence with freedom. When I lean to the left I lean too far, teetering on the edge of anger, and when the government tells me I can’t do something, it just makes me want to do it four times as bad.

Eventually the bullets hit even closer to home. Last year, a C-VILLE employee named Beth Walton, was shot and killed by Noah Romando, her 19-year-old son, who also killed his 16-year-old sister, his 14-year-old brother, and then himself. He apparently used a .22 hunting rifle, although it seems he’d also bought a handgun, how or where we don’t know. Nor do we know why. Romando left three notes behind, the contents sealed from public scrutiny, and many questions we’ll never be able to answer.

Here’s a starting point. Gun crime is down, gun ownership is down, and gun sales are up. Mass shootings are a major issue and the gun control debate has reached a boiling point. There have to be gun control measures that would curb violence without egregiously limiting personal freedom. There has to be a rational middle ground.

How about this: We shouldn’t market guns to kids. We shouldn’t let kids use guns at all, the way we don’t let them drive a car or operate a skill saw. Isn’t that something we can all agree on? If we can settle that, then maybe we can talk about universal background checks, armor piercing bullets, and guns designed specifically to kill people quickly, right?

The gun that a child in Kentucky used to kill his baby sister, the gun I bought at Walmart, is called the Crickett. It’s a bolt action .22, 30 inches long, with a black metal barrel and a plastic body. The box has a big cartoon cricket on the front (Davey Crickett is his name) and then “My First Rifle” in large green letters. Just below that, in very small letters, it says “NOT A TOY.”

The shooting in Kentucky brought a lot of negative attention to the Crickett, and Keystone Sporting Arms took down the Crickett website (with its “kids corner” featuring a photo gallery of cute kids holding their Cricketts), Facebook page, and Twitter feed and began the by now familiar mantra of “no comment,” appealing to the family’s need for privacy.

Three days later, the National Rifle Association held a Youth Day at its annual meeting. Shirts with “NRA” spelled out in crayons were available for kids and bibs with “NRA” on toy blocks for babies. There were also, of course, lots and lots of kids guns for sale, including the pink Crickett.

“It was her time to go, I guess,” said the grandmother of the dead 2-year-old in Kentucky. “I just know she’s in heaven right now and I know she’s in good hands with the Lord.”

Exactly three weeks after that, 10-year-old Maggie Hollified was shot and killed in Crozet by her 13-year-old brother. The family had recently moved here from Tennessee so Maggie’s father could take over as pastor of the Commonwealth Christian Community. The Hollifield’s four children were homeschooled and their 13-year-old son Nathan liked to hunt. As a reward for completing a hunter safety course, a relative gave Nathan the shotgun that would kill his sister. On the morning of May 21, legal records show that he was trying to fix the gun, and it was pointing at his sister Maggie as she stood behind a loveseat when it fired.

The shooting, like the one in Kentucky and so many others, was called a “tragic accident” and the case was closed. There were many things about the incident that were accidental (the finger on the trigger, the forgotten shotgun shell, the sister hidden behind the loveseat), but not the gun. The gun was there on purpose.