Reading the front page of the Brattleboro Reformer today over a half cup of coffee, after finishing my eggs and toast, I glance to the bottom of the page and see the lead to an inside-page editorial, “America grapples with its deadly gun culture”. My first thought is that “gun culture” is not a single thing, is not the same in every part of the country, and is neither wholly nor intrinsically “deadly”. My second thought, a little later, was of the seeming incompatibility of the concepts of ‘gun’ and of ‘culture’, the former being a tool of violence, the latter conveying thoughts of arts, food, dress, customs and other beautiful expressions of our many different human ways of living.
But I do think that there is such a thing as “gun culture”, so allow me to tell you a bit about my experience of gun culture and we’ll see if that sheds any light on the first thought above.
I was born the in the year following the end of World War II. When I was 10, both Japan and Germany were still occupied by American and Allied troops. Movies and newsreels made during the war could be seen on television. New movies, both of the war and of the new post-war life in Europe were in the theatres. My friends and I absorbed all these images through the still unexplainable process of childhood osmosis, so that we shouted “Geronimo!” whenever we jumped off a swing or down from a high place, or we dramatically intoned the words, “Bombs over Tokyo!” while pretending to bomb the enemy with our model planes. We had no idea where we learned these phrases, or where they came from. It was just what you said, it went with what you were doing, that’s all. Of our outdoor games the most popular was to play war. We usually fought as a single commando squad against an imaginary enemy, although if there were enough of us, say six or more, we might divide into two squads and plot ambushes against each other in the fields and woods around, and the outbuildings of our yards. The imaginary enemy was always either the Germans or the “Japs”. I don’t recall that it mattered which we chose at the outset of any game, the game itself just being a series of imagined situations in which we could display great heroism, and great sacriifice, dying over and over in frontal assaults on machine gun nests, falling dramatically while dropping our imaginary gun, like Robert Capra’s famous Spanish Civil War photograph, or shooting all the enemy down in the trenches like Sergeant York at the Meuse-Argonne offensive in WWI, neither of which we had any inkling of at the time.
But all of this was done without hate. In my family, hate was never expressed toward other cultures or nationalities or people, ever. Our imaginary play was an excuse for drama, for playing the hero, for displaying bravery and sacrifice, not a way to express our hatred of a nation or a culture. We held no such hatred, could not imagine it even.
Let me tell you now also about my experience with real guns as well. A year or two later, I became friends with D____. D____ played flute in the high school band where I played trumpet. D____ was a big fellow, a tackle and ball runner on the high school football team. During football season, he would be on the field, while I would be in the stands playing college marches like “On Wisconsin” and our school fight song, “Our Director”.
My family never had guns. If the subject ever came up – in those days the iconic boy’s Christmas present was a BB gun or a .22 caliber rifle – I am sure it was put away very quickly. Mother had an answer for things that she did not want us to do, like chew gum, or have guns, or read trashy comic books (I loved comic books and would bore my friends to death, sitting in their room trying to read all their comic books, while they itched to do something else.) She would simply say, “We don’t do that. We’re Wyckoffs”, instilling in us, she hoped, a sense of aristocracy and being above the hoi polloi. Oy vey.
But D____’s family had guns. His parents had a camp up in New Hampshire and I occasionally went up with him for a weekend. And we would go hunting together, along with his dog, Princess. He’d loan me an extra rifle, a single shot .22, and with a few bullets in our pockets we would go out walking through the woods, looking for squirrels or other small game. I never shot anything but twigs as a target. I had no wish to kill any animal. But my friend had grown up hunting with his father and would readily shoot a squirrel or a raccoon if we spotted one. I never disapproved or thought less of him for doing so. I knew him then, and I know him now, to be the kindest, gentlest person on earth. I know that may seem a contradiction, but I can only report what I felt at the time and what I still understand. I have never seen him express hatred or anger.
Sometime shortly after we graduated from high school my friend enlisted in the Marines and was sent into combat in Vietnam. I saw him briefly again when he returned a couple of years later. He told me of going out on patrol twice and being the only man to return. He was changed, though I did not have the understanding then to realize how much. Indeed, I did not begin to understand until I saw him two decades later at our 25th reunion and he handed me a poem he had written, “Finally Home”, about how the war changed him, asking in the last line, “When can we be finally home?”
Now if by this point, dear reader, you feel that I have drifted from the topic into a rambling life reminiscence, please stay with me just a bit longer. The experience of war has much to do with the topic of gun culture. As the preacher says, I am nearly done and I will sit down shortly.
It seems to me that there are at least two kinds of gun culture. The one I know from childhood, both in play, and from my friend, is a culture which grew out of the fabric of the best values upon which this nation was founded. A child’s fantasies of being a hero, of sacrificing, of defending against enemies, are the same stuff of which a good soldier is made. The sacrifice of self that we played out on our childhood battlefields was done out of love of family, love of country. We did not hate when we were playing. And my friend’s hunting was also a thing of love and of his family, something which grew out of this nation’s long traditions of frontier readiness and independence.
But there is another gun culture which grows out of hate and fear. Guns in this culture are not primarily for hunting, but for the ability to attack and defend against other human beings. Military style and high powered guns are not only preferred to hunting weapons, but they are collected and stockpiled by many, along with caches of ammunition sufficient to arm a squadron or a platoon. I do not believe hate and fear ever furnish good reason to act, in any context.
Vermont is a small, rural state, though not the only rural part of this country by any means. There are few gun regulations in Vermont. Other parts of this vast nation are different. The conditions in many of our cities, for instance, are different from the many rural areas like Vermont. The suburbs differ from both. I do not propose here any specific solution, legislative or otherwise, to the current level of gun violence. What I would propose is that people consider thoughtfully how these two kinds of “gun culture” differ from one another and proceed from there.
A current national candidate has suggested that people need to stop “shouting at one another” and begin talking about what can be done. To say that we can do nothing about it strikes me as showing a deep lack of faith in each other, and a deep lack of faith in our strength as a nation and a people.