John Kinnear has grown up with guns. He has a question for you in light of all the recent gun violence. He hopes you have an answer for him.
When I was a six-maybe-seven-year-old my dad bought me a bb gun. It was the kind that required you to pull the stock away from the barrel and push it back again to force air into the chamber. I could pump it about ten times before it got too difficult for my six-maybe-seven-year-old arms, at which point I knew that when I took the safety off, aimed it, and pulled the trigger a tiny metal ball would come out the tip of the barrel fast enough to breach the side of a tin can. We lived in a town-home duplex at the time and there were no places within walking distance for my dad to take me shooting. Instead he filled a cardboard box with old pillows, propped it against the inside of our garage door, instituted a three pump rule, and taught me how to shoot in our garage/bb gun shooting range.
My dad had other guns, too. He had a 30 ot 6 deer hunting rifle, a shot gun, and (my favorite) a World War II era pump action, 10 shot .22 rifle. It had been his father’s. Someday it was going to be mine.
The deer hunting rifle scared me. I shot it once, probably around 8 or 9, and the kick left my shoulder sore for a week. But the .22 was the best of all worlds. We’d go to the mountains and my dad would set up a range. He would lay down next to me and help me position the rifle in my arms. He would lay my head against the stock, teach me how to line the sights up, and then walk me through my breaths. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Take another deep breath. Hold it. Don’t pull the trigger. Squeeze the trigger. POP! A Pepsi can 30 yards away would flip up into the air and my dad would whisper in my ear, “Good shot, buddy.”
On October 1, 2015 a kid walked into a college class room in Oregon and executed ten people, including himself. He left one kid alive telling him that he had two requirements for him to be able to leave with his life. He had to tell everyone what happened, and he had to watch his friends die.
In Boy Scouts I learned more about firearms. I learned how to set up and manage a range. I practiced with a muzzle loader until I could shoot the blade of an ax head, split the ball, and crack the two clay pigeons propped gently on either side of the secured blade. It’s not hard, really. As long as you hit the blade the musket balls are usually soft enough to break in two. It’s more of a parlor trick than a skill. But it impressed people more than burying multiple .22 shots in a circle the size of a dime, which at 13 was actually a lot harder to do.
When I was 13 my friend James took a shotgun into his room and used it to end his life. I carried the American Flag at his funeral. I wore my Boy Scout uniform and white gloves.
When I was 14 my parents divorced and I went through a really rough patch. My dad moved out of the house and into a nearby apartment. The apartment had a little storage closet attached to it and one night while my dad was away, someone (or multiple someones) shut themselves in the closet and cut a hole into my dad’s apartment. They stole his camera. They stole some cash he had stashed in his room.
They stole his dad’s .22 rifle.
The hole into my dad’s one-bedroom apartment from the storage closet was at the foot of the couch. The couch doubled as my bed when, after the divorce, I spent my weekends there. The first night I stayed there after the robbery I spent the bulk of the night staring into the black hole in the drywall, crying about my grandfather’s rifle.
I never met my grandpa. He died shortly before I was born. He fought in World War II and was stationed in Northern Africa. When I held that rifle my dad would tell me how much it reminded him of his dad. Of how his dad would lay with him and teach him to line up the sights. About how his dad taught him to squeeze, not pull the trigger. Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Hold it.
On November 27, 2015 Robert Dear walked into a Planned Parenthood with at least one gun. Over the next hour he shot and killed a police officer and two civilians. Nine others, five police officers and four civilians were also shot, but survived. The shooter’s motives have not been released but one source has quoted him as saying “No more baby parts” as he was being arrested.
In the months following my parents’ divorce, I started to rebel, push back, and test the boundaries of my new family structure. I started skipping school and smoking pot. I hung out with the wrong group of kids, and loved the feeling of always being on the edge of trouble. Obviously, my parents hated it. On a Tuesday in 9th Grade my whole group of friends went out behind the school to smoke weed. I stayed behind for some reason that I’ve since forgotten. They all got caught, expelled, and I was left to myself.
This doesn’t have a lot to do with guns except that after all my friends got expelled I started to come out of my funk. I got back involved with school and started writing for the school newspaper. My grades came back up. My relationship with my parents started to mend. One day I came home from school to my dad’s house (he had since moved out of the apartment with the hole in the wall) and found a brand new Ruger 10 shot .22 rifle laying on my bed. It was more than a gift. It meant my dad trusted me again.
According to the authorities, the shooter in Oregon had 13 different firearms. He left two pistols, four rifles and one shotgun at home and brought five pistols and one rifle with him to Umpqua Community College. The makes and models of the firearms have not been released.
When I graduated from college my grandfather on my mother’s side gave me his shot gun. I’ve never shot it, but it lives next to the .22 my dad gave me in a locked safe. When Stevie and I first met she told me we’d never have guns in our house. Every time a news story ran about a kid finding a gun and killing themselves, or their sibling, or their parents she would point to it and say “See. See John. It is too dangerous!”
I didn’t fight her on it. I just closed my eyes and thought about laying in the dirt with my dad and shooting cans. I’d lock my guns up. I wouldn’t leave them loaded. Guns aren’t evil. People can be.
I saved the fight for another day.
The fight never came. When we bought our home I purchased a sturdy safe from my dad and promised that we would only buy ammo as needed for sport. If our kids accidentally found the key and accidentally opened the safe all they would accidentally find would be a few expensive clubs.
A few weeks ago I got home and went to the safe where my guns live. I unlocked it and pulled out my .22. It has a stainless steel barrel and a black composite stock. The clip pops out from just behind the trigger loop. It is a small black cube with a place to slide tiny .22 caliber bullets.
I thought about how someday I’d to take my daughter up into the Uinta Mountains where we’d find a steady log and space out 5-6 Pepsi cans across the top of it. I would inspect the area behind them for large rocks that might cause ricochets then pace out a reasonable distance for a kid to learn to shoot. I’d clear an area for us to lay down. She, like I was at her age, is too small to shoot standing.
I’d have her lie down with the rifle and position it in her arms, teach her to line up the sight. Teach her how to breathe. I’d hear her laugh when the can leapt into the air. I’d tell her “good job.”
I put the empty clip back in the rifle, and held it tightly in my hands. This is my gun. It is the gun my dad gave me. I’m not a “nut.” I’m just a normal guy. I’m not really worried about the government coming for me, and I don’t personally think having a gun in the house makes it any safer, but I understand why people love their guns. I love mine.
I feel like I understand, at least partially, the complicated relationship we have with guns.
Sometimes I still think about my grandfather’s .22. The police never found it. I worry that whoever took it didn’t love it the way my father did. I worry that they looked at it and saw a weapon to point at other people. Now every time I hear about another shooting on the news, I don’t picture the shooter with whatever semi-automatic rifle they purchased legally at a gun show. I picture them with my WWII-era 10 shot, pump action .22 rifle.
I don’t know what the answers are. I don’t know if legislation will work. I don’t know if research will help. I don’t know.
But I’m willing to try.
Because I know this:
Virginia Tech – 33 dead.
Sandy Hook Elementary – 20 children and 6 teachers dead
Aurora, Colorado Movie Theater – 12 dead.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – 9 dead
Since 2001 the total number of deaths from gun violence in the US is approximately 406,496. (CNN)
This week a husband and wife walked into a community center that helps people with disabilities and gunned down 14 people. At some point before going on this rampage they dropped off their six-month-old daughter at their parents house.
And I know this, above all else:
If it were possible, I would give back every day in the woods with my dad. I would forsake every future day in the mountains with my kids and every Pepsi can flying off the log and into the brush. I’d let them all go, without hesitation, if it would give just one of those parents their kid back.
How do we fix this? How can we make this stop? How can I help? Where do I start?
I’m really asking.