Who is the boy inside the man holding the gun?
The boy’s father placed a bolt-action 16-gauge Mossberg shotgun into his son’s arms as he nudged his right cheek down to the guns walnut stock. Pointing toward a collection of corn stalks in rural Dunn County, Wisconsin, that 11-year old boy pulled the trigger but couldn’t keep a solid hold on the heavy gun.
The shotgun roared, kicking up and back. Its hard steel barrel hit the boy between the eyes. He was bleeding and slightly dazed as the men gathered around him and smiled. With that blood, he was ushered into the fraternities’ of men and guns.
The boy took a hunter safety course at 12, and could legally carry that Mossberg into the woods. He was trigger happy. He spilled blood. His targets were grouse, squirrel and anything else that moved.
He grew up in the Midwest, where men don’t display jewelry or grilling tools in beautifully designed cherry cases, neither are they safeguard behind sliding-glass doors and locks. The men he knew didn’t buy magazines or attended trade shows about furniture or hats, but they did attend gun shows and buy magazines on guns, sports and cigars. Tutored in these norms, the young boy understood guns (power), sports (competition), cigars (masculine symbols) and male pride.
Watch young boys pick up toy guns in a store. They raise the gun and pretend to shoot – their mouths forming what their minds hear – psshhh, psshhh, psshhh , swinging the gun left and right. A trigger persuades, and that doesn’t change until the time they hold a real gun.
With a real gun, men want to hear the roar, feel the fire. He noticed that once a gun was in his hand, and his pointer finger was on the trigger, he was almost magically compelled to squeeze. Sting’s lyrics from “Hung My Head,” speaks to a trigger’s power.
- Early one morning with time to kill
- I borrowed Jeb’s rifle and sat on the hill
- I saw a lone rider crossing the plain
- I drew a bead on him to practice my aim
- My brother’s rifle went off in my hand
- A shot rang out across the land
- The horse he kept running, the rider was dead
- I hung my head, I hung my head
One cold November, 14-years after he first shot corn stalks, he attended deer hunting week at his family cabin in Wisconsin. On break from divinity school, while the other men were out hunting, he stayed in the cabin drinking coffee and studying for exams.
By mid-afternoon that fall day, his brother came back to the cabin early from the woods. Before the weary hunter fell asleep, the student needed a break and asked his brother if he could check out his gun. “Go ahead,” his brother said.
He cradled his brother’s 30.06 like a child. He held the bullets in his hand: The shiny gold casings were beautiful and sleek, long and pointed, like palm-sized rockets. Then he stepped outside and walked a minute into the woods.
The gun felt smooth and balanced as he moved it from side to side. He put his right eye in place and stared through the scope. A squirrel was inching its way down a small jack pine, about 40-yards away and crosshairs of the 30.06 marked the middle of the squirrel’s head.
He had never used a scope with a gun, and didn’t really believe it was 100 percent accurate. Like children with a toy gun, he obeyed the gun’s persuasive whisper… pull, pull, pull.
His brother’s high-powered rifle blasted through the quiet woods, and he watched the squirrel, in slow motion, turn limp and fall to the frozen ground. Drops of red blood fell on white snow, and the squirrel’s leg twitched.
Back in the cabin, his brother asked, “What did you shoot at?” ‘Nothing,’ he said. ‘It’s a good gun you got there.’ The deer hunter smiled, closed his eyes, and went back to dreaming of big bucks.
He went back to his book, reading the work of Rudolph Otto, a religious scholar from the first half of the 20th Century. Otto employed a language of power to describe God, saying the divine mystery can be described with the Latin phrase, “Mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”
By mysterium, Otto meant that God’s mystery causes us to be silent in awe. By tremendum, he was referring to the tremendous power of the Almighty. By fascinans, the theologian was speaking of something that presents itself as fascinating. An American fascination with guns beckons us to display them, while their overwhelming power and mystery causes us to put them under lock and key.
Weeks after he shot the squirrel, the student was at the grocery store when he picked up gun magazines and read the titles of articles. Many of them used the same buzz words: defense, powerful, maximum, strategic, deadly.
He remembered the link between guns and buzz words: powerful, maximum, strategic, and deadly when driving through his home town on his way to a holiday dinner. He saw trucks parked in the middle of corn fields bordering woods. Scores of orange-clad men and women were outside in the cold Wisconsin fall hoping to shoot deer.
On that November twenty-third, five hunters near Rice Lake were shot and killed. Three more hunters were shot and wounded, all by one hunter carrying an SKS 7.62-mm caliber semi-automatic rifle.
News coverage of the day’s events said that Chai Vang from St. Paul, Minnesota, was in a tree stand when men in orange approached. They told Vang he did not have permission to hunt on private land and that he must leave.
Vang climbed down from the tree stand, walked approximately 40-yards away from the group, then turned and began firing, emptying his 20-shot clip. Chai Vang was just a kid in a store, and the men were imaginary… but they were not. Their blood was red.
Years later, riding through the city of Milwaukee with a friend, he was surprised when she opened the glove compartment of her car to show him a black pistol. “It’s loaded,” she said. The fascination of sitting close to the power of death fired his imagination. He looked at people on the sidewalk and thought, ‘You could be dead in a second.’ He remembered a squirrel and a story about Rice Lake.
He thought about his gun training and concluded that gun advocates are right in a way; the gun itself is not bad, guns don’t kill. He’d seen guns displayed in homes around the Midwest his entire life, and he hoped it was true that the pen is mightier than the sword. But the thought stuck in his mind, like a bullet jammed in a chamber; is the pen is mightier than the boy inside the man holding the gun?
Photo: Flickr/Andrew Kitzmiller