Paul Kidwell still winces when he hears a shot fired.
I remember going deer hunting with my father when I was a kid. Still too young to pick up a rifle myself, I trudged alongside my Dad in the northern New York woods during deer season while he hunted. For a kid who craved quality time with his father, hunting in the woods and tracking those beautiful creatures was the perfect way to spend a late-autumn day. And yet, despite the pleasure it gave me then, and the beautiful memory I have carried with me all these years later, I still wince when I think of the first time he fired his shotgun at a six-point buck who was meandering through a nearby thicket of pine trees. His shot missed the mark, but the loud clap that the gun powder and steel made as it was forced through the rifle’s barrel made me cringe and turn my head away from my father’s shotgun. During the three years I accompanied him on these hunting trips he fired his rifle many times and each time I head the rifle’s retort I involuntarily shut my eyes, scrunched my shoulders, leaned my head away from the barrel and put my hands up in front of my eyes as if to protect myself from an imaginary bullet that was headed towards me. And every time I hear a gun being shot; even nearly forty years later and on those many occasions when I was doing the shooting, I still wince.
During my adult life, I have fired guns in many forms. While spending two years at West Point I had to qualify with a proficiency in firing the M-16 rifle as part of my early training. I achieved marksman status, earned an extra ribbon to attach to my uniform and was told to be proud of this achievement by my superiors who were training me. And, yes, I winced each time I fired the rifle at the small silhouettes a few hundred yards away. I never did enter a combat theatre where I might put that skill to use, but it remains as part of my shooting legacy and, like all the other experiences with firearms it has, in some small way, helped shape me as an adult man. Being a responsible man comes in many forms, and none greater when you arm yourself; whether it be for protection or recreation.
Many years ago, I was robbed at gunpoint. That experience made me think that I needed to protect myself from these occasional threats and it was at that point that I became a gun owner; regaining my proficiency with shooting at targets as if they were life-like beings. My shooting was relegated to legally-sanctioned gun ranges where members—mostly men—would keep their guns under lock and key. I know a few guys who keep their weapons at home and I understand the justification for personal and family protection. It’s a thought that has crossed my mind on more than one occasion, usually after a celebrated and heart-breaking public shooting like the one we have all recently lived through in Newtown, Connecticut. I suspect that few would blame me if I decided to take my pistol from its safe haven at the local target range and put it in a less safe; however, more accessible location in my home. Maybe my family would feel safer, but as one who understands the power of this weapon, I also understand how the dynamics of this decision changes my home to a potential fortress.
I read somewhere that Ernest Hemingway used to worry that if American men stopped hunting, they would cease to be men. Chauvinism aside, I wonder if he would think the same of men who ceased shooting or owning guns as a reaction to the ongoing killing of innocent people by deranged killers who have easy access to guns of all kinds. Of course, he was speaking about the battle between man and nature, and not the struggles between man and man. And I wince at the thought.