Guns, Culture, and Sanity

I DON'T OWN any guns, and I've only fired them at inanimate objects, but I live in the country, so guns are a part of my life.

During deer season, the woods around our place sometimes sound like Baghdad circa 2006. We used to have a close neighbor who regularly fired a gun in his backyard, usually on Sunday afternoons—at what, we're not entirely sure. Our family has a three-legged dog that lost his right rear appendage to a gunshot wound. Our kids in Boy Scouts get gun safety training and rifle and shotgun shooting lessons in a program certified by the National Rifle Association.

So when the gun control debate heats up, as it has since the Sandy Hook School massacre, I come down with a serious case of mixed feelings. I think rural gun lovers are at least partly right when they say that urban gun control advocates look down on them as ignorant primitives. Many city people, and I'd dare say most urban liberals, don't understand the rural culture of hunting and shooting and can't be bothered to expend the moral energy that act of empathy would require. For me, that part of the gun control discussion pushes the same outrage buttons that go off when an economist says people in dying rural communities just need to move, or when someone else suggests eliminating all farm subsidies from the federal budget. Such comments betray the fact that the speakers neither know, nor care, about rural communities and rural culture.

On the other hand, fear of outsiders is also a part of rural culture. Groups like the NRA, and gun manufacturers themselves, have done a pretty good job of exploiting that flaw, to the point that some of my neighbors are convinced that they need assault weapons to defend themselves against some vague, unnamable "them." And my experience of rural life, which has all been in the South, confirms that this can apply doubly or triply to "outsiders" with a different skin color.

Still, I'm also sure that some people around here own assault weapons simply because it's fun to shoot them at a target, or at some hapless animal. At a Boy Scout meeting last week, I heard a 14-year-old confess that he had been taken deer "hunting" using an assault rifle with a 30-round clip. For the record, the scoutmaster, himself an NRA member and avid hunter, condemned this practice as reckless and unsportsmanlike. But I imagine it is a thrill to let that kind of firepower rip. It's also a lot of fun to drive a car down the highway at 100 miles per hour. But not everything that's fun is a constitutionally protected right, and when gun lovers get all lofty and libertarian about their right to keep military weapons in their homes, they invite the misunderstanding and contempt that comes their way.

Of course, the other subject that gets close to home when we talk about gun violence is violent video games. There's dueling research on that subject, but what I've seen of my children's peers, and of some game-addicted college students, leads me to side with the theory that violent games do promote real-world aggression. But it's also worth noting that the most recent adolescent mass murderer, 15-year-old Nehemiah Griego of New Mexico, accused of killing five family members, was a homeschooled evangelical Christian pastor's kid whose parents tried to tightly regulate his access to TV and video games. But they also kept an assault rifle in an unlocked closet, and now they and three of their children are dead.

There's no justification—constitutional, cultural, or otherwise—for forcing that level of risk onto our communities. It's just plain crazy.

Danny Duncan Collum teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of the novel White Boy.

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