Have you ever seen the holiday film classic “A Christmas Story”? Set in 1940s Indiana, it’s the charming tale of young Ralphie, whose only wish for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun. Poor Ralphie is constantly rebuffed by the adults in his life, who warn him, “You’ll shoot your eye out.”
During this shattered holiday season, with so many Connecticut families experiencing unimaginable loss, the movie is a reminder that guns have always been popular in the American imagination. It also gently reminded me, however, that previous generations were much more circumspect and cautious in their attitudes toward firearms.
I am delighted that President Obama, shocked to his senses by the carnage in Connecticut, has finally found the courage to stand up to the gun lobby and take steps toward more regulation of firearms. But I fear that won’t be enough.
Don’t get me wrong: I support a ban on assault-type weapons, a ban on high-capacity magazines, and waiting periods for gun purchases. All of those are common-sense measures that should already be the law of the land.
But I don’t think those steps will be enough to change a culture steeped in gun lore and conditioned to believe that firearms hold some magical powers to keep the streets safe. Somehow, our crazed romance with guns — a dangerous and dysfunctional relationship — must end.
It hasn’t always been this way. My late father came of age in the 1930s and ’40s in deepest, reddest Alabama. He was an avid outdoorsman who loved fishing and hunting. Nothing made my father happier than awakening in the wee hours on a crisp morning in November to go out into the cold and stalk deer. Go figure.
I think he would have been amused — or perhaps puzzled — by the ad campaign that Bushmaster adopted to sell its AR-15 assault-type rifle, which was used by the Connecticut shooter. The campaign bestowed “manhood” on Bushmaster buyers. I don’t think my dad — who worked hard, supported his family and tried to teach his children right from wrong — ever thought his manhood was in question.
A veteran of combat in Korea, he was as strict about gun safety as the National Rifle Association is imprudent. He and his hunting buddies refused to hunt with rifles because the projectiles are too powerful and travel too far; they used shotguns instead. They banned hunters whom they deemed careless. Dick Cheney would not have been welcome.
As a young college graduate headed for the big city, I contemplated buying a firearm. My father wouldn’t hear of it, noting that I’d be more likely to be a victim of my own handgun than to ward off danger with it. He suggested that I stay out of dangerous places instead.
My dad was also a junior-high-school principal, and I think he would be horrified — simply horrified — by the irrational suggestion from some political leaders that the answer to school shootings is to arm teachers. He knew perfectly well that arming teachers would be a way to get more children killed.
As the term “friendly fire” connotes, soldiers and police officers, who undergo intense weapons training, frequently miss their targets or hit others by mistake. Last August, as just one example, New York City police officers killed a gunman outside the Empire State Building. Nine bystanders also ended up wounded, all by police gunfire or ricochets.
When did so many of our political leaders — governors, members of Congress, state legislators — lose their senses about guns? How did we come to have a culture in which public figures believe it is rational to advocate arming teachers to prevent school massacres?
Even as some of the loudest gun advocates have become more hysterical in their absolutism, the number of households with guns has actually decreased over the last few decades, according to polls and federal data. Unfortunately, the number of guns owned by a smaller portion of households has increased.
Meanwhile, reasonable, old-school outdoorsmen like my dad aren’t speaking up. They need to stand up and be counted.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo credit: AP/Charles Kupra