Sometimes a conversation seems impossible to begin.
Sometimes there is something critically important to talk about, but the words never find their way out.
Sometimes. Like now.
About 10 days ago I walked into a high school cafeteria. It was me and 20 others, surrounded by low ceilings, folding bench tables and fluorescent lights at a school in southern New Hampshire. The class: hunter safety.
It came in two parts: a Friday night, where we learned the basics, then a week off before a Saturday and Sunday of more lessons and a day of field training. That night we went over the seasons for different game, the importance of wildlife conservation, the parts of a gun and the rules of gun safety. We learned about hunting strategies, the importance of approaching landowners before going on their property, basic survival skills and what to do should we become lost. And we learned about guns. We learned about muzzle control, about keeping your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot, about treating every gun as if it’s loaded and ensuring your shooting path is clear both up to your target and beyond.
That was Friday. Six days later a 26-year-old Oregon man walked into his college English classroom heavily armed and wearing body armor. He shot more than a dozen people. Nine died. The man then killed himself. It was the 294th mass shooting (more than four people killed or injured) this year.
Two days later I was back in southern New Hampshire, back beneath the glowing fluorescent lights. It was phase two of hunter safety, which, let’s face it, is primarily a course on gun safety.
“Muzzle control, muzzle control, muzzle control,” the instructor, Bob, told us over and over again. “If you learn one thing from this class, I want you to learn muzzle control.”
Learning about guns in the wake of a mass shooting can leave you wondering about your choices. This was, after all, not the first time this had happened to me. In 2012 a friend of mine, a firearms instructor, took me to the pistol range to teach me about handguns. I went back a handful of times and was having fun with it until 20-year-old Adam Lanza walked into a Connecticut elementary school and shot 20 first-graders. He brought with him the same make gun as I’d been shooting. It was the worst elementary or high school shooting in history, and in its wake handguns didn’t seem so “fun” anymore. I have not shot one since.
A taste of that came back this weekend. I took the course because I had this whole ideology behind hunting: I like meat, and I’m more than happy to eat hamburgers, bacon and chicken, but I, like many Americans, have become estranged from what goes into what I eat. My fondness for steak aside, I would struggle to kill a cow if one were put before me.
Or a pig. Or a chicken. I signed up for a hunter safety course because I wanted to acknowledge that disconnect between my appetite and my actions. The act of ordering buffalo wings or pepperoni sets in motion a whole string of market forces that are in fact a complex version of pulling the trigger, and I wanted to acknowledge my part in that killing. Not to call it wrong, but just to recognize my place within it.
But when someone takes that same trigger and turns it on a crowd all of the sudden my interest in guns feels dirty by association.
And the conversation that follows leaves me embarrassed. In the wake of the shooting, as after every shooting these days (there seem to be a lot of them), the sharp claws came out. Snarky memes like “Timothy McVeigh didn’t use a gun, yet you can still buy gasoline, fertilizer, and rent a box truck” line up against charts depicting the number of Americans killed since 2001 by guns (406,496) and terrorism (3,380). The sides are picked—gun-rights or gun control—and the yelling begins. It’s a broken conversation, one we are all caught in and caught by, one almost assuredly better to sit out than to join.
In a way America reminds me of myself eating the chicken without recognizing my part in the killing. Those numbers—406,496 versus 3,380—clearly portray the American disconnect. We fought two wars and instituted sweeping government overhauls to combat terrorism, a risk that takes less than one percent of the lives of gun violence. How are we so blind to 30,000 deaths a year and yet so prepared to fervently fight a shadow? How are we not at least compelled to talk about guns?
It shouldn’t be that complex a discussion; this isn’t the first time something quintessentially American has been killing us an out of control rate. In the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s it was the automobile. Between 1966 and 1974 more than 50,000 people a year died in car wrecks. So the government began requiring automakers to install seatbelts, police began enforcing drunk driving laws and states began requiring passengers to buckle up. The results were dramatic: fatalities dropped even as the number of cars on the road increased. By 2013 there were 32,719 automotive-related deaths, 917 fewer than caused that year by guns.
America did not need to get rid of cars to make its citizens safer. It just had to be smarter, more considered, about its car policy. The same is true of guns: America does not need to get rid of them, but we need to be smarter. The country needs to take a hard look at the disconnect between the rhetoric about protecting American lives and the laissez-faire policies that contribute to 30,000 dead Americans each year.
It shouldn’t be that hard, but it can only begin with a conversation.
This piece appeared in the Conway Daily Sun in October of 2015.