The public discussion of guns tends to focus on technical matters — reviews of new products, for example — on questions of the law and rights, or on the subject of safety and social costs. But abstractions aren’t what make a connection with our fellow human beings and are convincing only on the logical level. Since we are more than calculators, it’s important for those of us who value gun rights to reach the uncommitted in a personal way. This goes back to what I had to say about ethos in the gun community. With this in mind, today is my day to testify about my journey into the subject.
I was raised in an anti-gun household. That didn’t only mean no real firearms, but included toys. The philosophy at work here was a position of law and order — it’s government’s job to keep us safe and our duty to vote in candidates who will put on shows of security theater.
So it was with a mix of fascination and dread when I was shown my great uncle’s .22 revolver. He’d been a traveling salesman before he retired, so these days I speculate about whether he carried it on his trips. At another point, I was shocked to see a hiker on the Appalachian Trail with a revolver hanging off the side of his backpack. Now I know that my homeland of North Carolina was and is an open-carry state. Of course, I also saw a black racer snake attempting to slither up a dirt bank at the side of the trail, so it was a hike of wonders for a boy.
Through college and graduate school, I had other things to occupy my time, but early in my teaching experience, I had a student write an argument essay on the Second Amendment. Ask any teacher at any level, and you’ll find out that we all have a list of bright students in our memories who challenged us to think broader and deeper. His paper reviewed the relevant laws — this was some eight years before Heller — and cited the case made by Laurence Tribe and others on the left wing of the legal profession that if we wish to read broad protections of individual rights in the other amendments of the Bill of Rights, we cannot ignore or collectivize the Second.
This was a wake-up call. As a writer and professor, academic freedom and freedom of expression generally have been of critical importance to me. To suggest that rights stand or fall together was exactly the message I needed to hear. Regular readers of my articles will recognize a theme here, and that’s natural. Rights are a core of personal autonomy, and guns are one symbol of free exercise.
But I was not yet a resident of what blogger Kim du Toit called the Gun Nut Forest. Getting here took the appeal of the gun as a mechanical device and a piece of history. A colleague of mine in our faculty writers’ group wrote stories of Tennessee in the days of Reconstruction after the Civil War, and his tales invariably included the old black powder smoke wagons from Colt and others of that period. And I saw the Tales of the Gun episode on Luger’s elegant pistol.
And that was it. My first firearm was a reproduction Remington New Model Army revolver — cap-and-ball, loaded by ramming powder and ball into the front of the chambers. Genuine black powder produces a satisfying boom much fuller than modern smokeless propellants and fills the air with a white cloud that smells like the exhalation of perdition. After years and many thousands of rounds, I have to tie a string around the loading lever, since the spring catch has failed, but the hogleg still pours forth fire and lead with as much authority as it did when I took it to the range new in the box.
The message in this is that joining the gun community can be done by many different types of people traveling along a great variety of paths. In the comments, share how you got here. Some will have grown up in families that hunt, others will have learned about guns in the military or law enforcement. And on and on. If you’re new to the exercise of gun rights, I’m glad you’ve come. Tell the rest of us about that. We who are a part of this world have an obligation to seek out and welcome in newcomers to keep our rights and our enjoyment alive and thriving.
This essay appears in a somewhat different form in the book that I wrote with Ranjit Singh, titled, Each One, Teach One. You can find that and other books that I’ve written here.