Gun Nation, Under God
© 2014 by Larry Vienneau
Gun National Art
Gun Nation, Under God
America’s Changing Gun Culture
By John Smelcer
I’ll preface this memoir with a few declarations. I’m a teacher, and I’ve been shot. I’m also a coward. In the current political climate, it’s too dangerous to be on either side of the fence when it comes to gun control issues. I’m no martyr. I don’t intend to be buried alive in an avalanche of hate mail. I plan to sit on the fence where it’s safe. What I want to do is to tell you about what I’ve witnessed in my own life in an attempt to discover how and when America’s gun fanaticism began.
This is no call to arms (pun intended).
You can’t turn on the television or radio without hearing about a mass shooting at a school, college, or workplace. It is a sad truth that there have been 75 school shootings since Sandy Hook (yet, amazingly, most gun shows are still held in public school gymnasiums). In response to increasingly frequent news, we have added new words like “active shooter” to our lexicon. Most classrooms now have an emergency plan posted for how to respond to an active shooter on campus.
Television, cinema, rap music, and video games have been scapegoats for America’s increased gun violence.
But I’m not convinced that’s where the blame should fall.
I was born half a century ago during the hot summer of 1963. The Cold War was at its height. President John F. Kennedy wouldn’t be assassinated for half a year. Martin Luther King, Jr. wouldn’t deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington D.C. for another month and a half. And John Wayne still swaggered across the silver screen shooting bad guys by the dozen. It seemed as if every other television show or motion picture was a western or a war movie. Looking back, I’m surprised at how much gun violence I was exposed to in my childhood.
I remember playing Cowboys and Indians or War with neighborhood boys, each of us armed with realistic-looking plastic machine guns and pistols, not like the green, yellow, and orange play guns today. Each came with a limitless supply of ammunition. No need for extra clips or reloading. Up and down our street until supper time could be heard our juvenile skirmishes.
“Bang! Bang! I got you! You’re dead! Here comes the Germans!” (or Japs or Russians; it was, after all, the Cold War) Blast ‘em to hell, Boys!”
Those of us lucky enough even had plastic bazookas and hand grenades.
“Ka-blam! Your legs just got blown off, Jimmy! You can’t run away! Come back here!”
In the absence of plastic grenades, dirt clods served perfectly well. In some ways they were better, especially the way they exploded shrapnel everywhere when they hit the ground.
I fondly recall that I once held back an entire battalion of Nazis all by myself.
Clearly, America in the ’60s and early ’70s was already a gun nation, indivisible from its firearms. And yet there were no mass school shootings or workplace massacres like there are today.
It should be stated from the start that I grew up in Alaska and that I was educated from elementary school through college in that Last Frontier. I’m also a master teacher with twenty-five years of experience in the classroom. In junior high, my brother and I were on the rifle team. Twice a week after school we lugged our .22 caliber target rifles through the school halls to the indoor shooting range for practice (do public schools still have rifle teams?). As far as I recall, no one ever shot anyone else, not even Billy Ackerman who stole my girlfriend, Clancy Monaghan.
In my senior year of high school, during the Reagan years, our school principal knew that I was a marksman and an avid outdoorsman who enjoyed hunting and fishing. In Alaska, many fishermen carry handguns in the event of unexpected, yet not infrequent, close encounters with bears. One day, the principal called me into his office over the school intercom. I wasn’t in any trouble that I knew of — it was my younger brother who usually got called into the principal’s office for fighting or some other infraction — so I entered his office curious to know why I was there.
Mr. Anderson — we’ll call him that because I don’t remember his real name, and I don’t want to get him into trouble (though he’d have to be in his mid-80s by now and long since put out to pasture) — shut the door and closed the blinds that allowed the secretary to see into his office. Our ensuing conversation went something like this:
Principal: You’re probably wondering why I’ve called you into my office?
Teen Me: Well . . . I was wondering. Does it have anything to do with the Playboy Magazine stuffed in the library bookshelves between Plato and Plutarch?
Principal: The wha . . . where?
Teen Me: Nothing. Forget I mentioned it. So, what can I do you for?
Principal: I understand that you are a hunter, that you have guns. Do you have any handguns?
Teen me: Um . . . um (shifting uncomfortably on the chair). You know it’s against the law to buy or own a handgun until you’re twenty-one, right? I mean . . . I’m still in high school.
Principal: Of course I know you’re in high school. I’m the principal. But you see, Mr. Smelcer, I plan to go fishing this weekend, and, well, I need a handgun for bear protection. I was wondering if you had a pistol powerful enough to stop a bear.
Teen Me: I’ll be honest, Mr. Anderson, no pistol is really powerful enough to stop a bear in its tracks.
Principal: Yes, yes. I’ve heard that before. But a handgun is certainly better than throwing rocks or sticks at the bear.
Teen Me: I guess. But before you go out into bear country armed with only a handgun, you should first file down the front site.
Principal: (Perplexed look). Why on earth would I do that?
Teen Me: So it won’t hurt so much when the bear shoves the barrel up your a . . .
Principal: Mr. Smelcer! May I remind you that we are in a school? So, do you or don’t you have a gun I could purchase for such a purpose?
Teen Me: It just so happens that I have a .44 special I picked up somewhere. Now, it’s not a .44 magnum like the one Dirty Harry carried, but it sure beats the hell out of throwing rocks.
Principal: How much would you be asking for such an item?
Teen Me: Hmm. How about $225? I got half a box of shells, which I’ll throw in for free.
Teen Me: Huh?
Principal: You have half a box of shells, not got. Got is not a word, Mr. Smelcer. Here’s what we’ll do. Bring the gun and ammunition to school tomorrow. Keep it hidden in your locker until I call for you during second period. Stop at your locker on the way to retrieve the, hurumph . . . item. If it’s in good condition, I think we can make a transaction.
Teen Me: I only take cash. No checks. Nothing personal.
Principal: Cash will suffice.
The next day went precisely as planned. Mr. Anderson called me on the school intercom to come to his office. Classmates taunted me thinking I was in trouble again (twice in two days). I enjoyed my new bad boy reputation. I stopped at my locker to collect the item to transact as arranged. After entering his office, Mr. Anderson hastily shut the door and closed the blinds. After some chit-chat and examination of the item, he forked over the cash. There was no bill of sale. This story and the accompanying vivid memories are all I have as proof of the veracity of the event.
But that’s not my only guns-in-schools story.
As often as public schools are involved in shootings nowadays, so too are college campuses. Fast forward to my college years only a few years later. Knowing that I worked part-time in a gun store — the very same gun store that sold a rifle to Christopher McCandless of Into the Wild fame — a friend who was a mechanical engineering major asked me to speak to the engineering club on campus about the history and technological evolution of firearms. Several days later, I lugged a pile of revolvers, automatic pistols, and rifles, including several assault rifles, across campus to the classroom where the club met. What a sight I must have seemed! Yet, amazingly, no one called 9-1-1 (In contrast, just the other day a student in my public speaking class at a Midwest university asked me if he could bring a rifle to class for his informative speech. I told him that given the current climate on college campuses, I didn’t think it was a good idea. How times have changed). Nowadays, I’d likely be shot on sight by campus police.
Better to shoot first and ask questions later.
In researching for this article, I asked over a hundred people about their position on gun rights. Aside from the expected reply of “It’s our constitutional right,” a resounding and surprising number said it was our God-given right. Their argument went something like this: God made America, and America made the Constitution; therefore, it’s our God-given right to have guns.
To such remarks, I responded that the Founding Fathers, George Washington included, stated explicitly in handwritten papers that our nation was not born from religious principles whatsoever, to which I’d get perplexed looks as if I had just said that the sky is down. Among those polled, there was a great deal of resistance to the notion of regulating the number of firearms an individual can own at one time. The standard reply was that would be an infringement of our God-given right to pursue our happiness. I pointed out that even Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett probably only had one or two rifles, and single-shots at that.
Where in Bible does it say, “Thou shalt possess guns in plenitude”?
Case in point, a state resoundingly rejected legislation to simply limit gun purchasing to one gun a month —twelve guns a year. I don’t know anyone who buys a pair of shoes every month, and yet voters of that state couldn’t live with the notion that they couldn’t buy more than one gun a month. As Americans, we have the right to own a car and to drive it pretty much anywhere we want. No one really complains when states change speed limits or establish seatbelt laws or laws regarding cell phone use while driving. But try to make the slightest change to gun laws… When did America become so resistant to limitations when it comes to guns?
Every man of conscience declares he would give his life to save a child, whether by jumping in front of a moving vehicle or rescuing a child from a burning building. And yet, unbelievably, these same individuals won’t give an inch to limit guns. I’m a father. I’d give up owning a gun for the rest of my life if it saved a single child, mine or yours. To give a child the chance to live a full life, to experience the world, to marvel, to dream, to love, to have a family…
According to recent data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control, over 31,000 Americans died in 2010 by firearms, 11,078 of them by gun homicide. That translates to 3.6 people per every 100,000 citizens. In contrast, Canada, which has a gun ownership rate approximately the same as other developed nations, reported a firearm-related-death rate of only 0.5 people per 100,000.
Clearly there’s something happening in America.
I didn’t do a very good job staying centered on the fence. I leaned too far in one direction, tipping my hat, so to speak. But I care about this country. I’m a little worried about us and our future. As Americans, can’t we examine our collective psyche and ask ourselves when and how we became so fanatical about guns. Can’t we even entertain the conversation without people going ballistic? What happened to us? How did we end up where we are? And, most importantly, where do we go from here?
About the author:
John Smelcer is the author of over 45 books, including The Trap, The Great Death, Lone Wolves, and Edge of Nowhere. His writing appears in over 400 magazines, including The Atlantic. You can read more about him in About Us, and at www.johnsmelcer.com.
About the illustrator:
Artist Larry Vienneau is Professor of Art and Seminole State University. He has collaborated with John Smelcer on numerous projects over the past twenty-five years.