by Ken Conklin Bash
A version of this article was published in The Ventura County Star on Sept. 22, 2013.
When I was a child, I played with guns.
My father let me take a .22-caliber rifle into the woods, by myself, when I was only six years old. Perhaps he was crazy, but around our Texas farm there were few humans to endanger, and I was relatively responsible for so young. Daddy employed corporal punishment—too harshly, in my view, even by 1950s standards–so I grew up fearful and cautious.
With no playmates for miles, I was often bored, so I ventured out with my dog Jack, looking for something to kill.
I liked the big bang, and the smell of gunpowder in the open air.
Mostly I shot birds. Sparrows, though small, were easy targets. Blue jays were more difficult, and crows impossible; they’re just too smart. A crow could spot my rifle from fifty yards, though I tried my best to conceal it.
The first time I shot a blue jay it didn’t die quickly. It lay trembling beneath the tree, struggling to breathe, blood oozing from its chest. I shooed Jack away, and soon the bird lay still. I knelt to examine it, struck by the perfect arrangement of feathers, their intense color and intricate patterns. I did not feel guilty then for destroying this creature. I had captured its wildness. I could examine the once elusive bird as closely as I wanted, but its beauty faded before me. As I walked away, Jack snatched the carcass, to eviscerate in private.
The only other building at Brazos Point was Wheatley’s General Store, where I bought my cartridges for 35 cents. Each box bore the message: Range One Mile–Be Careful.
One day, when I was eight, I overheard my father and another farmer chatting in our yard. “Your barn is pretty far,” the man remarked. We had acreage across the road, with a windmill, stock tank and a tin-roofed barn, visible from our house.
“I guess it’s about a mile away,” my father replied.
This presented to me a provocative coincidence.
Next day, as I roamed the yard, looking for something to shoot, my eye was caught by a glint off the roof in the distance. One mile away.
I raised my rifle and sighted at the gleaming square. With careful guesswork, I elevated the barrel a few degrees and fired. I waited. Several long seconds later came the satisfying report of my bullet smacking the corrugated metal like a giant drum.
This was fun, and I felt smart. Not only was I an expert marksman, I was learning science of some sort. This became a regular diversion.
One day, after lobbing several rounds into the barn, walking away I saw my father’s pickup parked beside it. My heart came up in my throat. My father had been inside the barn.
I dropped my rifle and ran crying into the house. To this day I am not sure if I was more terrified that I had killed my father, or that I had not killed him.
I rushed into my mother’s arms and breathlessly choked out the story. We hurried to the yard. Daddy’s truck was gone. He was alive.
The rest of that day, and for days after, I lived in fear of my punishment, but it never came. A few weeks later, when my father and I were at the barn, scattering alfalfa for the cows, he spoke to me measuredly but gently. “Kenny, if this roof has holes in it, rain will get in and ruin all the hay.”
That was it. I was stunned. The one instance my father did not use his razor strop, and reasoned with me instead, taught me more and was more memorable than any whipping.
Of course, I had no business with a firearm so young. It’s a miracle there were no accidents. Now we read of tragedies involving children and guns almost weekly. Recently a six-year-old in Wisconsin (with “firearm training”) shot his four-year-old sister in the face with a shotgun. A Kentucky five-year-old shot his two-year-old sister dead with his birthday present: a .22 purchased from a company that markets pink rifles for kids. A Florida teen fatally shot his six-year-old sister playing hide-and-seek.
Now I am a father. I got rid of firearms long ago. I did buy an air rifle for our two sons, and we take it out to shoot at cans. I do this to help defuse the allure of guns, and to teach the boys how to be safe with them. We don’t shoot at animals.
The only appropriate places for firearms in modern society are law enforcement and the military. Otherwise, a gun is nothing but a deadly toy.
There is not a single premise of the pro-gun argument–whether constitutionality or the need for self-protection–that has validity.
The Constitution does not allow us to keep unregulated weaponry any more than freedom of speech allows us to slander. The Second Amendment was likely written to appease southern states, granting them militias–well regulated–to quash slave rebellions
A gun in the household is far more likely to be used against its owner or a family member than an intruder, according to numerous studies compiled by the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Anecdotal incidents where guns successfully protect life or property are extremely rare compared to how often a firearm kills or harms a household member, by accident, homicide or suicide. We are far less safe with guns in our homes.
The scenario of good guys with guns dispatching bad guys is a fantasy created by screenwriters. Reality rarely plays out that way.
If one’s rationale for gun ownership is a perceived need for protection from our government, it is naive, to say the least, to imagine that any rifle could fend off the arsenal of the most powerful nation on earth.
But gun lovers cling to their notions, egged on by the industry’s shill, the National Rifle Association, that spends its members’ dues on purchasing lawmakers and whipping the populace into paranoid hysteria. The NRA’s bald-faced response to gun violence is invariably that we should buy more guns.
Even though 90 percent of all Americans and 74 percent of NRA members favor background checks, according to polls by CBS News and Frank Luntz, the NRA still opposes checks, because the NRA does not represent its members; it represents the manufacturers and peddlers who regard criminals, terrorists and the unstable merely as paying customers.
Modern-day hunting–shooting animals for sport–is a sick pursuit. I did it, as a child. Our ancestors hunted to survive. As a hobby it is sadistic, and attempting to justify it by consuming the prey is an absurd pretense. If you can’t afford meat, apply for food stamps. And if you contend that tough, gamy venison rivals tri-tip, there’s something wrong with your taste buds.
Hunters call themselves “outdoorsmen,” who don’t kill animals, they “take” them. On TV hunting shows, men in camo hunker around the magnificent creature they destroyed. “Isn’t he a beauty?” they marvel.
Yes. He was.
I challenge gun lovers: find alternate recreation. Go hit a ball with a stick. Justify the time and expense by claiming that your golf club is for self-protection. Your loved ones will be safer if you keep a nine iron or a baseball bat for home security. Get a big dog. You’ll live longer, and lower your blood pressure.
The carnage from guns in America continues because of a convergence of two base compulsions: the greed of the firearms industry and the childishness of gun lovers. Are we unwilling to prevent the relentless slaughter of innocent lives for the sake of profit and our love of a toy? Do we love our guns more than our children? Just because we can’t stop every gun tragedy should we do nothing, and mourn helplessly?
America’s love affair with guns has nothing to do with freedom. It is a cruel, neurotic fixation, rooted in fear and spurred on by unconscionable corporate hucksterism.
It is time to put away childish things, before they destroy us. Our nation cannot withstand the pain any longer.
Perhaps everyone who was over the age of five at the time remembers the moment.
I was in Dallas, a seventh-grade student at Rylie Junior High School, playing basketball in my one o’clock P.E. class.
Our instructor, Mr. Stewart, strode into the gym with his head down, pensive and troubled. He blew his whistle and ordered us to assemble. In a minute we stood quietly facing him. We could tell that something was wrong. Someone had messed up.
I have a permanent photograph of Mr. Stewart in my mind. I remember what he wore: white shirt, off-white sweater vest and slacks, white sneakers. His thinning blonde hair was slicked back.
“We heard on the news that President Kennedy has been shot,” he said. “Principal Guzick wants you all to report to your homerooms now. So you can change back into your clothes and go to your homeroom.”
While I would forever remember the scene, I could process little of the magnitude then. We all knew that President Kennedy was coming to Dallas that day, and I knew that people were stirred up over the fact that this Yankee president was visiting Texas, where, although it is not really considered a part of the Deep South, there was widespread hatred of him. In my 12-year-old mind, I understood that the president liked Negroes, and favored their equal rights, and that most people we knew did not.
Almost all the students at our school, and the citizens in our small community on the far outskirts of the city, were white. There were no African-Americans, and only a few Hispanics.
I liked the president. I liked it that he was young and handsome. Most politicians were old, fat and stodgy. I liked it that the president was athletic and smiling. I liked hearing him speak, and he seemed to care about people.
When I left the locker room and walked into the main school building, I encountered a bizarre scene: students were running through the hallways, cheering in jubilation, as if school had just been canceled forever. But it hadn’t. They were rejoicing at the shooting of the president, shouting cruel epithets. Just about everyone was taking part. I was shocked, and a little scared. A hidden meanness in these children had been revealed to me.
When I got to my homeroom, most of my classmates were at their desks. The room was silent except for occasional whispers of confusion and rumor. One girl wept softly, hiding her face. Our teacher stood by the door, worried and waiting for seats to fill.
I can only conjecture as to why my classmates were solemn, while most other pupils in our school were exuberant. Our homeroom was an honors class, composed of A students. The inference one might draw is that often hatred, especially racial hatred, is born of ignorance. Of course none of us knew much of national politics. We had mostly inherited our elders’ perspectives.
That evening, my parents and I sat at the kitchen table watching Walter Cronkite relay the details as they trickled in. My mother and father had lived through the Great Depression, so they were FDR Democrats. They might not have understood this man from Massachusetts, but they retained party loyalty. Ours was a Democratic household.
My mother, weeping, dropped her head and slowly pounded the table. “I love this country, and I love this president.”
My father, uncomfortable at the display of emotion, but caring and sympathetic, put his arm around his wife’s shoulder and squeezed her lightly. “All right, Mother.” He was tearing up, too. I had never seen my father cry.
Two days later, as we drove home from church, we were listening to live news. When Jack Ruby gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters, we heard the shot on our car radio. I can remember where we were on that country road when I heard the sound.
Fifty years later, our nation still bears the scars of these events, and struggles to understand. Few incidents in American history have been so thoroughly examined and dissected, and yet as time passes it seems the more uncertain we are as to what exactly happened in Dallas. On that day, the greatest nation on earth was savaged by pure evil. But I believe that while evil may sometimes triumph it cannot prevail. I believe that one day we will learn the whole truth.
Until then, perhaps all we can take away from this enduring wound is the dire hope that nothing like it ever happens again.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Theodore Parker
If you have a memory of that day you would like to share, please leave a Comment below. Thanks.