Almost every day now we see stories of gun violence in the United States. It’s become an epidemic that seems, at times, utterly unstoppable. The violence happens, hundreds of articles are written, and everyone argues about what can be done. The next week it starts all over again. Disheartening, sad, and disgusting is the only way to describe it.
I’m not here to tell you that I have the solution or that one side of the gun control argument is right and the other side is wrong. I’m here to tell you why I don’t, and will likely never own a gun again.
I was somewhere around twelve years old when my father brought home the first gun we would ever have in our house when I was growing up. I can’t tell you exactly what kind of gun it was and I certainly can’t rattle off any specs like barrel length or caliber because I don’t know any of those details. Even then, none of that mattered to me at all. I just thought it was cool.
I can tell you what I do remember about the gun, however, is that it was a pneumatic pump rifle and it didn’t shoot actual bullets like you’d find in most of the guns you see on TV or in movies. It shot pellets, which I understood at the time to be kind of like BBs you might use in a BB gun, but a little more hardcore (and dangerous).
After a quick Google search, I can tell you that the gun I most remember it resembling is the Benjamin 392 Multi-Pump Air Rifle. I know the hardcore gun-obsessed folks out there desperately need this information to gauge if their private parts are larger than mine because they own something way more badass.
“Check it out, JR,” Dad said as he walked through the kitchen door after work holding the shiny brown rifle in his hand. “My buddy gave me this today. He said I should take you in the back to shoot some cans.”
“Cool,” I said looking up from my homework. “Is it real?”
I’d seen A Christmas Story enough times by then to know that I might shoot my eye out.
It was, in fact, real, even though back then I thought all BB guns (and, by extension, pellet guns) were toys. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could actually kill something with them.
“Yeah,” he said holding it out in front of him like he was serving up dinner. “See this part of the handle? You have to pull that up and pump it a few times. That’s how you fill it with air so it’ll shoot.”
“When can we shoot it?” I asked, eager to test out my aim.
I’d seen A Christmas Story enough times by then to know that I might shoot my eye out, but I might also be able to stop Black Bart and his band of bumbling thieves. I just wanted to shoot.
“When you’re done with your homework. Hurry up.”
I raced through the last 20 science questions, slammed the book closed and found my dad tinkering in his back-room work area.
“All done,” I said. “Can we go out?”
He grabbed the small box of pellets, picked up the rifle, and headed toward the back door.
“Go back in the kitchen,” he said without turning around, “and grab a few empty soda cans from the recycling bin.”
I met him out back in front of the huge tree that cornered our yard. He was setting up a makeshift target station with a few blocks of scrap wood we had lying around.
“Hand me those,” he said motioning toward the cans I had in my arms.
I handed him the empty soda cans and he set them up on top of the wood, right in front of the massive tree.
“There,” he said. “That’ll work. If you miss or it goes through the cans, it’ll just hit the tree.”
“Cool,” I said, reaching for the rifle.
He pulled it back and cradled it under his right arm.
“Easy, JR,” he said quickly. “Not so fast. There are a few things I’ve got to show you first.”
My father was not what you might call an outdoorsman. He was an avid fisherman and could do just about anything handy like fix cars and tie knots and other typical dad things, but as far as I knew then, he’d never been hunting in his life. What did he know about guns?
Turns out, he had been hunting when he was younger. One of his uncles was a farmer. He raised cattle, hunted, and had pictures of horses all over his ranch. Dad had been out deer hunting with him a few times. All that meat in my grandparents basement freezer was from the cows my great uncle slaughtered on his ranch.
“Listen,” he told me. “This is really important.” He looked more serious than I’d seen him look in a long time, so I listened.
“Never,” he said. “Never, ever point this at anyone. I don’t care if you’re pointing it at their arm or their feet or their face. You never point this at anyone.”
“Got it,” I said like it was the most obvious thing I’d ever heard in my life.
“This is the safety,” he said pointing to what looked like a small button on the side of the trigger. “Make sure you have this on all the time until you’re ready to shoot. Once you turn the safety off, your finger should move right to the trigger and as soon as you’ve shot, you put the safety right back on again.”
I nodded furiously.
“Got it?” he asked.
I got it. I just wanted to shoot.
He showed me how to hold the rifle, how to load it with pellets, and how to pump the pneumatic chamber full of compressed air before taking aim.
“Never pump it more than about eight times,” he told me. “It gets really tough to pump after a few times anyway, but you don’t even need much pressure to shoot down a few aluminum cans.”
Dad pumped the rifle six times and handed it to me.
I held it just like he showed me, safety still on. He told me how to look down the sights and aim. He lifted the barrel just slightly and adjusted my hands until they were just right.
“Now,” he said. “Take your trigger finger and slowly click off the safety. Keep your eye down the sights and don’t lose your aim.”
I flicked off the safety and heard a small click.
“Move that finger down and wrap it around the trigger.”
“Like this?” I asked, moving my finger into position. I’m not sure I’d ever concentrated on anything so hard before.
“That’s right,” he said. “Do you have your aim?”
“Yes,” I told him.
“Ok,” Dad said. “Hold your breath and squeeze the trigger. Don’t yank on it. Just squeeze it slowly.”
I looked down the barrel, through the sights, and checked my aim again. I held my breath. I squeezed the trigger.
That was the first gun I’d ever shot.
A few months later, Dad and I had shot the pump rifle a few more times. We knocked a few more aluminum cans over, blasted pellets into trees, and made small paper targets to practice our aim. It was fun, but it lost its nuance and excitement pretty quickly. These things happen when you’re twelve years old.
One weekend while my parents were out, I went into my father’s office to look for the gun. I knew he kept it in one of the corners behind his desk, so it wasn’t like he’d really hid it.
I noticed a blue jay sitting on a low-hanging branch in the neighbor’s yard. Suddenly the pull of a challenge was too hard to resist.
It only took a minute or two to locate the rifle and the pellets. I grabbed it by the barrel and tucked it under my arm.
Had Dad told me that I shouldn’t use the gun unless he was with me? Of course he had, but I was a pre-pubescent kid. What he didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him.
I grabbed a few empty soda cans from the recycling bin and headed out back. A few minutes later, I’d plunked the cans off their makeshift wooden stand and was about to bring the rifle back inside to place it back in its corner. I planned to wipe it down like I’d committed a crime. No fingerprints. No evidence.
But before I could turn and head back towards the house, I looked around the yard and noticed what looked like a blue jay sitting on a low-hanging branch in the neighbor’s yard. It was just sitting there, tweeting away, minding its own business. But suddenly the pull of a challenge was too hard to resist.
I was holding a seemingly ancient, pneumatic pellet gun that you had to pump over and over again just to get it to fire hard enough to put a hole in an aluminum can. Part of me was sure that I’d never be either accurate enough, or deadly enough, to actually hit that bird. But that wasn’t going to stop the twelve-year-old me from trying. I had already decided.
I walked to the middle of the backyard and took a shooting stance. I lifted the rifle and looked down the barrel, through the sights. The blue jay was still sitting on the tree branch, tempting fate. I knew I still had time.
I loaded the pellet and started pumping the gun full of air. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight pumps.
That wasn’t enough. My scrawny twelve-year-old frame was already struggling to squeeze the pump handle closed, but I couldn’t stop at eight. I needed more power, more speed.
Nine. Ten pumps.
I placed the gun on the ground and pulled back the pump handle. Using my foot, I pushed the handle down again. Eleven. And one last time. Twelve.
I lifted the rifle and lined up my shot. With the blue jay at the end of my sights, I slowly moved my index finger over to the safety, clicked it off, and moved my finger back down around the trigger.
I held my breath and squeezed.
Only this time there was no familiar “tink” of the pellet sliding through the can’s aluminum. This time there was only silence. Deafening, guilty silence.
I looked down the barrel and there, in the neighbor’s tree, was the blue jay. It had, miraculously, not fallen from the branch it was resting on. It was still there, sitting, only now it was spotted red with blood.
The pellet had not only killed the bird, but it sliced right through its blue-and-white neck. Its head was hanging, quite literally, by a thread. It looked like an executioner had tried to behead it, but couldn’t quite get the axe all the way through.
I was gutted.
Still looking down the barrel at the bird I had just killed, I felt sick to my stomach. I was nauseous and starting to get dizzy. I thought I was going to puke.
In a matter of seconds, I had gone from someone who had never killed something to someone who beheaded a completely innocent animal for no reason other than my own curiosity. I felt like a complete shit.
And then I started to cry. It was slow at first; just a few tears trickling down my cheeks. But before long I was bawling. Tears streaming down my face, snot bubbling up in my nose, and me on my knees dry-heaving in the grass. I was a wreck.
That’s when I knew that I just didn’t have it in me. That part of people that gives them the ability to kill something and drag it home. I was missing that piece of my brain. Those hunter-gatherers we’ve evolved from? Well, I was clearly the gatherer.
Would I have it in me if push came to shove and I had to make the decision between protecting my family from an armed perpetrator? I’d like to think so, but who really knows until you’re pushed to that moment? I can tell you this, though: It won’t be with a gun. I’ll take my chances without one.
And all because of that damned bird. That blue jay was the last thing I’ve ever killed.
That rifle was the last gun I’ve ever shot.