My first memory of holding a gun is burned into my brain. I remember very clearly what I was told: Always act as if a gun is loaded, even when you know it isn't. Never point it at anyone. Never point it toward yourself. Keep guns locked away and out of reach — never lying around your house or car.
The lesson was clear: Gun caution wasn't restricted to the shooting range or in the forest. Merely touching a gun necessitated sobriety and expertise.
Growing up in the hunting-friendly state of Idaho, gun ownership looked very different than it does to me now, living in more liberal and cosmopolitan Northern Virginia. There are fewer hunters, and many more city-dwellers. Their interactions with guns are largely different from those I had growing up, and their fears of violence and death because of gun carelessness, ignorance, or malice are eminently justifiable.
For them, it would be easy and perhaps even natural to assume most gun owners are dangerously hubristic or indifferent to human life. But nothing could be further from the truth.
The Parkland school shooting has stirred up a necessary and edifying debate about gun control and gun ownership — one that is lasting longer and promising more reforms than almost any other gun debate in American history. On Saturday, the March for Our Lives took Washington, D.C., by storm, as thousands of parents, students, church groups, and activists paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, asking Washington to help prevent future gun violence.
But as we foster this conversation, it is important that we avoid scapegoating all gun owners as extreme or deviant. In New Jersey, a pair of high school students were recently suspended for five days after they posted a gun photo on social media, taken after a visit to the shooting range with their family. The teens allegedly violated a school policy prohibiting students from being "in possession of a weapon of any type for any reason or purpose on or off school grounds." The school district quietly changed that policy following a public outcry.
It's important to note the school says there is more to their suspension than meets the eye, though they never elaborated. But the mere fact that the picture — which, to many rural Americans, would seem normal and fine — raised so many alarms for the school is evidence that Americans increasingly live in different universes when it comes to gun ownership.
As one rural high school student wrote last week in a New York Times piece:
It's hard to talk about guns, as well as about hunting and farming, at school because no one there knows much about those three topics. They've been told not to touch or talk about guns, and some of the kids think it is just absolutely wrong for people to own them. That is their opinion, and I respect it and am open to talking about it. But even if people try to be nice, they don't really want to debate it. [The New York Times]
New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear recently pointed out in a photo essay about youth gun ownership that, whereas guns conjure up thoughts of "danger, alienation, and the threat of death" to some, other communities see "safety, discipline, and trust." In describing the subjects of the photos, Goodyear writes that "around weapons" they were "solemn and alert: no unseemly exhibitionism or goofing with their guns."
It's important that people on both sides of the gun debate are aware of this difference. It's all too easy for those who grew up around guns — like me — to be defensive of gun ownership, lauding its benefits without acknowledging its risks. We could do a better job policing, mentoring, and advising our own: demanding that gun safety, education courses, background checks, and other measures (both public and private) are used to make sure gun ownership is never taken lightly. Responsible, savvy gun owners should be the first to acknowledge not just anyone should be allowed to handle a weapon.
But progressives must also strive to know and understand gun owners better. Kids like those high schoolers in New Jersey, whose parents take them to a shooting range on the weekend, are in fact being taught to use guns appropriately: with plenty of supervision, in a contained and controlled atmosphere, alongside adults who are expertly aware of gun safety and want to pass on their knowledge to the next generation. There's no reason to vilify them.
Advocates for gun control also need to be realistic. Guns are not going to disappear overnight. Hunting is something many national forests and private land owners have encouraged. Many rational and prudent Americans like the safety and comfort associated with having a weapon in their home for self-defense.
We can all agree that guns should be kept out of the hands of the mentally troubled, dangerous, and careless. But we also need to talk more about people who are using guns wisely and well. We should bring their voices into this debate, and urge them to promote and represent a different attitude toward gun ownership — one that is cautious and realistic, not exhibitionist or ostentatious.
Reforming the atmosphere and attitude surrounding gun ownership in America must be a two-way street. Both sides must be understanding and willing to work together. We can't achieve that if kids get suspended for visiting the range.