Along the Way: Lessons on Guns and Other Things
How one sentence from my father shaped my perspective on a complicated national conversation years later
THE LABEL on the bottle said “Red Fox Urine,” and, having never had the pleasure of collecting a sample myself, I took it at its word. “For your boots,” my father said. “Put it in your pocket.”
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving, before dawn, and my first deer hunting trip with the men in my family. The fox urine covers human scent, or so they said. Hunting has many myths.
I was 12. My suit was bright orange. It swallowed me from my neck to my ankles and puffed out through the arms and legs. I looked like what would happen if a road construction sign and the Michelin Man had a fling. My dad bought it to make sure no other hunters would mistake his first-born child for something worth shooting.
My gun was a single-shot 20-gauge. Dad won a Remington 1100 12-gauge in a VFW raffle a few years earlier, and that was waiting for me if I could prove I knew how to safely use this one. In our family, you graduated to guns. I remember starting with a silver-colored plastic pistol and aiming it at my little brother. “No!” my father yelled. “Never point a gun at a person. Not even a toy.”
I graduated to popping BB guns at cans, then a .410 at squirrels, and now I’d passed my hunter safety course. I was ready to get this 20-gauge step out of the way and move on to the 1100, a semiautomatic with a shiny walnut stock. That morning, I loaded the pockets of that orange suit with shells, and when I stuffed the bottle of fox urine in with them, my father could hear the plastic clatter.
“How many shells do you have?”
I pulled out two handfuls. He laughed and asked for them.
“You only need one, son.”
It’s been more than a quarter-century, and I’m sure time has changed a few details of that story. But I remember “You only need one, son” exactly as he said it. I still hear it today as our country’s complicated relationship with guns unfolds in protests and online. I heard it again in early April when I read an essay from my friend David Joy, “Gun Culture Is My Culture. And I Fear for What It Has Become,” in The New York Times Magazine. David, an accomplished author, left Charlotte for the western North Carolina mountains after graduating from Harding High in 2002 and never came back. The growth here is too much for him; the fishing and hunting is too good up there.
In his essay, David describes an exchange in which he tells his best friend he’d be OK with a ban on assault weapons. His friend looks at him like he’s lost his mind, and they get into an argument neither can win. Later in the essay, David and his girlfriend see a teenager holding an AR-15 in a sporting goods store. “What does a kid need a rifle like that for?” David’s girlfriend asks. “What does anybody need a rifle like that for?”
“I didn’t have an answer,” David writes, and as I read that line, I heard my father’s words again.
Unlike David, I haven’t hunted in a few years and don’t keep a gun in the house. Laura and I live in the city, after all. Neighbors up and down our street have kids. Fear of making a mistake and hurting them far outweighs any desire to point a barrel at a desperate thief. We have locks for that. But my brother and I do have our family’s old shotguns in storage. Last fall, we went skeet shooting, and I have to say I’m still pretty good with an 1100. Good enough to beat Kenny anyway.
Growing up, that’s what we bragged about—not the muscle of the gun but the accuracy of the man. I don’t know how many deer I’ve killed in my life, maybe eight or 10, but I know I never shot at one twice. We had a family friend named Jack who couldn’t hit the moon but had a good sense of humor, and every time we heard three or four blasts from his direction we’d prepare our insults for later.
In 2017, Charlotte saw violent crime spike, and over the last year the United States has seen a few of the deadliest mass shootings in history. I often wonder what would happen if people had to witness what a bullet can do first, if they grew up graduating from one gun to the next, or if they had to stand over an animal while it’s on its side, kicking one final time at the leaves, trying to outrun a fate you and only you caused.
But that’s wishful wondering. My education on guns was a privilege, not a standard. And all these years after spraying fox pee on my boots for the first time, I’ve come to believe that a desire to have an assault weapon usually covers an insecurity about something else. If you’re a civilian and you need to fire dozens of bullets to accomplish something with a gun, chances are you’re either a terrible shot or have terrible intentions. Either way, everybody else doesn’t need to live around that. Doesn’t seem right.