I grew up in a house without guns. My parents are artists, they love a beautiful aria and a good book. We were not a hunting family, we didn’t even fish. I don’t recall one single conversation about guns. Their absence was entirely normal to me, in my quiet mostly white and Asian suburban world. I was mildly intrigued by the idea, the power and masculinity they seemed to imbue, but having little interest in sports or much of an inclination towards activities that required good aim, they left my mind as breezily as they went in. It didn’t occur to me what the black and brown kids who lived on the other side of the freeway thought about guns until I was much older. I found myself drawn to a different symbol of masculine self-reliance – cigarettes.
Visiting my brother in rural Ohio, I remember going into a gun store at the end of a quaint little collection of stores selling quilts, Amish furniture, antiques and the like. My brother and I, having never really been in a store that sold guns, went inside to look around. My father followed us in. At 5’10” in his Puma sneakers, with his hands in his pockets looking around, he smiled an expression that was not a smile, and he turned around and walked out. Something about that small moment struck me – the look on his face was a knowing look, with more than a hint of resentment and disapproval. He looked culturally out of place in that store, and he probably felt that way too. My father, who loves nothing more than puttering around the house and to fall into a nap with a spy novel and a cat at his feet, who will weep at the sound of a beautiful solo tenor or a chorus of children’s voices, exuded a particular version of masculinity to me, as his child. He has many traditionally masculine traits – he loves baseball and tools, women and woodworking, he was in the army reserves and was a pretty good shot. He was even pretty rageful and scary in his drinking years. But the unarmed, emotionally minded, gentle masculinity was what was passed on to me.
It is difficult to come to terms with the privilege I now know it to be, to be able to grow up in a world with not even the faintest fear of gun violence. It’s so easy for me to take a moral high ground and make a grand statement that I will never own a gun. That sentiment reminds me of the snarky comments I often received by those who clearly disapproved of my cigarette smoking and the effect it had on others. It was an obvious cultural difference between us, and I indignantly disregarded their comments. The gun lobby and the tobacco lobby share many similar traits – the stalling and hiding of science showing the heath risks involved in their products, the appeals to libertarian freedom of choice, invoking images of rebellious individuality, and the stoking of culture wars to keep the sales flowing. For both industries, it is ultimately about profit. I grew up in a world where cigarettes weren’t smoked in front of children, but was still something adults seem to enjoy, or was at least acceptable to do. I cringe at the thought of all the butts I threw from my car window, and all the youthful eyes that watched me smoke. My depression and anxiety had me searching the ashtrays in front of restaurants as a teen, and I have given god knows how much money to the tobacco billionaires, all for a cultural and chemical coping mechanism. Clearly guns and cigarettes are different animals, but both are animals none the less.
I could go down so many rabbit holes on this topic – how the relentless sales of arms has fueled the ridiculous violence we are seeing in the world, a musing on the human propensity to take a life, white privilege and guns, the sadness around so many unnecessary deaths cause by both guns and cigarettes… I could write about how I think regulating gun sales actually helps strengthen responsible gun ownership (look at Canada, look at regulation of driving cars), and speculate on how far past that point we are. Many, many rabbit holes. But what I sit here with is just the enormity of our shared predicament, and the powerlessness I feel to affect it as a single individual. It is a hugely complex issue that is interconnected to so much else, with no quick fix or sound bite slogan. Like the reality of poverty, its causes and solutions are multifaceted, requiring effort from all angles to even get it to budge. A myopic attack of one small variable will not move it.
When did you first experience guns? What was the culture surrounding them in your world as a child? Do tell 🙂