It was heavy and cold. It reminded me of the metal cast I made in my 8th grade industrial arts class. The only other time I touched a gun was 15 years before when my wealthy boyfriend in Minnesota showed me his father’s firearm — the one he used when they went duck hunting in the Boundary Waters each year.
The National Rifle Association volunteer instructor didn’t know what I meant when I said I had no experience with guns. It felt like at any moment it was going to explode and blow my hands to bloody pieces.
I asked, “How should I hold it?”
He said, “It’s common sense. Just point it in a safe direction.”
“What is safe?” I asked.
“Well, don’t point it at anyone,” he laughed.
So, I held it pointing up toward the ceiling.
“Oh, no. Don’t do that!” he said quickly and moved my hands so it was pointing down toward the ground at a slight angle.
Everyone I talked to at the Women on Target instructional shooting clinic at the North Berwick Rod & Gun Club in the fall of 2010 said they felt gun safety was common sense. It was all new to me. Most of them had grown up around firearms. They talked about using them “for protection.” While a few of the women were there to learn to shoot, they had all held guns before, and most were there improving their skills.
For those of us who grew up with limited or no access to firearms, they are frightening instruments of destruction. After the horrors in Newtown, and when any news of gun violence feels close and personal, it seems natural to some of us to immediately insist we institute strict controls on the purchase and sale of guns. We can’t understand how anyone would disagree.
Before we can even have productive discussions about “gun control,” we need to speak the same language. For many people in the United States — about one-third of Americans own guns, according to General Social Survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago — learning gun safety is just a part of growing up. There aren’t checklists and tests, but there is a lot of common sense shared day in and day out. They are taught from the beginning that guns are for protection or for sustenance or for both. They are sophisticated tools, each having their own purpose. They aren’t scary.
When we who consider guns as dangerous weapons talk about them, we tend to ignore the reality of many Americans who feel safer when they think of guns. I’m not suggesting we all need to start feeling safe because of guns, but if we want to have effective conversations about the role of firearms in our country, we need to understand the different realities.
Addressing our fear of guns will be useful, too. When murders happen so close to our lives that we can’t ignore them, it seems like gun death is very, very common. An immediate threat. However, according to the National Center for Health Statistics more people die each year from poisoning than they do from firearms deaths. After poison comes death by car wrecks. Firearms deaths are third. Of course, that’s too many people dead. But it’s not as dire as recent tragedies can make it seem.
But, the children. We want to keep our children safe. Well, did you know that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the No. 1 cause of death for children are injuries, such as car wrecks, suffocation, drowning, poisoning, fires and falls? One child dies every hour from injury. Firearms fatalities don’t even make the list of common causes.
Despite the understandably urgent desire to find clear answers, we don’t yet know how to address firearms safety. I lean toward the idea posited by David Hemenway, director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Hemenway, author of “Private Guns, Public Health,” suggests creating a National Firearm Safety Administration, just as 40 years ago we created the National Highway Traffic Administration. This makes sense to me as the NHTA allowed data collection, so we could know which policies worked to reduce traffic injuries. This time we could do it for guns. Again, there are no easy answers.
We all want to be safe. No one wants any more children to die. We want to end gun violence, of course. However, the answer isn’t as simple as “getting rid of all the guns,” or even as simple as stricter controls on the purchase and sale of guns. Firearms safety — or “gun control” — can only be addressed effectively when we understand the meaning behind the metaphor of “gun.” When we understand what “gun” means to us, we will be able to have productive conversations that might lead to answers. We who essentially fear guns, for whom guns appear more dangerous than useful, must acknowledge that for many Americans, the true and deep metaphorical meaning of “gun” is safety.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland.