One day in eighth grade I took a gun to school.
I don’t mean a toy gun or a replica. I mean I carried a fully operational .22-caliber rifle — specifically a single-shot, bolt-action model — into my public school in New York.
That morning, when the school bus arrived at my house, the driver eyed the gun and asked why I had it. I gave an explanation that apparently satisfied her, since she shrugged and said nothing more on the matter. I took my customary seat in the third row, leaning the gun’s barrel against the window.
Once we arrived at school, I carried the rifle into the building. It was in my hand, plain as day, not in any case. Two teachers passed me in the hallway and said hello. One raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the gun. “Wood shop,” I explained. She smiled and walked away.
The shop teacher, Mister Wilcox, greeted me when I reached his room. “You finally remembered it,” he said. He took the old rifle, which had belonged to my grandfather, and admired it. “This’ll clean up nice.” Wilcox was the one who had given me the idea of bringing a gun to school. I’d seen him refinish the wooden stock of one of his rifles and asked if he would help me do mine.
He directed me to a work bench, where I took the gun apart and proceeded to sand the stock. It never occurred to me that I might have disassembled it at home, bringing only the wooden part.
After a couple of weeks I took the refurbished gun home, again walking freely through the halls and again taking the bus, without incident.
This was in 1981. But what made this now-unthinkable episode possible was less when it occurred than where.
I lived in Upstate New York, in the rural dairy farm country between Buffalo and Rochester, a place that had, and has, more in common with West Virginia than with Staten Island. New York City, a good seven hours away, may as well have been the moon. My neighbors were farmers and lunch ladies and truck drivers, and most of us faced lives of hard labor.
Guns were unusual in my school — I never saw another student bring one — but knives weren’t. Many kids brought hunting knives to class, and everyone knew it. On my belt I often wore a five-inch lock-blade knife I’d received as a gift. It was proudly displayed in a leather sheath I’d made from a Tandy kit. My math teacher once asked to see the knife, which met with his approval. I was never asked to stop wearing it.
The thing is, I don’t recall a stabbing at my school — ever. Or a slashing. Or any knife or gun violence. Not that there was universal peace; my male role models were burly men in work boots, and anyone demonstrating a complete lack of aggression was viewed with suspicion. But we fought only with our fists. It simply didn’t occur to us to use knives or guns on each other. They were tools, works of art. We didn’t think of them as weapons.
Soon guns and knives would become less important to me. I’d always dreamed of hunting for deer and bear, but my hunting career ended early when I killed a songbird and then wept when I held it in my hands. I later went to college and began to hang around people with strong thoughts on all sorts of things, including gun control. Those thoughts began, for the most part, to make sense to me. Today I don’t own a gun and I have no particular desire for one.
Yet I can still appreciate the supple feel of a well-made 12-gauge. I take pride in the fact that I’ve always been a decent shot. I understand why guns are so important to people in rural America and why those people distrust any government that seeks to regulate their ownership.
I’m not exactly sure where the gun debate stands now, but as far as I’m concerned, I’d let just half a dozen people decide what to do. I’d take three random citizens of Aurora, or Newtown, or any place affected by tragic gun violence. I’d take another three from a town where they actually close school on the first day of deer season because so many students and teachers will be out anyway.
I’d put those six folks in a room, give them plenty of beer and pizza, and encourage reasonable discourse. No politicians, no lobbyists, no newspeople, no shrill talk. They wouldn’t be allowed to leave until they came to agreement, like a jury.
I don’t know about you, but I’m willing to live with whatever they decide.
Scott Dalrymple is dean of the School of Liberal Arts at Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y.