A Gun Is an Instrument, Not a Tool
(I originally posted this last night over on Poor Mojo's Newswire, and thought that it might belong over here, too.)
Over the Winter Holiday of Your Choosing we visited my in-laws--who live on a bunch of fallow acres in West Michigan--and I brought my pistol, a Belgian-made Browning Challenger. These .22LR target pistols were made in the '60s and '70s; mine was a gift from my father, the gun he learned to shoot on, and on which he subsequently taught me to shoot. He was the original owner, and bought it in the mid-1960s, back when these pistols were still hand-machined from a single block of steel by an actual human. Primarily I'd brought the pistol to my in-law's because my father-in-law had recently purchased a Browning Buck Mark (which is descended from the Challenger, but is CNC-machined from 7075-T6 aluminum), and was curious about the comparison between the two. But also my son, who is in first grade, had taken an interest in the war games my nephews (who are older--middle school and high school) play on Xbox, and had been regaling me daily with accounts of the "HALO" games he and his friends re-enacted on the school playground. If he wanted to talk about guns, to imagine guns, to play at what guns are and do, then I wanted him to shoot a gun. He'd seen me shoot plenty of times, but had never pulled the trigger himself.
As it turned out, this foray was wonderfully instructive. We went out into the field, where my father- and brother-in-law have built their shooting range. The day was bitter cold. I hadn't shot my .22 in several years, and it kept misfeeding, only squeezing off three rounds successfully (I later discovered that the barrel screw was a touch loose; these guns are accurate because they are built to tight tolerances, so even a little shifting will muck things up). The Buck Mark similarly misfed and misfired (although at a lower rate)--this, I think, because of the lighter aluminum unevenly contracting as it made the shift from a warm house to a cold field. But my boy got to shoot (with my father-in-law guiding his hand). And what he found was what is true: Shooting can be stressful. A gun--even a plinky little .22--is *loud*, and it jumps in your hand like something live and nervous. It's hard to use; most of his shots sailed into the dirt two yards in front of the target, even with an adult steadying his hand. And guns are unpredictable: Many shells turned out to be bad (they were bought bulk, cheap), or were crimped useless when they were slammed crookedly by the misfeeding slide. And even though we were shooting at a steel target made for .45s, I broke the damn thing with a "lucky" shot that was a touch high and happened to catch the ironwork at its seam, sending the heavy target sailing away. Even this little gun was fearsome; it brought a touch of dread to the boy.
Because a gun isn't a tool--it's not a hammer or a drill that you can pick up, use to solve a problem, and put away until you have the next problem you want to solve. It's an instrument, like a guitar or piano, it requires constant care, it requires checking and tuning before each use, it requires an intimate relationship with its mechanisms, with its parameters, with what it can do and what it should do and what it is meant for. It requires care and feeding. And it requires *practice,* near constant practice for you to be any good at doing anything with it.
It's not a tool, and it doesn't solve problems; it is an instrument, and it expresses feelings. When I'm shooting skeet, I have to feel that clay in my heart before I can smash it, I have to feel how it soars. The hard part isn't the shooting--that's just a swing of the arm and twitch of the finger; I never even think about it. The hard part is the *seeing*, really seeing the orange disk, not just assuming I see it, or thinking I see it, or seeing my idea of the disk and its location, but really and truly seeing the world for what it literarily is. It's harder than you think, because most of us go most of our days without beginning to appreciate how little we see the world, and how completely we rely on our *ideas* about the world without checking them against what our senses are actually reporting. (In light of this, it should come as no surprises that the most natural shots I've ever met have all been artists, 'cause that's the only other human endeavor that's so much about perceiving the world as it is, rather than as we'd have it be.)
When you pick a gun up--just like when you pick up a ukulele or a violin--even if you are "just practicing," you are saying something about yourself, about the world and your place in it, about the connectedness of things, about our human tendency to build things beautiful and destructive.
So the shooting--out in the cold, with real guns that were loud and destructive and erratic--was stressful for my son, and reminded me of the first time *I'd* gone shooting with my dad, when I was in my 20s. I'd never touched a gun--although he'd always kept them in the house--but I'd grown up an American, and so I had *ideas* about guns. And the gun I used that day was *his* preferred gun at the time, a Beretta 9mm. I couldn't hit a thing with it--literally. As I recall, the paper target was entirely unscathed. And I'd had to force my finger to curl around the trigger each time, because each explosion was tremendous, each felt like the Worst Thing I'd Ever Done, and with each shot I couldn't help but imagine that bullet tearing into me, piercing my chest, breaking my bones.
But afterwards, I'd wondered, and we went back with the .22--an impractical gun, in many regards, low-caliber, too bulky to conceal, the barrel long for accuracy, the grip thick for comfort and steadiness, the sights absurdly pronounced for a pistol in America. But it fit my hand like no other object I'd ever touched, and every shot went exactly where I wanted it, where my eye placed it. I never thought about my hand or my chest or my heart or my bones, just my eye and the sights and the target. Just the world.
After we were back inside and warmed up, I asked my little boy what he'd thought of the shooting, expecting he'd repeat what he'd said when he was three and watched me shooting skeet with my dad--"Too loud!" he'd cried, despite wearing my big spare ear protectors.
But he didn't. He was thoughtful, and he smiled, and he said it was good. And since we've been back home, it doesn't seem like he's been playing "HALO" at school.
Anyway, that's what this video got me thinking about, how maybe the most fundamental flaw in our national discussion about guns is that so many of us think of them as tools that we can--or should, or might, or must--use to solve problems, instead of seeing them for what they are: Instruments through which we express ourselves, for better or worse.
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