First I had a BB gun. A Red Ryder lever action with a leather thong hanging from a gold ring. Then a Crosman CO2 pellet gun. To a twelve-year-old boy of my time, a pellet gun was a bazooka. I could knock a quarter off a log from twenty yards.
When I was sixteen, my father gave me a shotgun. A single-shot, bolt-action, sixteen-gauge J.C. Higgins from Sears. It was exciting but also a bit of an embarrassment. Two of my best friends had fancy pump-action Remingtons. They were a little reckless. One was shooting birds in his suburban front yard and shot out his neighbor’s glass storm door. They used to take me to a field with an old barn where we waged campaigns against tin cans, pigeons and the long grass that quivered where rabbits had been a split-second before.
I didn't shoot again for twenty years, until my father-in-law, a hunter, gave my first two sons Browning Sweet Sixteens and took us all out on opening day of dove season. Doves hurtling in black silhouette across a bright September sky are like targets in a video game, at least until you pick up a wounded bird, soft and warm in your hand, to break its neck.
The boys and I hunted doves with their grandfather back in Tennessee for a few seasons, and pheasants once. In L.A. we used to go up into the foothills above our house and shoot clay pigeons. The boys were good shots, particularly my oldest. When a rattlesnake snuck up behind us while we rested in the shade, I shot and missed twice and he took the gun from me and saved us with the last shell.
Those boys grew up and went off to college and I put my Smith & Wesson twenty gauge up on the closet shelf, where it has been for so long I've forgotten the combination for the trigger lock. I remarried and had young boys again, but I did not teach them to shoot. I didn’t even like for them to have Nerf guns. I think I had become ashamed of how easily I had killed harmless creatures in my other life, before they were born. What did that say about me? Nothing I wanted to admit.
A few months ago, my oldest son, my defender-from-rattlesnakes, called to say he was taking his own son to a skeet range. He said my sweet little twenty-gauge would be perfect for that. I know he likes the gun, and I’ve always told him he could have it one day, but before I got around to shipping it, twenty schoolchildren were massacred in Newtown, Connecticut.
When I see a policeman in Starbucks with a gun strapped on his hip, I want to say: Get out of here with that god-awful thing. You’re making me nervous. Guns don’t belong in coffee shops. My sensitivity is like an allergy: I was exposed for a long time with no bad reaction, then one day I began breaking out in hives. Maybe it’s myself I fear, the me of my killing days, the me in others.
My shotgun is still in the closet. As much as I love my son, as much as I enjoyed our days in the field together, I can't bring myself to send it to him. There are too many guns, doing too much damage. I can't get rid of them all, but I can get rid of one.