Why I'm giving up my guns

While Piers Morgan and Alex Jones were having a gun control debate on CNN, I was having my own internal debate. I am an avid hunter, but the tragedy in Newtown, Conn. made me realize that as a gun-owner, I am unwittingly abetting the narrative of American violence.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
CNN host Piers Morgan leaves the CNN building in Los Angeles Dec. 20, 2011. His heated interview with radio host and gun-rights advocate Alex Jones has gained national attention. Op-ed contributor Samuel J. Findley writes: 'I am not sure I can abide the similarity between my [hunting] guns and those that have committed unspeakable atrocities. The slaughter of the innocents...will be too much on my mind.'

CNN host Piers Morgan and radio host and gun advocate Alex Jones may have had a heated gun control debate on Mr. Morgan's CNN show Monday night, but I have been having a heated internal debate of my own.

My father taught me to shoot when I was 12 years old. My first gun was my grandmother’s .410 pump action shotgun. As time went on, I graduated to a 12-gauge shotgun, though I remain the worst skeet shooter in my family. I treasure the memories of hunting ducks and pheasant with my father near his home in Rhode Island – the salt marsh on the Narrow River, or the fluorescence around our canoe paddles in the channel to Cornelius Island in the predawn darkness.

I’ve kept my own firearms in my house for 12 years now. And this year, my wife and I moved to a small farm that backs up to several acres of beautiful woods. I know where the turkeys feed, the daily routines of squirrel and deer. When I take my gun into the woods on the lookout for a particular animal, I breathe in the patterns of the forest.

I am finally in a situation where I can use my guns to pursue hunting, which I love to do, but now I am contemplating giving up my guns. Recent events, especially the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., have caused me to realize that as a gun-owner, I am unwittingly abetting the narrative of American violence.

My wife thinks this is ridiculous. “But we eat what you hunt!” she says. “It’s not crazy!” I’m not concerned about the death of animals (in fact, I feel disrespectful if I do not kill at least some of the meat that we eat).

And I have never been under any illusion that I would use my guns for “home protection.” Especially given that they are hunting rifles, not semi-automatic people killers, it would be a pointless exercise anyway. I can imagine the scene as I ask an assailant to wait while I finish loading my muzzleloader.

I don’t own any of the “crazy” guns either, and I am not preparing for the zombie apocalypse. And yet, I am in doubt about my gun ownership. It troubles me.

Oddly enough, it is the joys of hunting that have pushed me to reconsider owning guns. This fall, when I was waiting at the crest of the hill for the turkeys to come into sight, and could hear their foraging getting nearer minute by minute, I was plotting destruction. But the feeling was sweet. When pointing downrange onto a pheasant recently flushed, I feel the thrill of absolute connection when I know that I am dialed in to this bird’s death.

There is a weighty satisfaction that comes with carrying a gun in my hands. This “steel that fires lead,” to quote writer and former gun-owner Andre Dubus, tempts the holder with surety in an unpredictable world. Carrying a gun is an act of sheer presence. Carrying a gun, by extension, becomes a claim, an irrefutable argument that its wielder also cannot be ignored. Even the pheasants that I’ve missed – and their numbers are legion – will remember me forever in their puny birdbrains.

How much more powerful then is that statement, that irrefutable image, of carrying a gun to human beings. Something that can kill a human opponent demands a sobering recognition. If you will, to carry a gun is to embrace the power to nullify life.

And the grief of death is no place where I want to stake a claim. But the presence of guns in my house is a sinister whisper in the back of my head, a reminder of this lethal power.

When I carry a gun in the woods, I assert my presence in a clear way that I don’t often get to experience. I stake my claim to life as well as my power to end it. When others carry guns in their homes, or in the street, they stake a similar claim. Our motives and aims may be different, but we both look like killers.

Years ago, I had idly dreamed of finding or founding a “liberal’s” gun shop, in which hunters who loved hunting – but not the entire culture of gun ownership or semi-automatic weapons – might feel comfortable. I’m not sure that’s possible any longer.

I am not sure I can abide the similarity between my guns and those that have committed unspeakable atrocities. I am not sure that I can carry a gun, even to hunt ducks. The slaughter of the innocents at Sandy Hook and many other places will be too much on my mind. The gun’s sibilant whisper that called their killers into the darkness will be too loud, and too horrible.

So I will give up my guns. I will make my household a place into which anyone may walk, without fear of being killed, and out of which no one will carry the instruments of a massacre.

With what, then, will I hunt? I’ve always been fascinated with atlatls (spear-throwing tools). I also hear that one can hunt birds on the wing with “flu-flu” arrows. I certainly won’t kill as many pheasants, but at least I won’t be a man with a gun. 

Dr. Samuel J. Findley is an instructor in Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Penn State, Altoona. He is also a hunter and (soon to be former) gun-owner.

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