After an 11-year-old in Utah brought his gun to school because he thought that would protect him in some way from what happened in Connecticut, conversation amongst our staff immediately shifted to processing the reality of these children’s lives — everyone’s lives — and how easy it was for them to access these weapons; how easy it was for Adam Lanza to access his mother’s weapons. We talked about our own personal gun cultures — how we’d been raised around guns, or hadn’t; how our views on guns had been shaped by our regional upbringing, our parents’, their parents, our socioeconomic standings or ties to our ancestors; and how that past was now playing out in our present lives.
Because views on gun ownership and gun control and experiences with guns vary wildly by city / neighborhood / household, this conversation feels important in the attempt to understand where we’re all coming from. So that’s what we’re doing here, and we hope you’ll share your stories in the comments. It’s not something we really talk about.
Laneia, Executive Editor
Raised in Tennessee
Currently living in suburban Arizona
My stepdad was in law enforcement, so it wasn’t unusual to see his government-issued pistol in its holster on the coffee table or in the floor beside his chair. It’s still not unusual, only now his gun isn’t government-issued. He eventually went on to instruct firearms safety courses for the Middle Tennessee law enforcement agencies, so saying he knows “a thing or two” about guns is an understatement. He’s a serious hunter with an extensive collection of whatever it is hunters use to take down large beasts up in the mountains of South Dakota (rifles, scopes, reloading supplies, orange vests!).
Saying my stepdad knows “a thing or two” about guns is an understatement.
I grew up with his hunting and reloading magazines in neat stacks all throughout the house. His rifles were always “put up,” but I’m not sure what that really meant in terms of my inability to take one of them without permission, because I never wanted to try. When other kids came over, the guns were kept out of view and we never talked about it; in fact, I never really thought about them. I respected the severity of guns and it never occurred to me to do anything with them — they weren’t mine and I didn’t mess with things that weren’t mine. But now I’m thinking, what if I’d been a nosey clepto anarchist? Or depressed and homicidal? That kind of speculation is a lot like asking ‘what if I’d had a giraffe growing out of my head,’ since I’m pretty sure my entire world would’ve been different if I hadn’t been such a trustworthy, boring little girl who respected authority and was terrified of her own mortality. My stepdad would’ve gone to greater lengths to keep the guns completely away from me if he thought he needed to, but the fact is that he didn’t need to, is what I’m saying.
When my oldest son was brand new, I let everyone know that he was not allowed to play with toy guns, and no other children could play with toy guns around him, because I was a newly-minted dirty hippie pacifist and had read stories about how children growing up on The Farm hadn’t been allowed to play with toy guns and weren’t even allowed to use other objects in place of guns (like a banana, for example), and that’s what I wanted for my kid. But somewhere along the way, after years of standing up for this and that, I decided to fry other fish — I think it was the year a family friend gave #1 a wooden popgun and it just looked so nostalgic and harmless and I was tired of fighting — and now both of my kids have Nerf guns, as well as Nerf swords, battery operated light sabers, plastic daggers from pirate costumes, and one lone BB gun that I think I managed to hide all the way in the back of everyone’s subconscious/someone’s attic. We have rules about gun-play: no aiming at heads, no aiming at me (ever) and no realistic-looking pieces. #1 plays video games that involve shooting things and blowing things up, but he prefers Minecraft; #2 is always down for a Nerf gun war, but would rather take apart a model train or watch things explode in Little Big Planet. I really never thought I’d let toy guns or violent video games into my children’s lives, but I did. If it sounds like I’m a little confused about my own stance on gun culture, it’s because I am. I can justify these plastic darts and pixelated blood, because I’ve set certain limitations and I feel like I know my kids, but probably other parents feel like they know their kids, too.
I don’t like guns — they’re loud and they kill things — and I don’t understand the fun in target practice, but I can’t say that everyone who enjoys shooting things is somehow crazy or potentially homicidal, because I have my stepdad as a shining example of a sane person who is also a gun enthusiast. And I’ll be honest, this a really confusing place to be.
Kristen, Contributing Editor
Raised in suburban Vancouver
Currently living in Montreal
I had my only gun experience when I was eight. I had been rooting through my family’s filing cabinet when I came across my mom’s license from the 70s. Given that my mom is teensy and the most violence-averse person humanly possible, to say I had questions is an understatement. She explained that in Johannesburg, everyone carried guns for safety’s sake. She’d go to the disco with her sisters and they’d check their pistols with their coats. Apparently hers was cute and pink. It was mind-boggling then and it’s still mind-boggling now.
I have yet to hold a gun and I’m not looking to change that any time soon.
Raised near Chicago, IL
Currently living in Los Angeles, CA
Like most things in this country, violence only seems to matter when it happens to certain people and furthermore, who is “responsible.” I didn’t go to a great high school but it wasn’t like an episode of The Wire or anything. Our school was routinely put on lockdown and swept for guns and drugs and our bookbags were subject to random checks upon entering the building.
There were fights most days in varying degress of severity. I’ve seen people beat with wooden planks, potted plants, locks, keys, and bats. When someone had it out for you, you had a choice to make. You could either wear boots or gym shoes and that communicated everything we needed to know. We had a sick obsession. A fascination with violence. I think it’s because you have two options. Either be entertained or scared.
Multiple people in my life have been shot, one murdered. This in combination with a lot of other factors has made me extremely cautious.
As a result of our school being taken over by the state we had block scheduling which meant there was a down period between the end of school and athletic practice. We would literally motorcade to fights during this down time but even we had limits. The mere mention of a gun sent us scattering in every direction.
Multiple people in my life have been shot, one murdered. This in combination with a lot of other factors made me extremely cautious. I avoid confrontation with strangers at almost all costs because people are legitimately crazy. But that’s what scary about guns. No matter how cautious you are, if someone walks into a public place and starts shooting, there’s nothing you can do about it. I don’t have a drawn out argument about gun control because it devolves quickly into a dismissal of anyone that doesn’t understand the mix of anger and fear caused by gun violence. But we don’t have to feel that way as much as we do. We shouldn’t have to.
Lemon, Community Managerette
Raised in Texas
Currently living in Brooklyn, New York
Interestingly, my family — my dad in particular — hates guns. My brother and I were instructed not to talk about this in front of our friends when we moved to Texas so as not to offend anyone. My dad was raised in a very Catholic household in New Jersey. Traditionally, he told me once, “Catholicism values life above all else. No abortion. No death penalty. No guns.”
Nonetheless, we still lived in Texas and Texas still had guns. So it’s no surprise, I guess, that I have shot a gun more than once in my lifetime. And each time I felt a little uncomfortable, although it wasn’t a crippling feeling. I did, after all, want to know what it felt like. But It wasn’t until high school that I started to actually think about guns. In an effort to prove to my parents that I was “listening” to them, I chose to do an innoccuous report about newspaper columnists who wrote about gun control. By the end of it, I realized that I was actually terrified of guns. I started to write school paper after school paper on why we needed stricter gun laws in this country, partially because I wanted to be a contrarian and partially because I really was terrified.
Towards the end of my senior year in high school, the kid I was dating at the time took me into his dad’s closet and asked me if I wanted to see his shooting range. I thought he was kidding, trying to make some dumb innuendo. But sure enough he pulled back the shoe rack to reveal a large gray elevator that would deliver us to his underground gun palace. Or supposedly–I didn’t stick around to find out. We broke up a few days later because he was an asshole and I was gay.
These days I live in New York City and I don’t have to think about guns that often. At least, not until we all do.
Raised and currently living in Denver, CO
I grew up in Denver CO but spent a large portion of my life on the family ranch in teeny tiny town Chama NM. My uncle was an avid hunter and we ran a business doing this sort of dude ranch experience where we took city slickers out on hunting trips. Guns were always kept locked and children did not touch them till about age 13 or 14. By that time I was a vegetarian so never learned to shoot anyway. Guns were part of life on the ranch, shotguns for mountain lions and for taking down lame horses or steer (I know, seriously traumatizing). But yeah, even though there were guns they were always locked, only my uncle knew where the key was and kids weren’t even allowed to look at them. I’m not sure how comparable that is to other ranch kids lives — we were kind of the weird family in town and only on the ranch at certain times. Now I live in the city where mountain lions and coyotes aren’t a threat to my family’s livelihood, I don’t believe in keeping a gun. Guns are respected, they are a tool for life, they are not something for recreation and they certainly aren’t needed in city living. We were never taught that guns were fun, or needed for personal use, they were used for ranch duties only.
Cara, Contributing Editor
Raised in Massachusetts
Currently living in Boston, Massachusetts
I grew up the daughter of a pacifist pediatrician in a well-to-do Massachusetts town. My sisters and I weren’t allowed to play video games, watch the news, or sign up for riflery at summer camp. One time, during a heat wave, my dad surprised us with SuperSoakers, but my brief, thrilling tenure as a watergunslinger ended after fifteen minutes, when I hit my little sister in the eye and my mom put our new toys on the top shelf of the garage, where they tempted me forever. Although I mourned them, I regarded “real guns” as a completely separate ballgame, one completely outside my purview. I only remember thinking about them once: when I was in fourth grade, the class bully told the class nerd that he was going to bring his dad’s gun to school and shoot everyone. Word quickly spread, and the next day, when Class Bully carried a paper bag into the classroom, we were all terrified. Luckily word had hit the teacher as well – I found out later that the kid’s house had been searched that night, and the only gun there was a dead antique. The paper bag had a banana in it, and I think the kid ended up getting suspended.
When I played laser tag last year and the weapons were defanged air rifles with attached laser gizmos, I spent the whole time flinching
This lack of gun exposure has translated into extreme nervousness around them. When I played laser tag last year and the weapons were defanged air rifles with attached laser gizmos, I spent the whole time flinching (I also flinch at gunshots in movies, and when I see holstered-up security guards in airports). I recently read about Colonel Jeff Cooper’s Color Code, which describes the appropriate level of alertness in personal defense situations, from white (totally unaware and unprepared) to black (obsessive threat awareness, resulting in “catastrophic breakdown of mental and physical performance”). If I were given a gun to defend myself with, I’m pretty sure I’d jump to blackout-level paralysis instantly. I don’t know if it was my upbringing or just a natural distrust of small, powerful machines in the hands of humans, but I think I’ll always associate guns with automatic destruction, never protection, and I’m not sure what to do about that.
Next: “When I was younger, my dad used his moderate collection of unregistered guns to keep our family fed during the coldest winters.”