When Armageddon comes, you’re going to want to be friends with my dad. That’s what I tell people. This has nothing to do with his amiable personality or his pulled pork sandwiches, and everything to do with the artillery of guns he keeps in a safe that could easily fit the bodies of four grown men.
I grew up eating the spoils of the hunter: quail, a New Year’s Eve treat that left us picking buckshot from between our teeth; bear meatballs at Thanksgiving parties in lieu of beef; marinated venison kebabs on burnt wooden spears for Christmas. The evidence of the year’s slaughter often presented itself around the holidays, when hundreds of pounds of gamey meat kept in the garage-kept deep freezers of the off-duty cops and mechanics like my dad was brought out for special occasions like the birth of baby Jesus, whether or not anyone was actually Christian.
The taxidermied animals hanging in our living room -- two ducks frozen in flight, three deer, a caribou -- were treated with similar reverence over the holidays, a bunch of dead demigods anchored to panels of ’80s oak. Each deer was decked out with a sleigh bell necklace made by my mom.
The caribou (by merit of its size) was given the honorary role of Rudolph, red felt tucked around the corners of his plasticized black nose to denote himself as leader of an immobile herd. All in all, a weird and merry display, something I only recognized as being incredibly morbid about four years ago, nearly 20 years after my family stopped having Christmases together.
What we ate, and subsequently hung on our walls, were the winnings from many permitted hunts at a place called simply “The Ranch.” The Ranch was and is outside of Bakersfield, CA, occupying one of the largest stretches of privately held land in Southern California, doomed to eventually become the grounds for a number of charmless cookie-cutter residential developments and a handful of big box discount stores.
But for now, it’s still a mostly unspoiled expanse of dusty oak trees and desert rattle snakes, clocking in at around 270k acres and filled with mostly NRA-card holding, pro-gun Republicans. My dad’s been a member since he was in his twenties, and he’s been taking us up there since the time we could walk. Learning how to shoot a rifle came around the same time I was learning about times tables.
As any place teeming with bears and armed sportsmen wanting to smote them off this earth, The Ranch, in acknowledgement of real danger (and potential lawsuits), had rules about children. Kids weren’t allowed during hunting season, a time when my dad and his beer-gutted buddies crawled around in the brush wearing tan camo, staring down the barrel of a rifle and into the flank of an unsuspecting beast.
No, I only got to go in the off-season, where I was encouraged, at just 10 years old, to drive a stick-shift Jeep Willys from the ’50s, using packing blankets stacked onto the cracked leather seat so I could see above the dashboard while my brother and dad kept an eye out for squirrels. I was, in effect, an accomplice to many murders in my first years learning how to drive.
To be sure, there was no worse fate than to be a squirrel at The Ranch. Their death required no permit. The hunts were unregulated. Squirrels, the poor lot, were the next best thing to shooting empty cans of beer.
So this is how I grew up with guns, just 100 miles away from Los Angeles, a place where rifles were turned not on people, but, whether you like it or not, animals. And there was always, with the exception of the squirrels, a firm dedication of ethics, a respect for firearms and the safety of those around you. In my mind, stupid and naïve as it was, guns were for ranches like my own, not for cities and certainly, dear god, not for schools.
But then Columbine happened, the first school shooting in my memory that seemed to inspire a string of similar ones. It was the late ’90s, and the bottom of the proverbial mountain. Since then, there’s been countless others, with death counts ranging from the fortunate to the profane. And though the volatility in the overall number of homicides occurring at schools in the United States is under constant debate (some erroneously counted 74 shootings in 2014 alone, a statistic that was swiftly cut down), many have shared that Columbine-like quality -- premeditated and choreographed, with the intention of reaching as many people as possible.
These are massacres administered, for the most part, not by kids who grew up on ranches. These are kids who have been raised on violent films and video games, fed pixilated bad guys and splats of fake blood, kids who have come to the conclusion, in some twisted logic, that eradicating their peers like vermin seems a fair retribution to the trials and tribulations of youth, a time remembered by many as one of rejection and pain.
Still, as a person who was raised to respect guns, to feel its weight in my hands, I don’t think familiarity with firearms would have prevented crimes such as these. More access doesn’t mean more respect; more access simply means more access.
My experience with guns -- bucolic days on the ranch, holidays spent eating weird food, our bizarre tribute to Santa’s reindeer -- has done nothing to motivate my passion for gun owners’ rights. You could throw all of the guns in a bin tomorrow, melt down the metal, crush the wood, and I believe we would all be better off, Second Amendment be damned. I don’t believe in control; I believe in gun abolishment.
Guns, no matter how many times I’ve held one, scare the living hell out of me. The power you feel in holding one is too undeservingly great; you’re immediately aware of your ability to ruin lives, human or otherwise, to alter the physical landscape in seconds. Unfortunately, for some, this is a feeling that empowers people, inspires them to great evil. And perhaps it’s because of this that I've never felt safer in their presence. Like having a wild animal sleeping with you in your bed; one day that thing will bite you. It's only a matter of time.
Did you grow up with guns, too? What’s your take on gun control? I’d love to know.