Breen: When guns are more than weapons

    After a brief stint in Los Angeles to sightsee, visit friends and participate in the March for Our Lives, my spring break plans went awry when I had to book a last-minute flight to the rural city of Salina, Kansas, for my uncle’s funeral. Although I greatly enjoy visiting my family every summer, the sad occasion was a harsh interruption to the planned, relaxing second half of my break at home in the South Bay Area, California.

    During my 26-hour emotional whirlwind in Salina, I went to the memorial service, attended a potluck, watched the Jayhawks game (they lost, I know – but next March is only 11 months away), toured my aunt’s farm, reconnected with my family and watched my cousin and his friends shoot clay pigeons in the backyard. This last experience impacted me the most.

    In light of recent national events including the lockdown scare on campus last month, my family’s love for guns was more incongruous with my own experiences and beliefs than ever. The family has a long history of hunting, going back generations. There are some odd, slightly disturbing but nevertheless hilarious stories (see: Aunt Chris strangling a turkey), typical coming-of-age stories (my cousin’s first deer), and everything in between, all going to show that hunting is an inextricable factor in the lives of my Midwestern relatives.

    Needless to say, they have never been proponents of gun regulation.

    On the evening I spent at the farm in Salina, my cousin went out with his girlfriend and some of his best friends to trapshoot. I didn’t realize they were going to be shooting clay pigeons directly out back, only yards from the house. As my uncle from Austin, Texas, and I discussed awesome bookstores we’ve visited, shots cut the air outside the house. Because I grew up far from guns and hunting culture and had strongly anti-gun opinions based on current events, I was uncomfortable with the proximity. It was very strange to have gone from the March for Our Lives to sitting only yards away from a makeshift shooting range in less than a week.

    It got worse when a friend of the family interrupted our conversation and started talking about how a campus near an armed robbery would be safer if the students and teachers were all armed. He argued that the gunman wouldn’t try to cross campus as a shortcut if he knew the people on campus had guns.

    At one point, the shots in the backyard sounded off much more rapidly than they had before. In an instant, the living room went silent, and people tried to feign ignorance to what they had just heard. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I had always thought there were only two reactions to guns: disgust or favor. My relatives until this point had shown only favor, but now they acted disturbed and ashamed.

    Eventually, the room became as lively as it had been before. At this point, my dad insisted on showing me around the farm. My aunt and uncle bought it less than a year ago, and I’d never seen the property. We went around to the shop, the old barn and the silo. Then, we were in front of the makeshift shooting range.

    Four people in their mid-20s stood in a row, rifles in hand. A fifth stood a little to the side, throwing clay pigeons. They shot three times for each toss, and the shooters kept their guns pointed toward the open range. The men swapped places every once in a while, offering a turn to shoot to their friends who were watching.

    When we walked up, my dad immediately spotted an old, elaborate gun that had belonged to his father. As he was admiring the woodwork of the stock, my cousin came up and asked if he would like to shoot. They joked about how much my dad was going to suck, and then my cousin loaded the rifle and my dad stepped up to the line with my cousin’s friends. He missed every shot, but when he stepped back and returned the gun to its case, he was clearly emotional. The gun had been a piece of my grandfather, and a component of my dad’s childhood. There was a certain connection to the rifle that made it less of a weapon and more of an item of cultural and familial significance.

    Looking to my cousin, I realized that, in a similar way, trapshooting was a way for him to feel close to his recently deceased father, who had taught him how to shoot and how to love doing it. Shooting with his friends was a pastime that simultaneously brought him closer to his family and to his community.

    Paying closer attention, I noted that each of my cousin’s friends handled their weapons with care and caution. My dad pointed out that they moved evenly and purposefully, never pointed the gun or let it swing toward anything it could hurt, and reloaded carefully. They had honed their safety techniques over years of shooting. The shots came one at a time, evenly spaced, and the drivers on the nearby road did not swerve or even spare a glance in our direction.

    It quickly became evident that not only was trapshooting in the backyard a chance to bond with family and friends – it was a cultural norm. My dad joked that they didn’t have much else to do in Kansas.

    I felt my perhaps almost excessively liberal California viewpoint shifting so I could see that my experience could not have prepared me to understand that of my relatives in this situation. However, one thing continued to nag at me as I tried to be culturally conscious and generous to a lifestyle so distant from my own. Set up on the ground to be shot from the prone position was a terrifying black spider of a weapon: an AR-15. I recognized it from the posters from the marches, New York Times graphics explaining the mechanisms and pictures of gunmen in war, in schools, in mindsets to murder. The assault rifle on the ground had no place with the picnic blanket, camo jacket, toothpick and handshake feeling of every other aspect of the scene.

    I thought again of my aunts and uncles sitting in their silence of denial in the living room just an hour earlier as the rapid pops echoed in the room. That weapon was not like the others. That weapon did not belong, and everyone knew it. No one fired it for the rest of the night; it probably sat in that very spot on the ground – a threat to lives, to lifestyles and to every form of security in between, until my cousin and his friends decided to take their bored, communal mourning to the bar downtown at 11 p.m.

    I left six hours later to return home for the last few moments of spring break. I still have never shot a gun, and I don’t think I ever will. My dad, as well, has returned to home and work and will not indulge in the pastime of his father, brother and childhood in Salina. Neither of us will miss the gun culture our relatives are so tied to, but our disconnect doesn’t invalidate either lifestyle. Nevertheless, I still doubt anyone would miss the AR-15 on the ground that so tainted what otherwise surprised me as being a rather wholesome, healthy community and culture.


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