Jeffrey Hudson

Jeffrey L. Hudson

I was instructed in the safe use of a firearm early on by my father. He had been a hunter since he was a boy living through the years of the Great Depression. He was a good shot, and the game he brought home helped to supplement whatever his family produced on the family farm. He felt his early familiarity with hunting rifles helped him to survive his service as an infantry soldier in World War II.

My dad’s extensive experience with firearms was reflected in the methodical way I was trained to use them. The first weapon I was given was a .22-caliber pellet rifle. He showed me how to load, aim and fire, where the trigger safety was and how to clean and store the gun when I was finished using it.

When I graduated to using my brother’s .22-caliber rifle, I got the same lessons over again but in a different tone; he was fanatical about something I later learned is called “muzzle discipline” — the responsibility of someone wielding a gun to always know where it is pointed and to never let that place be any part of another human being. I’m sure my dad’s insistence on this was influenced by his experience as a soldier; he had seen the human damage a gun could inflict, and he was making sure his son would never be an unwitting cause of such injuries.

Even before the advent of firearms, fathers taught their children — mostly their male children — how to use whatever weapons their culture produced, so they would have some facility with them for hunting. This was the same orientation of the old American “gun culture” my dad passed on to me. He was an avid duck hunter — partly because my mom was an avid duck eater — and he viewed training to use a firearm safely as the first step in hunting safely.

He did give me a few tips on using a gun for home defense, but shooting at other human beings wasn’t the focus of my dad’s instruction. We shot at round targets and plinked cans off of tree stumps, but never fired at target silhouettes. He wasn’t preparing me for battle — his firearms instruction was more like that of a dad who was good at carpentry trying to teach his kid how to use a power tool without cutting off a limb.

This matter-of-fact attitude toward guns was common in northern Indiana at that time.

During hunting season, some students had rifles in the vehicles they parked in the high school lot. The rifles probably weren’t loaded, but there likely were shells in the glove compartments of the generally unlocked vehicles. Nobody thought enough about this even to comment. None of us could have predicted how drastically things would change, but they have — and that means we have to learn as a society to respond to those changes.

The gun mythologists

After every school shooting, there are calls to do something about the gun violence that plagues America. Too often, not much gets done.

One reason for this inaction is that there are forces working to divide us — some of whom I refer to as mythologists and ideologues — when unified effort is the only way to accomplish meaningful reform.

Gun mythologists understate the lethality of firearms and have a tendency to over-romanticize the role private gun ownership played in obtaining our independence from Britain and might still play in keeping us free from foreign domination. After a mass casualty event, you might hear a mythologist assert that if a gun wasn’t available, the killer would have just found another way to kill. It is true that you can use almost anything to kill another human being. In 1985, an Indiana woman was convicted of murdering her boyfriend by repeatedly dropping a bowling ball on his head while he was asleep in front of the television. (Ironically, he owned a bowling supply business.)

However, there is a reason we equip our soldiers with guns instead of bowling balls — guns can inflict an awful amount of damage in a short period of time.

The Second Amendment reads: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” To a mythologist, the Second Amendment is sacred text — except maybe the comma that seems to link gun ownership with service in the militia. But when mythologists do acknowledge that link, they often overestimate the role privately owned guns had in keeping the peace and winning the American Revolution. Guns were expensive; most people in Colonial America couldn’t afford one.

That is one of the main reasons early militias sometimes required their members to own weapons. The guns that early settlers owned had multiple uses out of necessity.

There is no more iconic moment in gun mythology than the start of the American Revolution when the British army marched out from Boston to destroy a rebel arms cache in Concord, Massachusetts. On the way there, they were confronted by Colonial militiamen on the Lexington town green and it was there the first shots of the Revolution were fired.

The very first shot might have come from the gun carried by a militia captain and farmer named John Parker. It was the only firearm documented as having been present at the Lexington battle, and it was known as a “fowling piece” — something Capt. Parker could have used for hunting ducks. If he would have joined the Continental Army later, he would have been issued a much different weapon — probably a smoothbore musket called the “Brown Bess,” which was preferred for military use even over the more accurate Pennsylvania long rifles because they could be reloaded faster.

The persistence of the tenet of gun mythology that calls for citizens to be allowed arms that would allow them to win a sustained battle with their own government or a foreign invader remains an obstacle to reasonable gun control.

Anti-gun ideologues

Anti-gun ideologues are at least as much an obstacle to effective gun measures as the mythologists. The ideologues contend that private ownership of guns and the Second Amendment itself are relics of our violent and racist past, and it is high time we changed the Constitution to allow us to implement strict gun regulations. The problem with these ideologues is that their ideas are suspect.

In a recent New York Times article, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy — a Black academic whose expertise is in race relations and civil liberties —  rejected the notion that racism was the driving force behind the adoption of the Second Amendment. Kennedy stated that: "Racism ... for all its importance, is not the only major influence in the country’s affairs" and goes on to point to scholarship indicating that fear of an overly powerful federal government — not slave revolts — was the main motivation for the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

What is undeniable, however, is that early efforts at gun control were steeped in racism.

In his infamous Dred Scott decision, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney mentioned one of the benefits of denying Black Americans citizenship was that they would be denied the right to “keep and carry arms wherever they went.” After the 14th Amendment settled the question of Black citizenship, Southern states passed “black codes” that created a new category — the second-class citizen — and they made sure those codes forbade or made it difficult for the newly freed to exercise their right to bear arms.

In 1892, the Black journalist and activist Ida B. Wells noted that a Black man only escaped a lynch mob when “he had a gun and used it in self-defense. The lesson this teaches ... is that a Winchester rifle should have a place of honor in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.”

The anti-gun ideologues find it difficult to acknowledge this homegrown example of how oppression and the denial of rights such as due process and trial by jury can go hand in hand with denying people the right to bear arms. The ideologues also cannot enter any potential negotiations over gun regulations in good faith — after all, if the Second Amendment and gun ownership are predicated on racism, they are illegitimate.

If the ideologues’ endgame is repeal of the Second Amendment, then there really isn’t any reason for gun-rights activists to negotiate with them.

Unified effort needed

Making American schools — and America in general — safer will require a more sustained and unified effort than concerned citizens have yet to mount. We can’t let either the gun mythologists or the anti-gun ideologues to dominate the debate and divide us.

Most Americans agree that the Second Amendment doesn’t guarantee the right to own any weapon regardless of its lethality. No one — well, hardly anyone — thinks it is a good idea for people to have bazookas or hand grenades and we have already applied that principle even to weapons as controversial as the AR-15. These rifles are not in fact assault rifles because they are not fully automatic — you can’t just hold down the trigger and fire away. But they are the civilian version of a military weapon and they have too often been the choice of those intent on killing a lot of people quickly.

Congress recently passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which nodded in the direction of making AR-15s a little less accessible to impulsive individuals under the age of 21. (Notably, the suspects in both the Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, mass shootings were the same age: 18.)

Could we also use the principle my dad incorporated in his firearm lessons to me — the more deadly the gun, the more serious the instruction — and require someone who wants to get a gun as lethal as an AR-15 to go through some extra training? I ran that idea past some gun owners I know and got mostly positive responses.

Of course, approaching gun owners in a condescending manner and stereotyping them as being all middle-aged white guys — as some ideologues are wont to do — won’t help to make us any safer. Gun owners are a diverse group — the National African American Gun Association has some 30,000 members — and most are genuinely concerned about the safety of their communities.

As in Colonial days, gun owners today are a minority of the population, but the cooperation of a significant portion of them will be necessary if we truly want to put a stop to the tragedies of mass shootings that occur too often in modern America.

Jeffrey L. Hudson is a former social studies teacher at Lampeter-Strasburg High School and a member of Marietta Borough Council.

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