Saturday, August 6, 2016

My History With Guns

The TV was packed with guns in the 1950s. Every Sunday afternoon there were war movies on TV, the old style war movies, where there was very little of the muss and fuss of the real thing. But everyone had a gun, and they were shooting, and getting shot at, and getting shot. There were cowboy movies and cavalry movies, where everyone had one or two guns and there was a lot of shooting going on between gunslingers, between ranchers and farmers, or between the white people and the Indians. Fort Apache! There were lots of cowboy TV shows, too. And police shows. There was never a shortage of guns on TV in those days.

We boys played with toy guns frequently. We all had them. Cap guns; pop guns; rubber band rifles. We played a game called, “Guns.” “What do you wanna do?” “Let’s play guns!” A couple of the dads had guns that they had brought home from the war, souvenir guns. These were relics that had been allowed to go way out of maintenance. Sometimes a boy would sneak one out of the house to add a little realism to our war games.

Boys like guns. I think Freud would make short work of figuring out why. If you deny them gun toys, they’ll just call a stick a gun, aim it at you, and say, “bang!” (And probably, “you’re dead!”)

By the age of ten or so I developed a semi-academic interest in real guns. There were plenty of books in the library where you could read about them. I loved Jane’s Fighting Ships, for one thing. Those were some big guns! There was a book that I picked up at a magazine stand that was some kind of oversized photo catalog of collector’s guns. There were Old West guns; military surplus guns; sporting guns old and new. The book was perfect-bound of cheap paper; it was very thick but not expensive. Probably forty-nine cents when magazines were between twenty-five and fifty cents. The entries included a picture or two of the gun, a brief description, and the current market value. It was gun porn for little boys.

In my high school years I prevailed upon my parents to buy me a BB gun (pistol), and then a .22 caliber pellet pistol. The latter was a Crossman 600 that had great sights on it and took a bigger CO2 cartridge. It was very accurate. Some of the boys used these contraptions to shoot birds and squirrels, but I almost never did. I certainly never shot at cats. I’ll give you a bit of advice, though. Never stand directly under a street light if you’re planning to shoot it out.

Guns lost their appeal for me as the Vietnam War took over the TV news in the later 1960s. That was serious business. Guns were suddenly much less glamorous, because we had to see the dead bodies and guys struggling to carry wounded friends out of danger, and hearing the screams didn’t help either. That war put me off guns for years.

I joined the Navy during that war myself, because I couldn’t see myself as a gunslinger who slept in a hole in the ground. No, I couldn’t see that one at all. Somehow, it didn't occur to me to just beat the draft. I joined the Navy for “three hots and a cot,” and no need for a personal weapon. We did do a little shooting, though. Very little.

The guns that we became very familiar with at boot camp were old, worn out M1 Garands from World War II. They hadn’t had a firing pin in them for twenty years already. All we learned about them was that they weighed about nine and a half pounds, which doesn’t sound like much to a nineteen year old but which seems to weigh more as the day goes on. We made one trip to a shooting range, an indoor rifle range. The targets were about seventy-five feet away, and we each fired I think five rounds in their general direction with a .22 caliber rifle. No one was checking them; no one was keeping score. They just wanted to show us how to load a rifle and look down the sights.

Out in “the Fleet,” I fired five rounds with a .45 automatic. (It was a land base; the Navy never let me near their ships. Some Marines took us out for "perimeter defense training.") We were also invited to fire a burst or two with a Browning Automatic Rifle. That’s a real gun right there. It’s the original light infantry machine gun of the American armed forces, and it’ll push your sorry ass back along the ground for several inches with every round fired. I declined the invitation and the Marine that was running the party let me off the hook. I told him that since I was wearing blues I didn’t want to be lying around in the dirt. (The other boys were wearing standard Navy work dungarees.) I think that the Marine was surprised that anyone would pass up an opportunity to fire a BAR.

Later in life I became quite fond of pistol shooting. I still had the Crossman, but that gets way too easy after a certain amount of experience. At fifty or sixty feet you can put the pellets into the same hole after a while. My brother-in-law was a security guard at the time, and he liked to go to the range a couple of times a month to practice. I went with him more than a few times. He had his own Ruger Security Six, a nice, more or less compact .357 magnum. I rented a pistol at the range. The rental was only a dollar; they were going for the ammunition and target money. We’d get a hundred rounds a piece and some targets. I thought that it was great. Here's a tip: if you want to make a nice cluster of hits on the target, consider using a .357 magnum handgun loaded with .38's. The target rounds are best for accuracy, because of the light recoil. Between the heavy frame of the pistol, and the light charge in the rounds, that thing lays nice and flat on target. No jumping around. 

I rode motorcycles back then, and I really loved those things. The benefit of riding motorcycles is that it demands 100% of your attention. If you let your attention wander, you go down. It takes you to what I call, “the bright white line of reality.” Guns do the same thing. Once you put bullets in that thing, you can’t take your concentration off of it. If you let your attention lapse, there’s a real danger that you’ll blow off your foot, or part of your neighbor’s head. So it’s relaxing, in a way. The concentration is a little bit like meditation.

I’ve never owned a real gun of any kind; I’ve never wanted to. I thought about it, but I always got stuck on the question: what would I do with it? People say, “home defense,” but what would be the mechanics of that? Maybe if I’d lived out in the woods, I’d have considered it, but I lived in a crowded neighborhood in Los Angeles. I was only interested in pistols anyway, and they’re not ideal for home defense. Unless you're Annie Oakley or Wyatt Earp, you can't hit much with a pistol under stress or at any distance. For home defense, a shotgun is the way to go. Rifles are only necessary when the target is very, very far away, which will never happen in a home invasion robbery. For a zombie epidemic, I don't know. Use your own judgment. 

Pistols are a real challenge. It’s hard as hell to hit anything with a pistol, even at ranges from twenty five to fifty feet. The barrels are short, and the sights are close together. Plus, they really jump in your hand when fired. The gun moves a little before the round leaves the barrel. Rifles are only a challenge when you set up the targets two or three hundred yards away. That’s a lot of walking, out in the desert, just to get some shooting in. Shotguns? They are designed specifically to not be challenging. That’s the beauty of them in use, but it takes the fun out of target shooting.

As for home defense, how would that be managed anyway? You’d have to go around the house strapped at all times. You can't be running up to the closet for your locked-up gun and ammo when trouble comes knocking. You’d look pretty funny going down for morning coffee wearing a bath robe with a holster and pistol hanging from your waist, or carrying a slung shotgun. Wouldn’t you even have to give up alcohol to stay sharp? It'd be a 24/7 occupation, too. We all need to sleep, and I doubt if many people want to keep up an alternating watch, every night. You’d have to get a pair of terriers or something to wake your ass up. Then it’s time to rub the sleep out of your little eyes, Nemo, we're about to have a gun fight. Either that or the terriers heard another dog barking a quarter of a mile away. Then back to sleep if you can manage it. False alarm. 

That level of vigilance would really wear you out. Hell, a few years of that and you’d probably die young just from the worrying.

Now people want to use pistols for personal defense. This is strange to people my age, because in our day it was hard to get permission to carry a pistol around. Unless you lived in Arizona or something. I remember the first time I saw a local guy carry a cowboy-style .45 revolver on his hip at the supermarket. It was in Phoenix. They’d all tell you that it was, “for the snakes.” I remember thinking, that’s probably what they call city people. 

Now the entire country is full of people packing heat. Maybe they took some gun safety course or something, did a little range firing. Well, in my opinion, you'd have to fire at least five hundred rounds into targets at the range before you even learned how to handle the pistol and look down the sights. Additional training would be required before the pistolero would know how to operate the weapon and handle themselves in a hostile situation. Like, learn how not to shoot innocent bystanders, things like that. 

I don’t have much to say about the current state of gun-love in America. I’d rather not think about it.

As Americans, though, we all do have our own history with guns. Especially us boys. The love of those terrible things is in us, or we have a substantial awe anyway. They’re all more or less powerful, and some of them are beautiful. I’m more afraid of them now than I’ve ever been. More afraid of the people with guns than of the guns themselves, to tell the truth. 

Although I am afraid of the guns, too. Something like fifteen thousand people every year kill themselves with guns in America. That’s the one thing that a pistol is really good for, self immolation. I am not at any particular risk of committing suicide, but I still wouldn’t trust myself with a gun in the house. 

P.S. Found in a notebook: "The only thing that's easy to hit with a pistol is bystanders." 

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