"Can we go shooting again next Sunday, dad?"
I admit, it's not a question I ever expected to have to field. I've never owned a gun. I've never hunted. I've only fished a few times. "Sportsman" is not how anyone would describe me.
The larger context of my life only further reinforces the conclusion: My culture is not a gun-owning one. I live in a co-op in brownstone Brooklyn, an exceptionally restrictive locality for gun ownership. We have one close friend whose husband is in law enforcement, none who are cops themselves. My wife's and my favorite pastimes are going to the theater and hosting friends for dinner. There's nothing about the way I live that would suggest: This is a guy who goes shooting with his 15-year-old son on a Sunday afternoon.
But kids will find what they need — indeed, you have to hope they do, rather than waiting for you to find it for them. And there was plenty of advance warning in this case that my son might be drawn to guns. All through his childhood, he and I had played with Nerf guns, sniping at each other from behind trees and boulders in Prospect Park, or taking turns charging each other's pillow forts in our apartment. I'd played paintball several times, and always found it exhilarating, as had my son playing laser tag. He loves first-person shooter video games. What's odd about wanting to try the real thing?
So a few weeks ago, we tried the real thing. I asked a friend who I had a feeling might have experience to recommend somewhere to go, and he offered to come with us, and to bring his adult son along as well. The four of us headed to an indoor range in New Jersey, took the video tutorial, and rented a couple of pistols to share between the four of us.
As I expected, my son was extremely calm and cautious. He always kept the gun pointed down range, always put the safety on if he wasn't shooting at the target, always called somebody over if the gun misfired rather than trying to deal with it himself. He called me out multiple times over my own failures to be totally assiduous, which embarrassed me but was pretty much what I expected would happen. I'm the guy who bobbles the orange juice in the morning — why would you trust me with a gun?
But it didn't go so badly. Firing a weapon was nerve-wracking, but I certainly felt a thrill when I was able to nail a target from 10, then 15, then 25 yards. The power of a .45 was alarming, but also exciting. I wasn't sorry I'd tried it. I didn't have any particular need to do it again.
My son did, though. And so we may well go again this weekend. The weekend after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history.
We haven't talked about that tragedy, my son and I, because really what is there to say? But there ought to be something to say, about why anyone would want to pick up a gun in the first place, and thereby become a part of the diseased culture of firearms in this country.
Before we went shooting the first time, I asked a friend — not the one who took us; another friend — why she was interested in learning to handle a firearm. And she said that it was just another adult skill she wanted to acquire, no different from learning how to change a tire or fix a leaky faucet or set up a Wi-Fi network. I can do none of these things, and it's possible that learning to shoot is, for my son, yet another way for him to establish that he excels far beyond me in the scope of his competence with physical reality and the machines that populate it.
But I worry that that's not what it's about for him. And I'm confident it isn't what it's about for us as a culture. Our culture is not particularly one that glories in practical competence in the traditionally masculine arts. We're a culture of convenience. If something's broken, we don't get it fixed — and we certainly don't fix it ourselves. We replace it. The mechanical arts are increasingly the province of new immigrants and urban hipsters. Our obsession with guns is not about achieving mastery but about signifying it. And cheap signification is no way to approach a reality as powerful and potentially deadly — indeed, intended to be deadly — as a gun.
There are, of course, people who have very good reasons to own firearms. Hunters, owners of convenience stores, folks who live far enough out of town that they rightfully worry about being alone and unarmed. But for the most part, Americans don't own guns for practical reasons but for psychological ones.
After the massacre in Las Vegas, gun stocks predictably rose — because mass shootings provoke people to buy guns for a feeling of personal security, even though a gun would have done nothing to make anyone more secure in that situation. Indeed, there were multiple individuals on the scene in Las Vegas who were armed, but who were nonetheless helpless to respond to a man firing an automatic weapon from a hotel window.
We may never know why Stephen Paddock perpetrated the premeditated murder of dozens of random innocents, and that's terrifying. Equally sobering, none of the most popular gun control measures would have prevented him from accumulating a considerable arsenal; he didn't have a criminal record nor a history of mental illness, and was, by all reports, a responsible citizen and a good neighbor — until last weekend, anyway. But whether he acted out of despair, or a desire for infamy, or some personal or political grudge, it hardly matters. His crime is ours, reflective of and contributing to our increasingly hysterical culture, of which gun-craziness is only one facet, albeit one that does a particularly good job of getting innocent people killed.
And I have to think about how that culture may or may not be reflected in my own son's enthusiasm, and respond to it in a way that doesn't dampen a desire for true self-mastery, while warning against the manifold shortcuts that our society proffers and profits from. And I have to do it with guns in our hands.