Ken Ringle is a former Washington Post essayist and cultural critic. He lives in Washington.
Afew years ago, I taught my 13-year-old daughter to shoot. She had asked to learn, so we took my brother’s single-shot .22 rifle out in the woods, set a beer can against a stump and began plinking away.
She had already been taught, as I had been from the age of 6, about handling guns safely, never pointing them at anyone, shooting only in a safe area and so on. What we were concentrating on now was marksmanship: learning to sight on the target, exhale half a breath and squeeze the trigger s-l-o-w-l-y. One shot at a time.
Hunting and target shooting, as generations of Americans used to be told, are not about releasing one’s emotions and physical tension with guns, but about mastering them in order to steady the hand and shoot accurately. Schools and summer camps once promoted marksmanship for this reason, as an exercise in self-discipline. This kind of instruction declined in the 1960s, but it used to be as valued and routine a part of growing up as learning to swim.
My daughter knew much of this intuitively. Her corporate-executive aunt shot pheasants in Texas. Her oceanographer mother, who had hunted with her own father as a girl, was a capable wing shot. Her paternal grandfather had led the rifle team at the U.S. Naval Academy and later served as a coach of the U.S. Olympic rifle team. She occasionally wore one of his many marksmanship medals as a necklace pendant.
I had been a gun owner all my life, and though I rarely hunted anymore, I prized what proficiency I possessed. For several years, we spent Thanksgiving with friends in the Berkshires. A regular feature was a high-spirited skeet shoot rivalry in a field while the turkey cooked. My daughter said she loved the skeet shoot because it taught her that guns didn’t need to be feared. For those who treat them with care and respect, she learned, firearms in the house are not necessarily more lethal than a sharp kitchen knife.
For a boy in the South, where I was raised — and still in much of rural America — acquiring his first shotgun or rifle was a rite of passage. It signified that a young man had been judged responsible by his parents. He had been taught safe gun handling and marksmanship, and had learned enough self-discipline so as not to be a hazard with his firearm to himself or anyone else.
But that culture is under attack, and the changes go well beyond the dramatic urbanization that has made safe shooting environments harder to access. They are about what guns have come to represent, especially to young men. We’ve witnessed the insidious growth in recent years of films, television programs and video games glorifying the splattering of human bodies with multiple-shot firearms as a sort of badge of manhood — the macho antidote for even petty annoyances. This is not John Wayne and Annie Oakley with quick-draw six-shooters and trick-shot accuracy. It’s the delusion of solving problems in human relationships with massive and messy human extinction. It’s about filling the air with metal.
There is no escaping it. Even as we were weeping over the slaughter of the innocents in Newtown — the assault-rifle butchery of those exquisite little children and their teachers — ads on our television sets were urging us to rush to the latest zillion-dollar creations in blow-them-apart moviemaking. Timed to open for Christmas!