During my first semester of teaching while in grad school, I made a habit of showing up to my classroom half an hour early. I was green as a sapling and felt wholly unqualified for the task before me, and I had the vague sense that arriving before anyone else and looking prepared was one way to earn the respect of students who were barely younger than I was. The second week of classes, coffee in hand and the day’s reading tucked under my arm, I arrived to find an undergrad crouched in front of a half-open window. He was taking a photo with his phone, and when he saw me, he jumped. My presence was unexpected.
The student, whose name I was struggling to recall, screeched the window shut and turned to face me. His cheeks were flushed red. When I asked if everything was all right, he said he was making sure the windows opened. “My mom told me to always check to make sure they work, just in case, you know …” His voice trailed off and his face turned more crimson still. I must have looked confused because he continued: “In case some gun nut with an AR-15 tries to shoot up the place. When a new semester starts, my mother makes me send her a photo of the open windows in each of my classrooms.” I tried to come up with something to say and found I could not. “She’s a little paranoid, I guess,” he offered. Then another bleary-eyed student shuffled in and the conversation ended.
Last night, as I sat on my couch watching CNN anchors discuss a mass shooting that left 18 dead and 13 injured in Lewiston, Maine—the little city where I teach at Bates College and where I lived until recently—I thought about my terrified students who were sheltering in place. About my colleagues who live in town who could have been at the bar or bowling alley where the violence unfolded. About my former neighbors on whose porch my wife and I had spent many evenings drinking wine and talking politics. I thought about the hospital workers who were in the middle of the worst night of their life, and—as the child of a retired police officer—about the sons and daughters and spouses waiting at home while their loved ones ran toward the danger rather than away from it. I thought about all the people waiting for news, or getting news.
And for the first time in years, I thought, too, about that student and that window, opened to prove to his worried mother that he had an escape route. His phrase—“gun nut”—came to my mind again and again as I exchanged worried, confused, furious messages with co-workers and students. As the night wore on and surreality gave way to cold reality, my grief also slowly gave way to guilt. I felt guilty and complicit and, in some imprecise but unshakable way, culpable for the violence on my television and social-media feeds. I felt, for the first time, like I was part of the reason that mothers have to ask their children for photos of open windows. That I was part of the reason America is a country where college campuses and bars and bowling alleys are all too often shooting galleries. I felt guilty because gun nuts are, whether I like it or not, my people: I grew up in gun country. I spent my teenage years working at a Pennsylvania gun club. I’ve been a gun owner nearly my entire life.
In Walker Percy’s classic novel The Moviegoer, the titular protagonist observes that mass media can make it feel like the only places that really, truly exist are big cities. When you unexpectedly see your small town on the silver screen, however, you get a fleeting sense that you belong to an important place: Where you call home, he says, has been “certified.” “If he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood,” Percy writes of the moviegoer, “it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.” Last night, a place where I work and have called home was certified in the grimmest possible way. I am embarrassed to say that this is what it took—a place I love to become somewhere that a uniquely American tragedy has taken place—for me to fully understand our country’s mass-shooting problem.
The honest truth is that I have always viewed the gun-violence epidemic—and my relationship to it as a gun owner—as an abstraction, remote from my own life or choices. Like many gun owners, I had always supported stronger gun control. If it requires written and practical exams and dozens of hours of training to earn the right to drive a motor vehicle, I have never understood why the same should not apply to firearms. But my views on gun control have also been wonkish, academic in nature: It is something I care about and have written about but have never felt deeply. That changed yesterday as I found myself racking my brain, wondering if I had ever heard my students or colleagues or friends or neighbors mention Schemengees Bar & Grille. Wondering if someone I knew could have been there. Wondering if I was going to get The Call or The Text or The Email.
Today, as my wife and I stay locked in our home—the gunman, still on the loose, is the subject of a sprawling manhunt—I am filled with nothing so much as rage. Rage at my gun-nut friends from home who will see this tragedy as a reason for less gun control, rather than more of it. Rage at every conservative pundit who has ever uttered the phrase “good guy with a gun.” Rage at the state of Maine, which has some of the most lax gun laws in the country. Rage at the politicians here and beyond who have refused to solve a problem for which solutions readily exist. Rage at myself for being so blind.
If you had asked me before yesterday why I own guns, I would have fed you the same line I had fed my liberal friends and my wife—and, above all, myself—for years. I would have told you that I own guns for hunting, for protection, for blasting clay pigeons out of cloudless October skies. I would have told you that I own guns because I come from a gun family and guns are some of the only things I have left from people I have loved. I would have told you about the rifle that my holler-born, Great Depression–surviving grandmother kept under the bed, the 20-gauge my grandfather used to bring home Thanksgiving turkeys, the 30-06 that took my father’s first deer. I would have told you I own guns because I am a hunter and I own guns because I write things that sometimes make people angry.
But it is only now that gun violence has visited my little corner of the world that I have been forced to confront reality, a truth that has been there all along but that I have refused to admit: I own guns because I like them and because I am an American and I’m allowed to and no one stops me. I own guns because—until this moment—gun violence was something that happened Anywhere else and not Somewhere close to me. I own guns because I have never been forced to question—to really question—why I do or what they’re for or what would happen if I had to work a little harder for the right to own them. You might find this confession myopic or selfish, but it’s also the truth. And I’m admitting it because I think the root of our country’s gun problem is that we refuse—gun owners and gun critics alike—to say this truth out loud.
We have made the gun debate a conflict over facts and motivations and laws and amendments. Gun-control advocates rightly point out that guns do not in fact make anyone safer. That the majority of mass shootings are not ended by the mythical “good guy with a gun” but by law-enforcement or suicide. That buying a gun makes you more likely to die of a gunshot wound, not less. The Second Amendment crowd argues that self-protection is a right, granted by God and the Constitution, and that a degree of risk is the price to pay for living in a free society. I have neither the patience nor the energy to rehash these debates. And I don’t think there’s any point in arguing about policy right now. There is zero reason to expect that meaningful laws will be passed as a result of the events that transpired in Lewiston.
So rather than rattle off a list of warmed-over ideas such as “assault-weapons ban” or “mandatory background checks” or “red-flag laws” or “commonsense gun reform” that are probably not going to come to fruition tomorrow or the day after or next year or the year after, I’ll just resort to being honest. The inescapable fact is that the only people capable of shifting the gun conversation in this country are the people who buy them.
I am, like most Americans who own guns, responsible. Yesterday’s events haven’t made me change my mind about being a gun owner. The reasons that motivated me to own guns in the first place are no different today than yesterday. The shooting in Lewiston changed my mind about being a quiet gun owner. I have spent years of my life making apologies on behalf of my gun-nut acquaintances. Staying silent when friends bring up the National Rifle Association despite my fierce opposition to that organization. Not pushing back when they call minor reforms such as mandatory waiting periods “totalitarian.” Changing the subject rather than asking Why do you need a military-style rifle?
As a gun owner from gun country, I’ll let you in on the dirty secret that everyone knows in their heart of hearts: The AR-15 is America’s best-selling rifle not because people need them for protection or because our country is full of aspiring militiamen or paranoid whack jobs waiting for civil war. People own AR-15s because they think they’re sexy and cool and manly. Because they have barely any recoil and Army surplus ammo is cheap. Because their buddies have them, so why shouldn’t they? Because they are toys—the most dangerous toys in America, but toys nonetheless. Mothers must ask their sons for pictures of open windows because Americans own AR-15s, and they own them because they are fun.
And if the past 24 hours have convinced me of anything, it is that the only way things are ever going to get better is if more gun owners start asking our friends the one question that matters: How much blood is your fun worth?