A Lesson from My Son on America’s Greatest Sickness
A few weeks ago, I kept a two year old promise to my son and I took him to an indoor gun range.
He first asked me about going to shoot when he was eight, and after checking out the rules of the range, I told him that he would have to wait until he was ten before we could go. But I promised him if he would be patient, I would take him.
He said he’d wait.
So when his tenth birthday rolled around, he brought my promise up.
“I’m ten now, dad,” he said. “Can we go shoot guns?”
So we picked a Saturday, filled out the waivers, and off to the gun range we went.
I’m not a gun owner. Never have been (outside of BB or pellet guns), and most likely never will. It’s not a moral position on my part as much as it is laziness. My dad owned rifles, and I’ve grown up around people who loved guns, and my observation was the amount of time spent shooting, cleaning, and caring for the weapons was more than I was willing to invest.
Add in the costs, and it just wasn’t for me.
I didn’t grow up shooting, either. I did get my Rifle and Shotgunning merit badge when I was in Scouts, but that was the extent of my practical exposure. My dad offered to take me hunting when I was young, but that never seemed fun — you only shot when something moved, and there was always the chance that the something moving could be your cousin or an uncle on their way to a different tree stand.
Neither the intentional murder of deer nor the accidental murder of another human moved my needle, so when the offer came, I would always pass. My dad seemed to understand and also seemed relieved — I don’t think he enjoyed hunting either, and he gave it up for good before I graduated high school.
I remembered all of this as I took my son to the gun range. I wanted to give my son the experience to learn something he was interested in, but I made it clear that I couldn’t be his guide.
“I don’t know anything about guns,” I told him as we discussed things that morning. “So you will absolutely need to listen to the men at the gun range. They’ll be able to teach us how to be safe.”
“I’ll be learning too, so we’ll just take it slow, okay?”
“Are you ready?”
We walked out the door, waivers in hand, ready for a morning of education and bullets.
The gun range we selected is one of the largest and most regulated in the area. I also happen to know the general manager, so their strict standards and clear guidelines made the range the perfect place to introduce my son to this different world.
We walked into the massive show room, filled with all sorts of paraphernalia and accessories. There were camouflage outfits, holsters galore, an assortment of carrying cases; there were tables covered with ammunition, targets, scopes, extended magazines, and various tactical gear that you normally see in an action movie. A lot of it was on sale.
On one wall was an invitation to attend Friday night “Date Nights” — a two-fer sale on range time and ammunition for couples who came to the range between 7 and 10 PM.
The man at the counter was polite and welcoming, and it took less than three minutes for him to introduce my son and me to an older fellow who helped us select our tools. Since we were only renting one gun to share, I selected a .22 pistol, two boxes of .22 ammunition, and two paper targets — one of which was circus-themed. The man behind the desk handed each of us a pair of safety glasses and ear covers, and my son and I were ready for the range.
Things went to hell pretty quickly after that.
The range marshal met us at the door, and he walked me and my son to our available lane. He inquired about our level of shooting experience (or, more pointedly, about MY level of experience), and I informed him I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground. He graciously gave us a quick safety course on the dangers of the weapon we’d selected — how to hold it, how to respect it, how to respect others while we had it in our hands. He told us to never point a loaded gun anywhere except downrange, and if we had any questions as to whether or not the gun was clear we should just call for him to help us.
“You’re good to go,” he said, after loading the gun for me and placing it on our shooting stand.
I looked at my son. “Do you want to shoot first?”
“No,” he said. “You go first.”
I picked up the small handgun, got my hands in the correct position, took a deep breath, and slowly released it as I pulled the trigger. It jumped, but not too badly, so I repeated the process again and again until I had emptied the magazine.
I placed the empty gun down on the shooting stand and turned to my son.
“Are you ready?”
I loaded the magazine and then loaded the pistol, and for the briefest of moments thought:
“What in the HELL am I doing? I’m about to hand a loaded gun to my ten-year old, for God’s sake.”
Sadly, I didn’t let that thought stop me. I handed the gun to my son. The range marshal came over and hovered nearby, a decision for which I was grateful, and I helped Jon assume proper shooting position. His feet were shoulder-width apart, his arms in front of him, the gun raised to his eye level, his hands wrapped carefully around the weapon.
And again I thought, “What the hell am I doing?”
That’s when the gun popped, and I saw a little hole in the target, about seven inches above and to the right of the circus clown’s face.
“Great job, son!” I shouted.
A second pop followed. Then a third. A fourth.
Then my son, with one bullet left in the magazine, turned around with the gun in his hand and tears in his eyes.
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
The range marshal acted quickly, taking the gun from my son’s hand and placing it on the shooting desk. My son fell into my arms, tears fully flowing, and began sobbing uncontrollably. He was frightened in a way I’d never seen, and the range marshal was having trouble comprehending it.
“Is he okay?”
“No, he’s not,” I replied.
My son kept crying.
Shortly thereafter, we put the empty gun, a partially used box of bullets, and the only-slightly used clown target into our bucket and we left.
I was able to return one of the boxes of bullets for a refund, though the man at the counter tried to convince me to keep them.
“You never know when you’ll be back,” he said.
“Yes I do,” I said. “It’ll be never.”
I walked my still-teary-eyed son to the car and we sat there for a moment in silence. Then, he let all of his emotions out. He cried in a way that was deep and powerful, and not just for himself. Something in my boy’s tender and people-loving heart was broken by the experience on that range, and he was grieving that brokenness.
I just sat there, waiting.
Five minutes later, the emotion subsided, and as the wave receded back into the ocean of my son’s soul, he wiped his eyes and looked at me.
“What happened?” I asked.
“That wasn’t as fun as I thought it was going to be,” he said.
He paused, which he does a lot because he’s a smart and reflective kid. After a few moments, he looked at me and said, “Because it was too scary.”
“What made it scary? The other guns going off?”
There had been some men in the lane next to us shooting a .50 caliber pistol as well as some .9mm guns, both of which were loud and concussed the air enough to startle my son and me.
“No,” he said. “It was knowing that I could’ve killed somebody. Maybe accidentally you.”
“You weren’t going to kill me,” I said. “We were just shooting targets.”
“No,” he said, his voice tightening as tears returned. “It was just having a gun in my hand and knowing that guns can kill people.”
He let out a muted wail.
“I didn’t like having something in my hands that would let me do that.”
I put a gun in my son’s hands for one day, and he broke over the power he was given and how simple the abuse of that power would be.
I decided to write this story down after reading about the Dayton and El Paso shootings, and the juxtaposition between my son and the men who committed those terrorist acts. I was stunned by how cheaply those men held the value of life — the lives of the people they murdered as well as their own.
It’s a sickness that’s more than mental illness.
It’s a pollution of the soul that we’ve nurtured and protected.
I’m tired of thoughts and prayers. I’m tired of the Twitter barrages. I’m tired of being terrorized by rhetoric that wants to blame everyone other than the culprits:
White guys, pissed off at the changing world, who have ZERO humanity through which to process or filter their own feelings of insignificance and have access to guns.
We prayed for the victims and their families in church yesterday, and as we prayed, I couldn’t concentrate.
I was too busy thinking through how I would get my wife safely out of the sanctuary and to the kids’ department so we could grab our kids and escape out the back door in case a shooter showed up at our church.
I was preoccupied with that thought because no one else is going to be.
Not politicians. Not influencers. Not entertainers.
They’re all too busy holding onto the status quo — bashing one another over ideas that just keep leading us back to piles of dead bodies. They’re too drunk off riding the mass shooting merry-go-round, looking for ways to pump up their profile for the fools who follow them.
We’re sick in America.
And the only cure I know of is the cure I didn’t mean to find: my son, holding a weapon, realizing its power and receiving a healthy fear from the experience.
It’s a cure because we’ve taught him to value life — his, ours, others.
In America, I don’t know if that will be enough.