Guns and choices

by Olivia Kuser

I grew up with guns. My father taught me how to shoot a .22 when I was nine years old up at my grandparents place. He was a hunter, a fisherman and an outdoorsman, like most of the men I knew. Weekends, he went pheasant hunting or sometimes duck hunting, on either his parents’ place, Strawberry Hill, the highest point in Mercer County, or at their friend’s places. These affairs usually finished with a giant `hunt breakfast’, since most of the shooting took place in the early morning. When he came home, he’d sit at the foot of the stairs, unlace his hunting boots and clean his shotgun with a little piece of torn up flannel nightgown soaked in gun oil, wired to a long, slender rod. To this day, I love the smell of gun oil, although now, I haven’t smelled it for many years. He took me with him to visit the gunsmith-reputed to be `the best in the county’- who lived near Washington’s Crossing, close by the Delaware River in a little house, down a steep hill. The gunsmith’s was where he bought his shotgun shells, which were beautiful, with brass embossed heads and different, brightly colored shells. We had a room in our house called the gunroom, with a locked glass fronted display cabinet for all the shotguns and fishing rods. Most were just regular shotguns, with a couple of small light weight .22s for my mother, but he had inherited a lovely old shotgun from the early nineteenth century from his grandfather. That one had beautiful carving in the metal and we were allowed to hold it and look at it. The shotgun shells were kept separately from the guns, in square, heavy boxes, down below the gun cabinet. My grandparents house had a gun cabinet too, as did my great uncle’s farm, further south along the river. My father never had a hunting dog, as his parents and cousins did, who had big places with lots of room. We lived in the suburbs, with only a single acre of land and to his chagrin, my mother bought us a poodle.

At camp, I took Riflery. First we had a long class on gun safety with a written test. You weren’t allowed to use a gun until you had passed this test. Then we lay on our stomachs in a hut and fired at targets that were set up against the bluff in the hillside. The whole range was in a steep small valley, so that random gunshots wouldn’t get out of the range. I was terrible at it. I kept hitting other people’s targets accidentally. The kickback wasn’t nearly as bad lying down as it had been when my father taught me at Strawberry Hill, shooting at cans set on a stone wall, but it was noisy and unpleasant and I wasn’t any good at it.

About four years before my father died he was hospitalized after a very public fall down a flight of stairs at a theater, where he was with my youngest sister and her son. This was the event that alerted us all to his deteriorating neurological condition, the one that eventually killed him. He had had some falls before this, but he had brushed them off, blaming things like his sneakers being too old and not having good traction any more. We, who didn’t want to acknowledge his decline any more than he did, accepted these excuses. But the fall at McCarter changed all that. It was clear something serious was wrong and we all had to face it. Although his doctors could not give us a diagnosis their first piece of advice was that he not drive for at least six weeks while they ran some tests after his release from the hospital. This not being allowed to drive crushed something in my father. When I visited him, he was very depressed and spoke more bleakly than I had ever heard him speak. He defined himself by his physicality- that he ran every day, that he did all his own yardwork whereas our neighbors all had lawnservices and golfed on the weekends. My father snorted at golf. He fished, he hunted, he canoed, he chopped all our firewood. He took down whole trees with a chainsaw. An accolade from my father was “He cuts his own grass”.

After my third visit to him in the hospital when he kept suggesting that he would be better off dead I drove home and removed every gun from the house. We no longer kept the guns in the gun cabinet in the gunroom- we had converted the gun cabinet to bookshelves sometime in the late seventies, now they were scattered in the attic and in the basement, so it wasn’t obvious immediately that the guns were gone. I hadn’t touched a gun since those long ago summers at camp. I took as many shells as I could find as well. I never told my father what I had done and he never mentioned it to me, though he must have noticed their absence.

I’m not against guns. I’m not against hunting. I’m not against target shooting or skeet shooting. But I didn’t want my father to commit a permanent and irrevocable act in a moment of temporary despair. If he had really wanted to kill himself, I’m sure he could have found a way. I just wasn’t going to let that choice be easy for him. That’s all I think gun control offers us. A pause, an interruption between the thought and the act. Make it hard, make it time consuming, make it irritatingly bureaucratic to get a gun. I removed the guns from the house because I loved my father. Let us love one another.

Olivia Kuser is a lifelong Episcopalian who now worships at St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco. She is a landscape painter.

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