Guns - An American Rite of Passage
By Raymond Shipley
Concentrate. Stay relaxed. Slow breaths. Aim. Squeeze. Fire.
Decades ago, before Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, it was commonplace for American children to bring guns to school. In fact, gun clubs were a mainstay in public schools across the nation. Teaching children to properly handle guns is a valuable tool in life, and in many ways uniquely American.
In the 1970s New York state had roughly 80 school districts with rifle teams. By 1999 that number had dropped to 26, and the state's annual riflery championship ceased to exist by 1986. Across the nation schools have been systematically closing gun clubs and attempting to erase the ideal that gun ownership and knowhow are as American as baseball and apple pie. Interestingly enough, before 1989 school shootings in which there were more than two victims almost didn't exist.
George Mason University economist Walter E. Williams observed, for most of American history "private transfers of guns to juveniles were unrestricted. Often a youngster's 12th or 14th birthday present was a shiny new .22-caliber rifle, given to him by his father." The gift of a rifle from father to son was a right of passage in American life. Throughout the 1940s, 50s and even 60s guns could be purchased through magazine ads, with the buyer merely marking a box certifying they met the age requirement. The 1968 Gun Control Act, which was supported by major gun manufacturers, changed all this.
Trust, Responsibility and Respect
Firing a gun properly requires many skills. Concentration, patience and motor skills are all essential to life and highly cultivated in the sport of marksmanship. Large motor skills are required to control the firearm and small motor skills to handle the trigger. Similar to archery, photography and illustration shooting a gun taps into a part of the body and psyche imperative to development. But unlike most sports and activities deemed appropriate for children by today's standards, shooting a gun can be deadly.
Far from being a drawback to the argument of teaching children about firearms, the fact that a gun wields deadly force helps a child learn responsibility. The ritual and process of shooting a gun centers around caution as well as respect for both the weapon and the process. Deviate from the process, lose the caution and respect and the results can be devastating. Learning to respect something beyond one's self, as well as the process that leads to success, is valuable developmentally to the individual and society. Moreover, the very fact guns can cause harm tells the child they have earned the ability to handle such responsibility, and is a gesture of respect.
The message to a child that accompanies the invitation to learn to shoot is they are trusted to listen and learn. In a society that shows young people less and less autonomy, trust with something as profound as handling a firearm sends the message they are worthy of trust, and the result is an individual that believes in themselves because the parent bestowed that belief.
An American Rite of Passage
Our Founding Fathers believed in an America in which the citizens were armed and knowledgable about such arms. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his 15-year-old nephew Peter Carr that he should study Roman history and Greek and Latin poetry. He also counseled that "a strong mind makes the mind strong. As to the species of exercise, I advise the gun. While this gives moderate exercise to the body, it gives boldness, enterprise and independence to the mind. Games played with the ball and others of that nature are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind. Let your gun therefore be the constant companion of your walks."