KURT P. DUDT: The gun debate and cultural decay
My mother went to Mount Lebanon High School, a suburban district south of Pittsburgh. The time period was the 1940s, and the students on the rifle team would carry their rifles on the school bus and store them in their school lockers until rifle practice started after school. According to my mom, there were no shootings and no irresponsible gun play. This is a scenario impossible to imagine in today’s high school environment.
It is my opinion that guns were even more accessible and readily available when I went to high school in the 1960s than they are today. Every family that I knew had guns, and I knew where they were kept in my friends’ houses. All my high school friends had access to guns, and we would often meet after school to hunt. None of us owned guns (we were all too poor), but we were able to get the family shotgun and use it for our enjoyment and entertainment. None of us pointed the guns in the wrong direction, and it was a point of pride in the group to be responsible and to act safely.
What happened that so many citizens have become irresponsible and unsafe in the handling of guns? Why has gun violence so proliferated? This change from safe handling of guns to recklessness seems to be forgotten in the continuing and ongoing discussion about gun control in the United States. The horrible massacres by sick and deranged people have created a desire for a serious dialog of what the Second Amendment means and what limits should be imposed upon it.
The dialog is not un-American. For example, although we have a strong First Amendment that includes freedom of speech, there are many exceptions (for example, copyright laws, court gag orders, libel/slander laws, national security issues, obscenity and pornography) that we have agreed upon as a society. The recent debate on the Second Amendment remains deadlocked with the opposing sides not giving an inch. However, what has surprised me is how little the changes in the culture and the way people act with guns have entered the debate.
There is a big difference between today’s gun culture and the gun culture of previous generations. One of the big changes is the lack of family mentoring, training and the teaching of responsibility. When I was a young boy, starting around age 10, my father took me out occasionally on a Sunday afternoon to shoot the family .22 rifle. I was taught safety, marksmanship and rifle care. This activity was cherished by me, but my father made it clear it was a privilege. If I showed a general lack of respect or immaturity at shooting events or in life, the privilege was withdrawn. Shooting with my dad, uncles and family friends was part of the process to make me “manly.” It was a rite of passage, a way to bond with the men in the family and an excuse to get together and to prove your mettle.
I was always made to feel that I had to earn the “right” to shoot with the men of my family. The .22 rifle with its relatively mild kick and roar allowed me to be unafraid while I learned to shoot. Later, as I got older, I was introduced to shotguns and deer rifles. This slow process allowed me to get acquainted with guns slowly, to hear over and over the safety admonitions and to learn the power and life-taking potential of any gun. No one started with a semi-automatic assault weapon, spraying hundreds of random shots here and there. They were and are illegal to use for hunting, impractical, expensive and out of character with the goals of respect and marksmanship. Thompson submachine guns (the old equivalent of assault weapons) were used by mobsters, police and the military. Should anyone’s first gun be an assault weapon?
Gun violence is committed by a very tiny portion of gun owners, and I personally believe that individuals owning guns makes everyone in society safer. However, I do worry that there are immature, nonrespectful and mentally ill people owning guns. I also worry about the people who have purchased a gun and have no mentorship, training or practice with the gun they own. Since guns are so available, maybe fathers, uncles and family friends should spend more time with their sons and daughters in training and mentorship to teach respect and proper handling of guns. However, the cultural decays of divorce, missing dads and indifference make this difficult.
Also, finding ways to keep guns out of the hands of those who suffer from mental illness should not be seen as a threat to the Second Amendment. It is just common sense and should be agreed upon by all citizens.
There are a few programs in our culture that teach respect for firearms. Rifle and shotgun shooting in the Boy Scouts, high school rifle teams, youth shoots at sportsman clubs and the military are good examples. One thing that could be done to teach safe handling and respect is to require gun owners to take a periodic and mandatory course to familiarize gun-owning adults with the safe operation and effective use of firearms. We need a culture that demands and expects responsibility of its gun owners. In essence, that is what happened in the good old days and it worked! The outcome was that high school students were expected to act responsibly with their rifles on the school bus.
Kurt P. Dudt, of Indiana, holds a Ph.D. and was a professor of communications media at IUP for 29 years.