by: Keith Lesmeister
A guest contributor continues the crucial conversation about gun control, arguing that “to do nothing is a cold, callous, [and an] inappropriate response to an issue that demands our attention.”
The shooting range outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is a long narrow strip that’s been bulldozed flat and surrounded by high dirt walls and a dirt backdrop, and beyond that lies a dense forest. Yardage markers along the range signal fifty yards, one hundred yards, etc, until you get to the end which is more than two football fields from the the pavilion, a concrete floored and shingle roofed open structure under which are seats, tables, and mounts to rest your firearm while sighting them in on targets far, far away. I’ve never walked the full distance of the range. In fact, the furthest out I’ve ventured is fifty yards, realizing that if you’re accurate at that distance, you might aim slightly lower if a target like a deer were closer, or just a touch higher if it were farther. Of course you never really know when you’re out in the woods hunting deer what the actual distance is between you and the animal because there are no yard markers available, but, like anything, if you do it for long enough, put in the time and repetition, you develop a feel for it, a kind of intuitive, instinctual sense for distance. It’s part of being a good marksman.
When I was a kid, I used to come out to this range with my friend and his father. We shot trap, mostly, because my friend’s father had a machine from which clay pigeons were flung out with just the pull of a rope, sometimes two at a time. I used a pump-action twenty gauge shotgun, and once, while bending down for more shotgun shells the barrel of my shotgun pointed toward my friend’s father. It wasn’t loaded, but still, he yelled at me, shouting loudly, “Jesus Christ! Watch your barrel! Pay attention!” I stood up quickly, grabbing my shotgun with both hands and pointed the gun toward the fall blue sky, one of two appropriate places. The other is toward the ground. The trap range – where all of this took place – is situated alongside the sighting-in range and pavilion, an unkempt expanse of tall grasses that collected the broken and obliterated blaze orange clay pigeon pieces. Empty shotgun shells lay everywhere at our feet.
“Sorry about that,” I said to my friend’s father. I hadn’t been berated by someone else’s parent in many, many years. At the time this happened, I was maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. I felt embarrassed, but afterward felt extremely conscientious of how I handled my shotgun.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m a stickler for gun safety. We’re here to have fun, but you have to be careful at all times.”
I grew up with guns. Not in some glorified way, but as a tool used for hunting or target shooting. My uncles, cousins, father, grandfather, friends, and myself – we all own or have owned guns, and, growing up, they were an active part of our family traditions during Thanksgiving or Christmas. We went target shooting or pheasant hunting annually – a group of motley men and dogs walking through grassy Iowa fields covered in snow and frost, armed with shotguns. Guns have never been a big deal to me. I don’t own a pistol or a large caliber rifle or have an elaborate collection. I own two shotguns and a .22 rifle, and I suppose I should mention that my son has an air gun as well. We set up cans in the backyard and he likes to target practice. He asked once if he could shoot a squirrel, and I said, “Sure, but you have to eat it afterwards.”
He didn’t shoot the squirrel.
When you grow up around guns and learning gun safety – sometimes getting yelled at to maintain your own gun safety – they don’t seem like a dangerous object, just something that deserves a little more attention, or, maybe respect. As I mentioned, guns have never been a big deal to me; they’ve never been dangerous or glorious, hated or revered. They’re simply part of an activity. Like a hand controller for a video game or a basketball to shoot hoops. You get used to handling, cleaning, and putting them away. After our hunts, we’d disassemble our shotguns and run oil-soaked cloths through the barrels to clean out any residue. We’d wipe down the outside of the barrel and the other metal parts of the gun to prevent rust. Cleaning our shotguns was like cleaning a Kitchen Aid or a blender, or changing the spark plugs on a motorcycle: it was simply part of the maintenance, part of the experience. Given our society’s obsession with guns – either for them or against them – I’ve often wondered if we’d be better off as a society teaching basic gun safety and maintenance in our schools as a way for people to become more comfortable and careful; a way for people to learn how to handle and treat; a way for people to learn safety, certainly, and respect for what the gun can do. It’s not as radical of an idea as it sounds, and, in many ways, I think it would drastically change the conversation around guns. If we continue to be a right-to-bear arms society, well…
I understand completely all of the anxiety surrounding guns and gun control. They are sleek and heavy and powerful weapons. They’re bold and scary to some and they can kill. The potential damage they could cause is no longer potential. It’s a reality. They are the weapon of choice by individuals who engage in mass killings. The arguments for or against gun control – political or practical, emotional or logical – have been delivered by anti-gun and pro-gun people, and I’m not here to support or contradict any of them. I simply believe that the people who are trying to hold these conversations, from what I’ve observed, are not the right people. There’s already too much invested emotionally and politically and financially for the NRA folks, the Brady Bill folks, and, most certainly, the politicians for any of them to back down, and this affects their credibility. But I do think something needs to happen. I think we need to examine how we handle mental health, absolutely, but we also need some common sense gun laws, and/or to enforce already existing gun laws. To do nothing, or to arm more people, or to listen to politicians bicker, is not the answer. To do nothing is a cold, callous, inappropriate response to an issue that demands our attention. To arm more people who aren’t comfortable with, or around, guns, is, in my mind, not the kind of society we want. I don’t want to see people carrying AK-47s around in the grocery store, or people strolling down the street with an Uzi. I just don’t.
My friends who don’t own guns aren’t as comfortable with the idea or function or even the conversation about them. They believe that more laws, stricter gun control, or, perhaps complete confiscation is the answer to preventing these mass killings. I don’t think they’re completely wrong. I just think they’re unfamiliar, therefore, uncomfortable with the idea and actuality of guns. Here’s the thing: if we could confiscate all guns today, every single solitary gun out on the street or in a home, those registered legally and those that exist illegally – if we could, as a society, eliminate all of them – I’d support such an effort. I’m not so in love with my gun ownership that I’d buck against such an effort if it were guaranteed to work. I’d continue hunting, sure, but with a bow. I like the idea of harvesting my own meat. I would also support an effort to teach every school age child to harvest and butcher chickens, pigs, and cows. If you can eat it, you should be able to look it in the eye and take its life.
My father and I visit that shooting range outside of Cedar Rapids once a year. We sight in our slug guns on paper targets. I only shoot two rounds because the cost of five copper slugs (I don’t use lead) is close to twenty dollars. I shoot once to see if the scope’s been misaligned since last year, and the other to follow up with any needed adjustments. We both – my father and I – use single shot shotguns with rifled barrels, which means we basically get one opportunity to shoot the deer, not unlike using a muzzle loader. If we miss, the deer is running, hopping, bounding, and gone, finding safety in the tall grass or trees. I don’t have multiple shots like some hunters. And I don’t have the knock-down power of lead. So my accuracy is imperative to success, unlike some hunters who use semi-automatic shotguns and spray lead all over the fields. I don’t support those kinds of hunting strategies at all as I fail to see the sport in it.
I am not a member of the NRA, though in full disclosure my father gifted me with a one-year membership on my eighteenth birthday. I never renewed it. Also, I am not an outspoken supporter of the Second Amendment, though I’m not an opponent either. This essay, I think, is my own feeble attempt at joining the conversation. And that’s exactly what this is: an attempt. I’m not here to report facts or politicize, or to tell someone what they should or shouldn’t do, or how they should or shouldn’t think. I understand: this is a sensitive issue, and I have no desire to offer any kind of solution because I don’t think there are any easy ones out there and I haven’t done the research to support a more complicated argument for or against. What I’d like to do – again, this is an attempt – is to encourage those people like me – non-NRA gun owners who have kept quiet for too long – to join the conversation. I believe we are the middle ground on which productive conversation and possible solutions may exist. At the very least, I’d like to hear from you: your thoughts, your opinions, your ideas on this national conversation that we simply cannot ignore. We – collectively, as a society – need to hear from you. Far too many people have been crass and unproductive around the topic of guns and gun control and limiting the conversation to tired sound bites and unproductive bickering. I’d like to expand this conversation. I’d like to engage you in something we can all get behind: a productive conversation about the role of guns in our society, responsible gun ownership, common sense gun control, and how we might put a stop to gun violence once and for all.
Keith Lesmeister lives on a small farm in northeast Iowa. His essays have appeared in Tin House Open Bar, River Teeth, Water~Stone Review, Drafthorse, Museum of Americana, and elsewhere. He teaches at Luther College and Northeast Iowa Community College.