Sunday May 5. Relaxing morning, reading the Times. Good coffee, then a run, and then it was time to drive to Holliston to attend Gun Training and Safety School at the Mass Firearms School. Brent Carlton, a founder of Commonwealth Second Amendment, would be my instructor. I was to be his guest as a follow-up to our chance meeting at the recent forum, Guns: An Evening of Story and Dialogue. I thought I would need a T-shirt saying “I survived Gun School,” but in truth, I was surprised. There wasn’t much that needed surviving.
I was afraid of the kick of the gun, but it turned out to be almost inconsequential. When the gun discharged, sometimes I controlled it myself, and sometimes my fingers thought for themselves and surprised me. I was afraid of the intensity of the noise of discharge but they gave me sound-deadening ear protectors. I was also afraid I would catch my hand clearing the Glock handgun of ammo. The whole top of the gun pulls back with a very strong counter spring, just like you see in war movies. I did catch the skin of my hand in the opening and it did hurt.
I watched a video of my teacher moving expertly around a gun course, shooting off ten rounds, expelling the empty magazine from his handgun. He’d grab another magazine and thrust it into the grip, and then bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam-bam, drill another ten rounds into the pop up targets. And then again and again like a dancer, turning and pivoting. This was pretty neat. I felt like I would really love to try that. And then the intellectual reserve got control of me again and I settled down to my distance from “those people.”
I listened carefully to him talk about how he really loves a well-performing gun. I tried my hardest to be open, to let his joy in. I confess it was awkward, difficult. But it was helpful that he is a very likable person, and over the course of the afternoon I was finding that the guns became secondary and he, a decent guy, became primary. Both the guns and the guy touched me over the course of the afternoon, and in the end, the guy won out over the gun.
How does it happen that I can now look at Brent not as a maniacal gun owner but as an articulate guy who loves a hobby? Before the dialogue event, I would have been less able to separate the guns and the people who enjoy them from violence and death; in other words, to listen to Brent on his own terms. So what shifted, and how? It became clear to me that the personal interaction is what breaks down resistance and barriers. I didn’t need to find guns attractive; what I needed was to meet a nice guy who happens to like guns. To me, that seems to be what makes a foundation for civil discourse.
It reminds me of a wonderful line in a poem about guns and war, “Dulce et Decorem est Pro Patria Moure.” The poet recalls shooting an enemy soldier but wondering how different it would have been had he and the “other” guy met by chance at a pub and shared a pint of beer. And here I am, standing on the other side of a gun, being humanized myself—all because I went to a forum on guns and met a decent guy who responded so thoughtfully to my questions in a room that was set up for dialogue rather than for vilification, labels and pre-conceived notions.
What remains on my mind is that I and my family and friends have never suffered a violent assault of any kind, let alone a death from a gun. I think this is significant. I cannot help but think it was easier for me to shift because I am at a personal distance from violence. What might this mean for civil discourse?
Stay tuned. I am in touch with Brent and he has invited me to go back out to Holliston to try other firearms, including an AR-15, one of the many semi-automatic rifles that is often referred to as an assault weapon (a term that I’ve learned can be inflammatory to folks on the pro-gun side). I’m looking forward to it, and I yet I realize I am ambivalent. I feel nervous to fire such a powerful weapon and I want to think through how to experience it more openly. But what I am not ambivalent about is spending more time with Brent, learning about him, and learning how to talk about guns in a way that is not polarizing, alienating or fear-inducing—something I’ll be doing with Brent’s help. I also want to understand Brent’s views on violence in society. I am really curious, and ready to learn and experience things I did not expect.