Let me start by saying I’ve never touched a gun.
My only friend who owns a gun lives off the grid in New Mexico, hunts elk and wild turkey and, in true Native American tradition, acknowledges a debt of gratitude to each life he takes so that he may feed himself.
Lately, my Facebook news feed has been plastered with anti-gun propaganda. Here are three of my faves:
None of these clever images calls to mind a gentle and deeply thoughtful intelligence or a vegan lifestyle. Actually, it took my dentist to do that. He’s a mild-mannered young vegan, a loving father and a gourmet cook who plays Frank Sinatra instead of muzak. And, it turns out, he’s fiercely pro-gun.
Dr. B is always friendly but he was particularly relaxed yesterday, probably because he had some cancellations. When he came in to check my teeth, his assistant and I were talking but I was already in a prone position, prepared to close my eyes and open my mouth at his command.
Instead of probing my gums, he decided to hang out and join the conversation. We talked for an hour, while I lay on my back, about what it means to own a gun.
We could have changed the topic of conversation or found a way to slither out of an infuriating us-and-them debate but instead, we hung in there.
Have you ever wanted to know what makes someone tick more than you want to prove you’re right?
Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that I was acquainted with a gun enthusiast and he wasn’t a wacko! An attitude of mutual respect, curiosity and trust enabled us to engage in a conversation that’s been polarizing the nation.
I was determined not to get sidetracked by incendiary rhetoric like, “a gun is just a tool” or “cars kill more people than guns,” etc. I was mostly able to resist making my own knee-jerk, anti-gun responses because I wanted to understand one thing,
What are you afraid of?
Likewise, the aspect of my viewpoint that baffled Dr. B might be formulated by the question, “Why don’t you take responsibility for your life?” The term he used for people, like myself, who choose not to arm themselves was ‘sheep.’
“Most people are sheep and don’t want to take any responsibility for their lives. They think it’ll never happen to them. Guess what? There are crazy people out there and bad things do happen. If some maniac appears out of nowhere pointing a gun at you or your children, how are you planning to react?” he asked.
“Are you ready to die? Most people are complacent, I want to be prepared.”
In fact, I am not prepared to face that situation and willingly choose not to contemplate it.
Dr. B has considered every aspect of that scenario and planned for it. Police are responders, he reminded me, they come after a situation has already occurred.
“I wonder what makes our worldviews so different, don’t you. It’s not that I’m naive, Jim,” I said, because by now we were on a first-name basis. “Although I’ve never been the victim of a violent crime; have you? You think people like me are sheep, and you may be right, but I think your position is much more defensive than mine and I wonder why.”
“People automatically assume that people who own guns are violent. I am not violent—I don’t hunt, nor do I wish to. I am against violence and I think the majority of gun owners are like me. When I go to the shooting range, these guys aren’t the bunch of redneck in-breeders you imagine. That’s a stereotype that prevents people from looking at the real issues of violent crime, mental health and socioeconomic status. If these root problems were addressed, you’d see violent crime go way down.”
“I have to be very careful who I talk to about these issues,” he continued. “You have no idea the kind of prejudice I face because I’m a gun owner. People assume that I’m something that I’m not.”
This led Jim to another point he felt was important which was tied to the issue of personal responsibility.
“I have a license to carry a weapon but if I’m out in public and someone calls me racist names or even hits me, I will do everything in my power to deescalate the situation and not respond. If I use my gun on someone, the burden is on me. I could be said to have provoked that person and I would lose my license and spend time in prison. The average gun owner has no desire for confrontation or to use his gun on someone.”
By the time I stood up to leave there were several patients in the waiting room and Jim waved me back from the open doorway.
“You asked before if I had ever been the victim of violent crime and the answer is yes. When I was a student—at a Quaker school, mind you—I was also working part-time at a skate shop. I looked just like anyone else in the store, just another skinny kid in a ripped t-shirt and jeans. All of a sudden, I look over and see a customer crouching on the ground—he was shaking and saying, ‘Please don’t kill me.’ For a split second I thought he was goofing around, till I saw someone aiming a gun at his head.
“The guy turns around, sees me, realizes I work there and next thing you know he’s pointing the gun at my head, like this.” Jim’s pointer finger is gently touching the center of my forehead. “I put my hands up and said, ‘You can have anything you want, dude.’ But he’s looking out the front window and at his look out, a guy in a trench coat telling him to get out quick.
“He’d spotted a cop who happened to be in the car wash right across the street, so they just took off.
“Most people never know what it feels like to have a gun pointed at their head. I do.”
I like Jim more, not less. We were both honored by that unexpected hour we shared—in the middle of an otherwise ordinary day– outside the safety zone of our habitual, preconceived, us-and-them notions. I’m honored that we didn’t feel obliged to agree or argue and wonder how rare this is.
How often do we allow curiosity and a genuine desire to understand another person trump our need to judge and be self-righteous?
I consider myself a pacifist but today I wonder if I weaponize my opinions? Why do I need to hold fast and defend my entrenched point of view before I understand my enemy? What if ‘enemy’ is a false distinction and means only, ‘one who doesn’t know me’ or ‘one I don’t know’?
Before I left Jim’s office, he offered to take me to the shooting range with his wife. (Oh stop, not so we could shoot each other!)
“It’s also fun,” he smiled.
I didn’t say yes but I honestly considered it. Maybe we hold our opinions so dear because we aren’t prepared to find out how far we’re willing to go to understand another person.
How far off the reservation can we go before we can’t or don’t want to find our way back?
Charlotte Heckscher writes essays and creative nonfiction on her blog, The Daily Procrastinator.
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