Malbreaux: My First Gun

Effective gun control arguments need to understand both sides.

by Tyler Malbreaux | 3/29/18 2:00am

Before writing for The Dartmouth, I was an opinion columnist for The Authored Ascension, my high school’s online-only newspaper. Though I lacked the authority to influence much, I had a clear vision for the paper’s direction. Up until that point, most written pieces were school-specific. News of homecoming events, sports match-ups and the like were the predominant topics for most writers. Few ventured out to tackle national hot-button issues. As a 16-year-old newly equipped with a driver’s license and many opinions, I planned on changing that.

In September 2014, I wrote a politically-charged piece titled “Should a 9-Year-Old Fire an Uzi?” The month prior, Arizona gun range instructor Charles Vacca was killed after a nine-year-old girl lost control of an Uzi submachine while firing it on fully automatic mode. Unable to handle the gun’s powerful recoil, the girl allowed the barrel of the gun to veer off where Vacca was standing, striking him in the head with at least one bullet. He later died at a nearby hospital.

As with every high-profile incident before and after, Vacca’s death incited another, albeit short-lived, debate on gun laws. Groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, which felt that the accident could have been prevented with common sense, were outraged. State legislators began introducing bills to restrict gun access for those deemed too young to operate them. And in my article from high school, I too appeared to be seething with indignation — “So, theoretically, speaking, a toddler can fire as many rounds from an AK-47 as he wishes as long as his mommy or daddy is in the same room with him.”

Perhaps myopically, I hoped my article for The Authored Ascension would promote serious discussion, at least among the few students who would actually read it. But I was wrong. It was not very popular. Ultimately, few outside of my journalism class even knew it was published. Looking back, I wonder how much impact, if any, my article would have had on discourse. I lived in a deeply red state. The parents of the children I went to school with were mostly registered Republicans, which was reflected in their children’s views. Many students, especially the boys, participated in some type of shooting sport. The majority of them learned how to shoot before they learned basic algebra.

If anything, it was I who did not understand the gun issue — I had never shot a gun. Unlike many of my friends, I took no interest in learning how to hunt during deer season. The only thing I owned closest to a gun was a Daisy air rifle my dad bought for me one Christmas when I was younger. I shot it once, put it away and have not seen it since.

My lack of shooting experience changed shortly after high school graduation. One day in June, I went to my brother’s house. Casually set on his kitchen table was a rugged black case holding a Ruger .40 caliber semi-automatic pistol. My brother said that a gentleman who had contracted him to install a speaker system also happened to own a gun store. Rather than repaying my brother with money, he offered to give him a gun. With the shake of a hand, my brother had legally bought a pistol.

We lined up some targets in my brother’s backyard. I handled the pistol clumsily at first, but with a two-minute training session, shooting accurately became light work. In less than ten minutes, I could empty a magazine and reload and hit a bullseye from a few yards.

As I dotted the barrel with quarter-sized holes, I could not help but think about the immense power I held in my hands. Each shot was deafening — foolishly, I wore no ear protection. Each bullet sliced through thick metal with ease, and firmly lodged themselves in the earth.

It is often said that those who do not shoot guns cannot understand gun culture in rural America. Maybe there is some truth to that. Maybe there is something titillating about leaving the gun range with the smell of burnt metal stinging your fingertips. Personally, I do not mind taking occasional excursions out to a range. But at no point during my first time firing a weapon or any of the times after that did I ever think, “This seems like a safe activity for children.”

Because despite what the current federal data may claim, children are involved in an unacceptably high number of accidental gun-related deaths. A New York Times investigation revealed that accidental gun deaths among children are sometimes not recorded accurately when local authorities often consider shooting deaths with two people “homicides.” This means that, while pro-gun activists may claim that accident rates are decreasing, the truth is that the data is ambiguous at best .

Fortunately, things are slowly changing. A year after his death, Charles Vacca’s four children started an online petition demanding that states create laws that criminalize allowing children access to high-powered weapons. The next year, the family sued the Last Stop shooting range in Arizona where Vacca was killed for negligence. Hopefully, these actions will prompt shooting ranges across the country to adopt stricter policies in lieu of state legislation.

While powerful lobbying interests still control the gun debate in Washington, I am comforted to see that the way in which people think about guns may also be changing in deeply pro-gun communities. On March 16, I checked The Authored Ascension to find an article written by the paper’s current editor-in-chief about the recent protests in response to the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Even at my high school, which is still very much pro-gun — one senior was quoted as saying: “protesting [for stricter gun laws] is stupid and a waste of time.” But there is some sign of change. After receiving news of the shooting, some students went out to the school cross in the courtyard during break to gather for a moment of silence. Others, according to the author, were “reacting in their own ways.”

And unlike the days when I was writing for The Authored Ascension, people may actually be reading the newspaper now. As I scrolled down the page to the comments section, I saw one reader had posted a cute heart emoji. It is small, to say the least. But it could be a reflection of the bigger national efforts to achieve meaningful compromise. We may be closer to fixing this than we think.