When I was in sixth grade, my entire class was marched into the school gym for Hunter Safety class. There, for several class periods, the public school system helped us understand the difference between the deer we could shoot and the ones we shouldn't, the ethics of "shooting your wife's deer" (which always made me think someone's wife was keeping a deer as a pet, but instead meant using her permit), and then -- in a thrilling culmination -- we were taken out to the local gun range to shoot a regulation 10 bullets from a .22 rifle.
A few weeks later we got our perforated shooting targets back, along with our hunter safety certificates, and emerged newly minted soon-to-be hunters. I went home and told my mom I wanted a .22 for Christmas.
I never got it. My mother's values and my determination to blow the heads off of prairie dogs were in direct conflict, but despite her best intentions, my relationship with guns didn't end with hunter safety.
When I was 15 and abruptly transplanted to a new city school system from my tiny rural one in western Colorado, I met a kid named Scott. His favorite band was "Great White," he wore a desert cap (the kind with the flaps that hang down over your neck to protect from sunburn) with a British flag on the top. At a time when I was feeling swamped by a 1,500-student school, he took me under his wing and made sure I was integrated with his friends and his pastimes (bowling, drinking strawberry wine coolers, t.p.-ing neighbor houses, etc.). And by November he was dead in a gun accident that involved some of our friends and an "unloaded" gun.
He took a bullet in the head and died instantly. I wasn't there. I missed the moment when the bullet made a small entry above his eye, and massive exit from the back of his head. My friends all insisted that they had checked the rifle's chamber multiple times, that it was unloaded and they didn't know how it happened. They were just looking over Joe's new rifle and somehow it went off. They were familiar with guns. Had used them many times. None of these gun-savvy kids planned on spattering the basement walls with their friend's blood. But they did.
And now our vice president has had a similar accident. While hunting for quail, he shot a friend and fellow hunter with a 28-gauge shotgun. According to witnesses, Cheney flushed a quail, tracked it, and fired. And in the process, he nailed his 78-year-old friend. The fact that the man didn't die (he's often described as being peppered or sprayed with bird shot, and having welts like "chicken pox" on his face and chest), makes it easier for the people involved to minimize it, to call it an accident with a lucky ending. Here's the thing, though. I don't believe that you can have a gun accident -- or luck, either -- around guns. You can have gun carelessness. Or gun inattention. Or gun disrespect. Or gun recklessness. Or gun stupidity. But you can't have an accident with a gun.
There are only two things I learned in hunter safety, and they come back to me every time something like this happens: Know where your gun is pointing at all times. Know what you're shooting.
That's it. The first protects against almost every tragedy related to unintentional discharge. The second protects against the consequences of an intentional discharge. The National Rifle Association's "fundamental rules for safe gun handling" say this at http://www.nrahq.org/education/guide.asp. Anyone who understands how dangerous guns are, understands these rules. And yet there are still yahoos who own and use guns but don't respect their extraordinary power.
Once again, there is a myth about guns, and now it's being perpetuated by our highest leadership -- the myth that accidents happen. There are none. There are only gun consequences. It would be nice if our leaders could at least show enough responsibility to admit that. But that's wishful thinking. More and more, it looks like we're just a bunch of children, playing with toys that we don't understand, and don't deserve to own.
Paolo Bacigalupi is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. He is the editor of the paper's Web site, hcn.org.
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