We went to high school and college with shotguns or rifles in the gun rack because we might go hunting after class. We carried pocket knives and tobacco. There were occasional fights in the bathroom or out behind the school surrounded by other students.
If you were caught, they took you to the gym, gave you boxing gloves and a place to punch each other until you couldn’t lift your arms and the desire to fight was gone. Then you shook hands and were almost friends afterward.
We laughed about it as a rite of passage at reunions years later. Lacking a better term, there was what might be described as a low level of “benign violence” mixed in with growing up in the West. We had lots of ways to deal with our demons.
We were free to roam amid public lands that were big and open, and farms and ranches that were accessible if you first asked, closed gates and left a few fish at the house, we were free to roam. Guns were always available but seen as tools. Rifles and shotguns were for defending your chickens, for putting meat on the table and for a bit of target shooting. Long guns held from three to five shots, and handguns were around but not as common or concealed.
There were no assault rifles, high capacity magazines or bump stocks. The National Rifle Association (NRA) seemed more like a first cousin to the Boy Scouts. Their publications featured “gun literacy” with pictures of 11-year-old kids learning to shoot a .22 rifle safely with their dads.
Still part of the ecosystem, we spent a good deal of time hunting and fishing from a young age but were constantly reminded by adults and older peers that guns should be handled safely and to “treat all guns as if they were loaded.” You passed your gun to a companion when you crossed a fence, and you didn’t point a muzzle in the direction of anyone without sharp reprimand. You stayed in line when hunting pheasants together and you were not to target practice without a backstop. We learned how far different projectiles traveled and were made very aware that a gun could harm another person—and how that would be tragic.
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Hunting being a higher level of violence than fighting at school, you were taught to make a careful shot and not wound an animal. My grandfather gave me three shells to hunt with. One went in your pocket and if you didn’t make a clean kill then you followed the tracks and blood trail until you ended the animal’s suffering.
If you had a trapline, you checked it daily for the same reasons. I remember a mix of elation, respect, and remorse for the animals we harvested, and elders saw to it that we carefully processed and used the meat. We had all reached into warm body cavities feeling liver, heart and marveling at the wonder of a living body while also witnessing the damage a bullet could do. Could it be that the “limited violence”—and calculated risk-taking that came with a mix of wrestling, tackling, 80-mph fastballs, throwing cherry bombs, rough-housing, hunting, and fishing—left us unable to even fathom a world where school shootings would take place let alone become frequent?
There were a few messed-up kids from broken or abusive homes, those who had been in trouble with the law or who had been suspended. Some were bullies or bullied, but friends usually stepped in. I particularly remember kids who had too much money and few restrictions.
Some low-key gang activity existed, but the Anglo, Italian and Hispanic gang members also played sports with and against one another. Together and alone, students dealt with problems without social media to amplify them and make them omnipresent.
It helped to have numerous outlets for controlled aggression that provided a moderating effect. If things were bad at school, you disappeared into the wildlands for a while, got an apprenticeship or job, hitch-hiked to Mexico, or enlisted in the military. It was easier to move past a troubled youth and spend more time with adults who had made their way. No one, however great their problems, ever thought about killing a bunch of other students as a way out.
In 2018, at my freshman grandson’s high school, students can’t carry pocket knives, they are no longer allowed to do contact sports in PE classes, and even dodgeball is off limits! There are fewer intramural teams or pick-up games. Youth groups like 4H and FFA struggle to survive and sports are highly organized, exclusive, very competitive, expensive, waivered, and always supervised. Fights and threats often end in expulsion.
Schools are fortified, have armed guards, active shooter drills and lockdowns. Our president wants more teachers to carry handguns—to thwart assault rifles! Parents and friends no longer walk freely into schools and classrooms to bring their kids lunch, watch them present a paper, or pick them up for a doctor’s appointment. Recently, a janitor had to unlock a door so I could pick my grandson up from an indoor baseball practice.
How is it too that in much of the “New West” there are fewer hunters, firecrackers are illegal, you can’t buy cigarettes or a beer unless you are 21—yet there are more gun stores with Glock-packing salesmen ready to sell assault rifles and “tactical” gear to 18-year-olds. Our police now respond to disputes looking like special ops soldiers and the NRA would have us believe that there are so many “bad guys” that all of us “good guys” must carry guns that shoot many rounds quickly—everywhere we go.
While this kind of comparative reflecting may not be relevant to someone from inner-city Chicago, I am perplexed and saddened at having lost the freedoms, sensibilities, and opportunities once common to a Western upbringing and which may have helped immunize us from unthinkable pathological violence.
We can’t return to a 1950s West, but, as we work towards sensible gun control and school security, can we not also reclaim some of the things that might re-route or prevent a troubled young person away from ever wanting to kill as many unarmed peers or others as they can?