Guns, School, and My Six-Year-Old

Public Issues / Saturday, March 10th, 2018

Today the PTA for my son’s elementary school sent out a well handled email about the two upcoming days that people nationwide are planning to walk out of school to protest the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

After I read the email, I found myself mindlessly playing Plants Vs. Zombies. Eventually I realized that I was doing this because I didn’t want to think about the email. Although I had been telling myself, “I am dealing with this fine. I am not affected by this,” actually I was sad, and overwhelmed, and unsure what to do.

In theory, I believe in demonstrating and protesting, if I feel it can accomplish something.

In practice, I don’t think this particular demonstration is going to do a damn thing. And my son is six.

I don’t know how to raise a six-year-old to be an activist when I wasn’t raised to be an activist. I was raised to pay attention to the news and discuss it at length. But I wasn’t raised to do anything with that information other than talk endlessly about it, and, once a year, vote. In fact, my relationship with the news was so fraught that for years I’ve refused to listen to public radio. I subscribe to news magazines and then don’t read them. I have an electronic subscription to The New York Times which I can’t bear to look at. I mostly got my news from articles my friends posted on Facebook, until I realized I needed to step back from Facebook for a while.

I’ve had several people tell me six years old is too young for me to talk to him about school shootings. But he’s already practicing safety drills at school. I was volunteering in his library for one of them. The librarian rolled her eyes as she covered the windows, turned out the lights, and locked the doors, then said, “Because of course I’d spend time covering the windows and turning out the lights instead of RUNNING OUT THE BACK DOOR.” (The library has its own door to the outside.) And I have to tell you, that moment when some school administrator tried the doorknob to test if it was locked was jarring and frightening. I’ve read that some students become very anxious when they hear that sound.

My son is six, and anyone who knows six-year-old boys will not be surprised to hear that he is fascinated by guns. Our Small Fact Boy occasionally regales me with facts about AK-47s and handguns that he says he’s read in library books. He has several Nerf guns, including a machine-gun that’s propelled by an air pump. (It sounds like a vacuum cleaner when he turns it on.)

I think of myself as a liberal. I don’t own a gun, and I’ve never shot one. I think it’s unwise to have a gun in the house, especially because depression and suicide run rampant in my family. And yet I have friends who have guns. For the most part, they are responsible gun owners who have gun safes and keep their ammunition separate and talk to their children about never touching the gun unless Mommy or Daddy are there. I read the vitriol that’s coming from both sides about guns and I realize that, regardless of what happens, guns are too thoroughly entrenched in this country’s history and culture ever to be banned completely.

So I find myself in an odd place. Apparently I am a moderate, a creature we don’t seem to hear from much anymore in the public discourse. I don’t want to own a gun, yet I confess that I want to learn how to shoot one. I want to understand the appeal. I’m 45 and suddenly craving a little adventure, honestly. And I also get why my son is fascinated by guns. Guns are powerful. When you’re six, you don’t have a lot of control over your world or what adults want you to do. Guns could even the score.

My son, being six, is also fascinated by “bad words,” and talking about private parts. He’s exploring the edges of what is acceptable in society. He can tell by the reactions of the adults around him that guns are a charged topic.

In fact, at school, they’re not allowed to pretend to shoot a gun. They’re not allowed to make things shaped like guns. (Yet they are allowed to check out books about guns.) I get this, I guess. But to me it feels more like these rules are to protect adults’ feelings than to protect children. If children can’t talk about guns, then guns are something so scary that even adults don’t want to hear about them. Is it children’s job to take care of adults’ feelings? Do adults not feel safe when children talk about guns? Are children more powerful than adults? What are children supposed to do with all their natural curiosity?

I’ve told my son that he can ask me questions about guns. That if he sees a gun, he should come get me or another adult rather than touching it. That if he’s very curious, we can go to a gun range sometime and he can learn how to handle and shoot a gun properly. His eyes lit up when I said this. He was incredulous. In a way, I could tell he felt like it was Christmas and his birthday all rolled up in one. But in another way, I could also tell that he was awed that I would expose him to this much power.

In fact, I’m hoping that by demystifying guns for him, they will lose some of their allure. A gun is a tool some people use, and some people misuse.

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