I grew up with guns. I never had one as a toy—I did not have the BB or pellet guns that the other boys got for Christmas or birthdays. I had deadly, violent and powerful guns, for hunting. We were taught that there’s no such thing as an empty gun, and that you never, ever point a gun at anything you don’t intend to kill.
My first rifle was a 20-gauge shotgun, single-shot, break-open, and its barrel was a cold swirl of metal. I carried it proudly through the deep sagebrush of the Wyoming prairie, following my stepfather and his black Lab, hunting grouse; or through the willows of the river bottoms, hunting ducks. We hunted to eat, and sometimes at dinner, you’d bite on a chunk of birdshot still lodged in the breast of some fowl.
My stepfather had seen plenty of violence in Vietnam, and he loved guns. To him, a well-crafted gun, which he defined as one that could fire repeatedly without jamming, was maybe the most beautiful thing in the world. He had a collection of guns, including an old-fashioned muzzle-loader.
Once a year, he would grow a beard and dress in buckskin as a mountain man for a local pageant, where he would enter the shooting contest. He once brought home a card he had shot in half—the ace of spades. I envied his skill and his confidence with these machines, with their dark oil and smoke.
In my family, everyone got a hunting license, and everybody hunted big game. It was the best way to keep the deepfreeze stocked over the winter. Elk, deer, antelope—whatever you could get, and as much as you could get.
When I was 14, my grandfather, a banjo-playing hunter, trapper and outfitter, among many other things, gave me one of his old rifles. It was a .264 Winchester Magnum with a long barrel and a polished scope. It had been my uncle’s, and its stock carried a crosshatch pattern he’d carved himself. I was small for my age and struggled to haul the rifle through the cold woods of autumn when hunting season came.
One day, it was my turn to sit in the aspens and wait. Somewhere down the mountain, my mother and stepfather walked through the timber, driving the deer. I sat on a cold, shaded hillside, trying not to fidget, knowing my foot was falling asleep. Then a branch snapped—and a buck deer appeared, maybe 50 yards below me, breathing heavy from running uphill, but slowing to a trot, then a walk.
I set my rifle across a fallen tree and peered through the scope. The buck was beautiful, his silver coat shimmering with each breath, ears cocked, black eyes dark, like obsidian. I placed the dot of the scope on his neck. Inhaled. Exhaled. Squeezed the trigger.
Killed instantly, he dropped to the ground, and my heart heaved. There was a certain thrill with having made the shot, and a sudden dread of what that implied, of what I’d so easily taken.
I’ve been thinking about that deer these past days. I think of the weight I felt in killing it, of the debt it left me with. That old rifle is in my closet, thrumming with power, as I write this.
I know we as a nation must do more to control the violence guns bring into the world. I know, too, that many people like me think that gun ownership is a part of our American tradition, especially here in the West. That may be true, but guns have also become part of something terrible that happens again and again in a cycle of senseless murder. I am beginning to think that as a society, we are not responsible enough to be trusted with them. Their power has come to outstrip our collective moral capabilities. Something has to change.
Of course, some families like mine prided themselves on using guns responsibly. But there’s no guarantee. Not even my grandfather, who lived with guns his whole life, was in full control over his weapons. On a day in November, a few years ago, newly divorced and hurting, my grandfather sat on the porch with his favorite pistol. Then he shot and killed himself. Another life, so easily taken.
Brian Calvert is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News.