Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grandpa got a gun

My grandfather was an outdoorsman. Wladislaw hunted in Wisconsin, and perhaps as a teenager in Poland -- pheasant in fall and rabbit in winter. Photos from fishing trips show his prized crappie catches, but no poses have turned up with hunting gear or trophy game. Yet lately Dziadek has been my stalking horse for thinking through the gun-control debate.

He died when I was 3, leaving no tales of tracking deer or nesting in a duck blind. But Walter Jr. and I did the things he did with Walter Sr.: fishing, camping, woodworking, swearing. Woodworking and swearing have a kind of clumsy connection in my clumsy family: My approach to planning a repair project was what I called "Stare and swear." It took years before my wife would buy me power tools because she did not want to encourage the cursing. This all must have started in the family basement when working with hammer and nails revealed the family's lack of hand-eye coordination. Dad there taught me most of what I retained in Polish, the curse words first. Psia krew. Son of a bitch.

My father disposed of Grandpa's rifles 50 years ago. Dad had no taste for hunting. Deer season brought regular news reports about hunters shooting each other. The thought alone would have made Dad queasy. North Woods hunters wore bright-orange jackets to ward off friendly fire. I still cannot imagine a serious sportsman dressing in camouflage.

President Obama we now know goes skeet shooting at Camp David. I've gone skeet shooting at Camp Long Lake. The Boy Scout summer camp established on former Pabst family property in Fond du Lac County, about 15 miles from where Walter Sr. first settled in Wisconsin. I tried to anticipate the arc of clay targets sailing across the central Wisconsin marsh, and imagined my grandfather watching the flight of ducks.

Camp Long Lake had a large, sunny field for archery, where you could touch an arrow's metal tip with your thumb and feel its implicit danger: This was not the suction cup of a child's toy. Drawing a bow took a steady finger-hold on a taut string. Tension defined the sport.

Yet the archery range had nothing on stress compared to the firearms range, a long covered deck set against a hilly backstop. A newsprint National Rifle Association regulation target was the size of a vinyl 45 but with a tiny bull's-eye, demanding more rigor and precision than the archery range. A breech-loading rifle commanded respect. Its recoil assured it. Today's assault-style rifle gives not as much a kick as as a buffered bounce, so I understand its attraction for today's hunters. But it gives pause that semi-automatic fire makes for faster sport and that for the shooters, weapons are losing their sting.

Not so long ago, preteens were instructed in pistol fire. They still are of course, but in the make-believe world of video games. Minors may have access to firearms, but rarely to firearms training. I've heard police tell about gang-bangers' sloppy, comic-book firing style, and a recent "This American Life" report seemed to suggest that the only thing keeping gang warfare from spiraling out of control is that gang-bangers are such bad shots. Scouting locked away firearms at the range. Practice was buttoned down as well, with adult supervision instead of arcade fire or peer initiation. Camp counselors monitored the range closely, checked our protective headgear and showed us a two-handed grip, not the moving draw of Grand Theft Auto. The squeeze of a trigger had to be so slow that the discharge would be startling. Attention must be paid.

In today's gun-control debate, firearms knowledge is missing in action. When I helped organize a journalism convention, I defended the NRA's right to exhibit alongside computer vendors and wire services. What's the harm in education? Reporters should know a .32 from a 30-'06. Sadly, the NRA showed up without a journalist's guide to guns. Its interest was solely to mount a Second Amendment political defense. The bearing of arms was not demystified but fetishized.

Only one of my other siblings was with me to bounce on Grandpa's knee, and last year we sorted through ledgers and other items from his tailor shop. They included a cheap steel revolver that even in its disassembled state looked likely to turn a bad situation worse. "The Defender" was a token robbery defense, a misfire waiting to happen. Walter Sr. eventually made a flight to safety and a savings-and-loan job.

I grew up watching a TV program about "The Other 98" percent of teens who weren't juvenile delinquents. (Now the phrase means something else.) Yet a more potent armed threat was suggested during the commercial breaks, when the Civil Defense authority offered tips on surviving nuclear fallout. A CD how-to pamphlet on fallout shelters arrived in the mail, illustrated with a child calmly reclining against cinderblock reinforcements, studying for a class that likely would never come back in session. Against the magnitude of the nuclear threat, the build-your-own bunker idea had a short half-life. The urban arms race posed a vaguely similar mismatch. Black Panthers took to street patrol till the police developed their own paramilitary tactics. Weapons raised the stakes. They did not improve the odds.

Dziadek was a taciturn man, a bit of a mystery even to his son. I had to make up my own mind on guns, and I'm not sure he would agree with my conclusions. Chicago is safer with a gun ban in place, and would be safer were it better enforced. Firearms have their place in hunting season, and should be the most regulated part of the hunt. Guns should be built for safety as well as reliability, with trigger locks and without high-capacity clips. States should require gun owners to prove they can use them. Marksmanship should be taught by parents or police or church groups, not street gangs.

Walter Sr. was a soldier, whose World War I souvenirs included a wallet grazed by a bullet. Either his sweetheart's photo was his shield, or he just nearly got, well, outflanked. A less fortunate Army buddy returned to Chicago shell-shocked, and called on Wladislaw to expedite veterans benefits after he decamped from my neighborhood to a sanatorium in Poland. He was under no illusions about arms fire at close range. We see arms from a safer distance, yet our views are not nearly as grounded. We think we can secure large public buildings with a few security guards, defuse bar fights with concealed-carry revolvers, or build an ammo cache for a last stand against drones and bunker busters. What would Dziadek say? Psia krew.

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