Joyce Hinnefeld


Monday, January 17, 2011

Why I Can't Understand the Position of Handgun Owners

“I maintain that firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens makes communities safer, not less safe.”

--Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana

“Having lots of ammunition is critical, especially if the police are not around and you need to be able to defend yourself against mobs.”

--Erich Pratt, Director of Communications, Gun Owners of America

I’ve been trying to listen, civilly, to the positions of those who feel “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and etc., and who go quickly on the defensive, in support of all “law-abiding citizens’” rights to own and carry guns (even handguns with alarmingly large-volume ammunition magazines) in response to events like those in Arizona recently. I have been trying to understand those who feel that in, say, another such situation like that in Tucson, if and when a lone shooter opens fire in the midst of a peacefully gathered group of people, having a Glock handgun in their pocket will somehow keep them and their loved ones safe.

And I find that I can see no logic here. Only what my husband Jim calls “magical thinking”--the idea of the gun in the pocket as talisman, as good luck charm. What “mobs” is Erich Pratt imagining, after all? How is it that he’s assuming all this time to react and open fire in return? Too many movies and video games firing his own imagination here maybe?

I grew up in a house with some hunting rifles down in the basement. That’s mostly where they stayed, except for the couple times a year when my dad and my brothers took them along for walks out in the woods, occasionally shooting a few squirrels. Early on, in southern Indiana, I realized that a rifle in hand gives a man permission to walk in the woods (the walk in the woods was really the only part that my dad, who still talks about dreading the shooting of hogs during butchering season on the farm, could stomach very well).

Even that use of those hunting rifles stopped though, at some point when I was a kid, when the eighteen-year-old son of neighbors of ours, who’d experienced brain damage in a motorcycle accident a couple years before, got into his own dad’s hunting rifle cabinet, took one out, and shot himself. My dad definitely had no stomach for carrying a gun from the gun rack around, anywhere, after that.

What solace would a high-volume magazine-holding handgun offer the parents of the little girl who, along with my daughter, was to be one of the college Christmas Vespers concert soloists here in Bethlehem this year? The day before this girl was to perform, she was shot and killed by her brother in an apparent accident.

After hearing President’s Obama’s speech, our daughter Anna was inconsolable. I’m still second-guessing myself, about the decision to have her watch the speech, and then to tell her more details about the shootings in Tucson. At what point do you decide that it’s time to stop shielding your child from these realities? (My daughter is nine; I’d truly like to know.) “It all started with Vespers,” Anna said to me on the night of the Tucson memorial service, crying. I’d told her the truth about the death of her fellow soloist too.

Thinking about our national inability to have a conversation about limits on gun ownership (see Adam Nagourney and Jennifer Steinhauer's "A Clamor for Gun Limits, but Few Expect Real Changes" in last Friday's New York Times--the source of the quotations above--about this), I’ve been reminded of an incident from five years ago or so. I was walking in downtown Bethlehem with Anna, and we were crossing a street with a lot of construction going on, crossing inappropriately actually, in the middle of the block rather than at a corner (bad parenting, I know). There appeared to be no cars coming in either direction, and I’d relaxed and let go of my daughter’s hand, and suddenly, out of nowhere, a car came careening down the street, loud and fast; I could see that the driver was a kind of deranged-looking teenage boy. I grabbed Anna just in time, pulling her back. She just missed being hit, and the kid raced on by.

It was one of those moments I can’t stop replaying, even all these years later, asking myself, each time, how I could have been so careless. But here’s the other thing. The construction crew who’d been working on the street were packing their things up for the end of the day when this happened, and one of the workers was standing close to me, also waiting to cross the street. After I’d grabbed Anna and we’d watched the kid race by, this guy turned to me and said, “You know, if he’d hit her, I’d have killed him.”

I know he meant it to comfort me somehow. I was so stunned by the whole sequence of events that I didn’t know what to say. Thank you seemed wrong. I think I only nodded. But now, I know what I should have told him: I know what you mean. But that wouldn’t have made a difference, to me. There would have been no consolation in that.

Once someone is dead, having a gun that you could have shot the killer with can’t possibly offer any comfort, I’m sure of that. I have a feeling, if you asked the parents of my childhood neighbors’ son or of the little girl who should have sung the Christmas solo the night after my daughter did, they’d say the same.


  1. This is a very touching piece of writing - and if more people shared your view, I have a feeling we would live in a better, more peaceful place. It is disturbing how polarizing this subject can be; the anger it generates scares me sometimes. Americans hold tight to their guns, as you say, to ward off the evils they perceive in the world...The construction worker's response is not uncommon - which is why the death penalty remains in any states (something I cannot condone, based not only on my feeling that it is barbaric...but that there are too many who are innocent who are put to death - if only ONE person dies at the hand of the state who was innocent, then we need to stop this practice). There is much in your post to think about...thank you for posting it.

  2. Thanks for this post, Joyce. It can't have been easy to write about those deaths, either from our childhood or last month. I'm afraid many -- probably most -- Americans could tell similar stories, though. I don't know what it will take for people to get past their "magical thinking" about this issue.