Sunday, July 09, 2006

Hank, a nice man who owns a gun or two

When I first came up with this little project of interviewing interesting friends, the first name on the list, writ large in all caps, was HANK.

Hank is the step-father of one of my most important friends, Abe. He's smart, a little creepy and a genuinely sweet guy. He once emailed my wife to ask if she'd like to collaborate on poems about Hannibal Lechter. He was only joking a little, I think.

A few years ago, Hank and I spent the afternoon of Abe's wedding talking under a tree, because it was fucking hot. We talked a bit about guns, along with the nature of love and the weirdness of weddings. Better than than doing the Bunny Hop by a long shot, I'd say. I've kept that conversation in the back of my mind since then, and I thought I'd ask Hank to dredge up that conversation for the blog.

Hank is also a gun owner. I don't know many gun owners, and I'm not one myself, but I'm fine with other people owning them. Just don't point that thing at me.

So Hank and I chatted via email extensively about the gun thang, so extensively in fact that this is a truncated version. You can get the director's cut over at Some People I Know. It include a funny essay Hank wrote about the more swishy, shopping side of gun ownership. I say check it out.

G: Hank, at Abe’s wedding you and I had an interesting conversation about guns. In the past few years, you’ve taken up gun ownership as a hobby. I guess a lot of people have this preconceived idea of gun owners as these reactionary Berserkers, where as you’re a thoughtful, loving guy…right?

H: I don’t like to admit that I might be a loving person. There are too many counter-examples out there in too many minds to make any of those claims. Plus, it is Plus, it is way too limiting. I would rather have people think that I am not a loving person, and that way they can be pleasantly surprised, I hope.

One thing that propelled me into the "gun world", if you want to call it that, that I am very aware of is your typical jew-boy threatened by storm trooper scenario. I can make light of it, I do make light of it, but there is some fear there too. It's that old "4 A.M. and a gang of armed thugs smash their way into my house and drag me off to the camps" mental reverberation that I have had for as long as I can remember. When I took a look at that fantasy, I realized what was most terrifying was the sense of helplessness it gave me. I wanted to be in a position to say, "OK, you might get the best of me and mine, but I am at least gonna hurt you in the process." I can say that archaic fear of the Evil Invaders has softened considerably since my home has become an armed fortress (just kidding about the armed fortress part).

G: Well, I can relate to that, but it's really pretty much an abstract fear, isn't it? I mean in this day and age?

H: Yes, if you mean for most law-abiding citizens in the US or other parts of the post-industrial world. But in many places in the world, involving I would say a majority of the people who are alive today, it is a very real fear, a real possibility in their lives. I remember a few years ago on a Saturday afternoon there was a rumor in the town I live in that there was a gang of kids robbing stores in the malls north of here. A rumor, unsubstantiated by anyone in authority, but many of the shops in town closed because of it. As New Orleans demonstrated, any place may be only one natural disaster away from adventures with armed bad guys. I remember a quote from Orwell that I find speaks to this issue: "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men are prepared to do violence on their behalf." He was talking about wars between nations, but my feeling is now that everyone should be prepared to defend himself or herself.

That whole thing is the dark side of why I learned to shoot, and why I am a happy gun owner today. Of course there were other sides too.

When I turned fifty I made a list of things that I wanted to learn and study. Ball room dancing and French were on that list, but those interests died on the dance floor so to speak. Learning to shoot and learning computers are thriving.

G: Can you say something about how it actually happened in your life?

H: I am, as you note above, a thoughtful person, in that I like to think about things I am doing, learn a bit about them and let my motivation grow or not in the process. Someone gave me a copy of a book called Boston's Gun Bible which I found fascinating and in fact reviewed on Amazon. From there it was just a question of learning. To buy a gun in this country you usually have to have a federally licensed firearms dealer. I met a wonderful guy nearby here who is a real "there is no such thing as a dumb question" guy. A very decent and generous guy, who pointed me in the right direction. And I was lucky enough to find a master of the shooting arts, in fact quite locally at the Chabot Gun Club in Oakland. This man, John Maunder, is a life-long student of fire arms and shooting, and a real old-fashioned gentleman and honorable being. He has also been unbelievably kind to me and generous with his time. I have yet to meet anyone who shoots seriously who fits the stereotype you mentioned. I am constantly made happy by how kind and welcoming these folks are. John never lets any of his students forget that shooting is a potentially lethal pastime, so you have to be calm, cool, collected, humble and all those virtuous things or you are gonna be in deep dog-doo.

I am politically progressive, but I believe strongly that people should learn how to shoot, how to defend themselves. To me, the liberal knee-jerk reaction to guns is every bit as thoughtless as the right�s knee-jerk reaction to gay marriage. Thoughtless and very damaging. It is almost impossible where I live in California to get a permit to carry a concealed gun, but if it were possible, I would do it.

G: How did people you’re close to react to your nascent gun thingie?

H: My wife Thea has had a terrible time with it. She has a visceral reaction to guns that borders on terror. Sadly for her, her husband, her sons Abe and Alex, and her sister Colleen’s husband and son are all gun owners and enthusiastic shooters. I would say Mac (Greg: Hank's son) is probably squeamish on the subject, but he is somewhat at home with his dad’s weird interests.

My colleagues at work have turned out to be either current or former fire arms aficionados. That surprised me, but it no longer surprises me.

G: Meaning?

H: OK, here’s a story. A woman friend of mine who is a kind of archetypal Berkeley liberal invited me to have coffee with her cause she had something she had been thinking about and she wanted to ask me my opinion. Her question was: “What do you think about guns?” When I heard this my heart sank because I immediately thought we would get into one of those heated discussions that people on opposite sides of an issue tend to have. Turned out she had been doing a lot of thinking and reading on her own and had herself decided she needed to learn how to shoot! That really surprised me, but I think it is where people get to if they face the facts.

G: Did you grow up with guns? Did your father or any relatives hunt? When and how and why did your interest pique? What sort of instruction have you had?

H: Until I was nine I lived on top of a mountain in eastern Pennsylvania in a little town with about 12 families. Everybody hunted, except my Swiss dad, who preferred fly fishing! I have since reclaimed my Swiss heritage by learning to shoot, because Switzerland has no other army except for its armed citizens. That whole William Tell thing is not just some cute Disney cartoon to them, but a very serious founding myth.

I have taken a number of classes at different places, and I go to the range for practice. Like anything else, it requires total devotion to get really good at, and my total devotion is directed elsewhere, so I am at peace with that decision and glad that I have some minimal competence with fire arms.

G: Obviously, guns are a semiotician’s wet dream. When you first started handling and firing guns, did you ever get freaked out, like “Holy Fucking Shit! I AM

H: Yes, yes and more yes. It is ceaselessly drummed into me that you better realize that you have a lethal machine in your hands when you have a fire arm. You better be healthily scared too. My teachers go by the strict ethic that there are no accidental shootings. The person who shoots someone else “accidentally” is always responsible for it.

I have become more respectful of the warrior ethic. We are taught that such a thing no longer exists, that the trenches and machine guns of WW I killed it off. But as an ideal to strive for, embracing honor, integrity, courage, a spirit of service, it’s not bad. I have found these qualities are highly valued among my “gun totin’ friends”. It’s very much a reputation-based culture. It doesn’t seem to matter what your politics or religion is. If you demonstrate those values, you get respect. There are apparently an awful lot of overweight,. middle aged guys out there who see themselves as warriors, and try in some measure to live up to an ancient ideal.

Well Greg, I know you are dying to ask me some more, but I have to go now. Let’s meet real soon and flap our jaws some more, OK good buddy?

G: That’s an affirmative, my strange friend.



Blogger G. said...

Ah guns. But Greg, you and I both know that shooting paper targets is for sissies...unlike shooting packages of C4 with high-powered rifles, as an example.

You can check out my pseudo-inteview with boomershoot's founder Joe Huffman at:

Or skip the middle man and check out the real-deal:

And I was kidding about the "sissy", please....don't point that thing at me...I said I was joking!

6:22 AM  
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