I grew up in two gun cultures: One from my father’s days growing up in rural North Carolina and the other on the streets of Philadelphia where I grew up. Both were very different and the distinction may help us as a society come to terms with our second amendment and the recent spate of high profile case of gun violence.
Dad’s gun culture was one of gun safety, manual rifles and a love of hunting for food and sometimes just for sport. He would often talk of the values hunting taught him: patience, respect for nature, survival, independence. The list stretched out. Bottom line: He loved it with all his soul. And he wanted to share it with me and my brothers. I can’t remember a time I didn’t live in a house with several rifles at hand. In fact, when I was born my father was so ecstatic he bought me a .22 gauge rifle. He eyes glowed when I was seven years old and finally big enough to hold it without falling over and teaching me gun safety.
He was counting down the days until I was 13 so that he could start taking me to the gun range and training me to get my gun license. In another world and at another time he would have been game warden for the state of Pennsylvania, that’s how law-abiding and sincere he was about respecting nature and how disciplined hunting was actually a vital part of life and development into an adult. He knew I probably wouldn’t go out with him on his annual hunting expeditions with my uncle and brothers but he wanted me, like his sisters, to at least know the basics of how to use a gun and also gun safety if I have had the cause to use one.
That’s how things were between the protective walls of our row house in urban Philadelphia. I say urban because we were one, maybe two, steps above a ghetto. I say that because the drug trade was running rampant and running down our neighborhoods. What was once a highly sought after zip code became a bastion for drug lords, low-income single mothers, teen pregnancies and other things that caused a steep decline in the upkeep of the neighborhood.
I had to walk these streets every day to go to and from school. Several of the boys I grew up with were shot dead in the streets. The summers were the worst in terms of hand gun violence in the city. The sounds of gun shots, arguing and police sirens would serenade me to sleep many a night. And during the day it could get bad as well. I remember when I finally got a job as a teen and I worked so hard to do well. One day I stayed late to finish a project. So I was behind my normal schedule. I knew my mom would be worried so I got home as soon as I could. The normal route I would take to get home was blocked by police cars, yellow tape with the black lettering and overall chaos. I had to come in the front way, which is usually dangerous because of the guys dealing drugs on the corner there. It was too unpredictable to risk going that way most days. But that day, with all the police, noise and buzz in the neighborhood I had no choice. It was the only way home.
I made it. I got to the house and as soon as I came through the door my mother grabbed me and hugged me.She was so glad I was home. Then she scolded me for coming home late. Then she thanked God that I did come home late. It was all very confusing to me. I just stared at her wide-eyed as she told me about the shooting that took place in our back driveway, the same driveway we shared with our neighbors. And the same driveway I always use to come home. If I had’ve been on time, I would have been in the crossfire when the shooting happened.
The craziest thing about it was once the police were gone and the noise subsided and the yellow tape was taken away, there was still blood in the driveway. I had to look at that every day when I went to work and when I came home from it. To say I was scared was an understatement. I was terrified, but didn’t want to worry my mom otherwise she wouldn’t let me out of the house. And I had to get out. I had to “make it.” That old cliche of local ghetto girl makes good by staying focused and reaching for the stars. I just had to work and make a success of myself so that I would never have to live in a place where people get shot in broad daylight.
I grew up in two gun cultures. One, a culture of responsibility, heritage and respect for nature. The other, a commitment to revenge, a resolution of arguments and a weapon of terror. I have confidence in our Founding Fathers and believe they espoused the first culture and had it in mind when they crafted the second amendment of our Constitution. There’s no need to compare our gun violence with that of other countries. For better or worse the second amendment makes us unique. So it is our unique responsibility to harness our rights so that they don’t infringe on others and so they’re not used carelessly. With freedom comes obligation. We, as U.S. citizens are obligated to each other, to maintain or freedom and to protect each other. We miss the point of that sometimes.
Are we really taking care of the mentally disturbed, the hopeless and the disenfranchised? Is gun violence the only way we’ll listen? I pray my children will grow up in a different culture, one of pride in being U.S. citizens and one of responsibility and a true celebration of all our rights – even the right to bear arms.