This essay began as my working through what seemed new and strange to me in rhetoric following the massacre at Sandy Hook. I sent it to Roxane Gay, at that time Essays Editor for The Rumpus. She ran it the month after:
In my extended family, a generation ago, it was the odd household that didn’t have guns. I think that for my father’s father, a gun served mainly as another mechanical thing to tinker with. For years, my mother’s father hunted regularly— deer and rabbits. I remember when I was five or six getting my pick of rabbit’s feet, running my fingers across the soft brown fur, gradually imagining the creature that had lived, and putting the foot away, unable in its presence to shake the sense that I had held absence and was somehow culpable in an irrevocable unnecessary end.
My grandfather didn’t care primarily about bringing home game. (When he returned from World War II, he found that his Irish setter was ruined for birding after years of chasing geese on my great grandparents’ farm, and the story was added affectionately to the evidence of what made the setter his own dog, and the smartest dog you could ask for.) What my grandfather loved most about hunting was the woods, knowing birds and trees, tracks, how to find your way, what would make cuts feel better and what tasted good, what would kill you if you ate it. In that part of the country, for men, going into the woods meant going with a gun. From my grandparents’ porch, when the maples went red between the pines, you could hear the report of guns from the mountains, shotguns and .22s. My grandparents, even my parents, could identify all the calibers by sound.
My mother wasn’t taught to use a gun—nor were girls allowed to run the motor on the little aluminum fishing boat—but girls were taught about guns, the rules, because guns were another element of the household. Never point a gun at anyone, even in jest. Never leave a gun loaded. Assume every gun is loaded. Keep guns locked and out of sight. If you’re not going to train and practice, don’t have a gun. If you don’t trust someone to be prudent, avoid that person if you know they have a gun on them (no one would have been assumed to be carrying a concealed gun). Never hunt with people you don’t trust. When hunting in a group, never get out in front, never assume you’ve been seen and recognized.
Excerpt lightly edited.
Photos and composite: Sarah Malone