What do I know about guns?

By Robert Byers

“Liberals don’t know anything about guns.”

I’ve heard that stereotype more than a few times in my life, and more so in the months since the massacre at Newtown, Conn.

Like most stereotypes, it’s a twisted view of reality, repeated by people trying to prop up their argument — in this case, the pro-gun argument.

Actually, a lot of liberals know a lot about guns. They just don’t worship them the way a lot of conservatives do.

They don’t hold the Second Amendment sacred and ignore the rest of the Constitution. They don’t mindlessly reject any and all attempts at sensible gun control.

And, apparently, neither do all conservatives. Check the polls. Americans overwhelmingly support background checks on gun buyers.

Opinions on something as monumental as guns — something that can both take and protect a life — should never be knee-jerk. They should be formed, with great care, over time — and maybe changed as the world around us changes.

I grew up in a tiny, three-bedroom house in rural Pennsylvania. When I was a kid, we usually kept about six guns on hand in that house: a 20-gauge shotgun for squirrel hunting; the .30-.30 lever-action rifle that I used for my first few buck seasons; the new .243 bolt-action that replaced it as I got older; my dad’s .30-06 deer rifle; the little .25-caliber pistol he brought back from Vietnam; and the .22-caliber rifle that was for … well, everybody had one of those.

There was plenty of ammunition for each, and there were no gun locks or safes or even a cabinet. The shotgun and rifles were just propped up against the wall inside my dad’s bedroom closet. The pistol lay on the shelf above.

I never thought much about the guns until it was time for hunting season, but I knew how to use them, how to clean them and so on. I liked the heft of the deer rifle in the crook of my arm, the smell of the gun oil and the satisfying click of the bolt or lever.

Had you asked me in those days whether Americans should be allowed to own automatic weapons, I would have come down firmly on the pro-gun side — and then daydreamed a bit about how cool it would be to do more than just play Rambo.

But then something happened. I began to grow up, and my opinions grew along with me. I became more aware of my surroundings, and how the selfish actions of some affected multitudes of others. My eyes opened to the strong-arm tactics of the National Rifle Association, and I began to realize that the NRA had very little to do with hunting and a whole lot to do with politics. Yes, I became more liberal.

And then something else happened. My father was murdered with a handgun.

He was an out-of-work coal miner looking for work in the mines out west. Some shadowy figure that I will never know took his life, his pickup truck, his traveling money.

And please spare me the “well, if only he had been armed, too” part. He was. He always kept a .357 Magnum in his truck. That was the gun the attacker used to shoot my dad in the head.

A few months prior, my dad let me fire that big pistol. I had been bugging him about it for a while. I hoisted it up with two hands. I felt like Clint Eastwood as the thunderous boom rocketed across the hills.

Nearly 25 years have passed. Those memories will never leave me. And now I have new memories, too — images of first-graders, high-schoolers and college kids slaughtered en masse, a congresswoman struggling to make her brain work like before, an old movie actor talking to an empty chair.

Yeah, I know a lot about guns. I wish I didn’t.

Robert Byers is the Gazette’s executive editor.

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