Two articles by women about guns crossed my desk within hours of one another, and made me stop to recall my own history.
One was an article in the September 8, 1996 issue of the New York Times about a friend of mine name Riva Freifeld, described as “a documentary film and television editor” who started out to make a film about the evils of guns. Someone suggested she learn to shoot “to get closer to the gun culture she would be attacking.”
Riva did just that, and discovered in rapid succession that (a) getting a license, even a target license, in New York City is a major undertaking, (b) the people she met at the gun club were fine folk (her own dentist! and a priest!), (c) shooting was fun and easy, and (d) she was darn good at it. She started competing (the AWARE Invitational was one of her first major matches) and recently won a team gold medal in a women’s sport pistol team competition in the Empire State Games. And all this from someone who never picked up a gun until she was 50 years old!
Her anti-gun film project has metamorphosed, as one might expect, into something about the “moral dilemmas and hypocrisies of a hot-button political issue,” and is finding it much harder to get financial backing than when she was doing a “guns are dangerous” piece. She has also found that although some of her friends and colleagues have turned out to be “closet gun-lovers”, most of them are quite upset that she has become a shooter.
Speaking of upset, that brings us to the second article. The Boston Globe has a column called Whatever for guest articles written by people in their twenties. A horrified young woman, Ellen Tarlin, wrote eloquently about her distress at learning that her recently retired father had bought a gun and taken up target shooting.
Though he was extremely responsible, legal (“He has a license. He has taken lessons – – taught by a policeman.”), and interested only in target shooting, his daughter is consumed with anxiety. She tries to bridge the vast gap of age, to see it from his point of view, but gets it all wrong. (“Retirement is parting with the place where many men define their masculinity, and guns are masculine, right? He is getting older, and guns are youthful.”)
She asks, “In a country where over 24,000 people each year are killed by handguns, can there be an innocent way to own a gun? ” (I’ll bet she “innocently” owns a car, though they are involved in far, far more deaths than guns.)
After quoting gun-phobic Erik Larson, “The homicide fantasy is the engine that drives America’s fascination with guns,” she wonders “Can there be target shooting without that homicide fantasy?”
She eloquently expresses her dilemma, “It was easy for me to disapprove of gun owners when they were nameless, faceless “others,” but what do you do when you find one in your own family?”
Ms Tarlin and Ms Freifeld remind me of myself, quite a few years ago. I never grew up around guns, and I absorbed the same general anti-gun ideas and sentiments that pervaded our society than as they do now. Instead of a family member, I discovered that a colleague at work was a gun owner, and I still remember the angst that caused. How could someone I liked and respected own guns?
I was strongly prejudiced against guns, just like Ms. Tarlin, and just like her, I didn’t recognize that at the time. Prejudice is one of those characteristics that people are generally blind to in themselves. But the experience has, in hindsight, given me the following litmus test for prejudice: A woman is prejudiced about X if, when she discovers that someone she knows well, loves, and respects is associated with X, she revises her opinion of the person downward, rather than changing her opinion of X in a positive direction.
X might be an ethnic group, a religion, a job, a kind of food, a sexual orientation, a political party, a gun, or just about anything else. If you hate and fear it so much that it makes you ignore opinions built up by years of close association with someone, you are indeed deeply prejudiced.
You know the person well, and topic X hardly at all, yet when the two come together in apparent conflict in your mind, you lower your opinion of the person, and maintain your opinion of X unchanged. That’s prejudice!
But there may be a still, small voice somewhere in your head telling you “Hey, wait a minute. She obviously knows more about X than I do, and she obviously likes X, and I really respect her . . . so maybe X isn’t quite as horrible as I thought.” That voice is the call of reason, offering the tentative possibility of a change of opinion about X, not the person.
Prejudice change slowly. Ever so slowly. It took me about 2 years (of indifference, not strong resistance) after that initial thought “Maybe guns aren’t so terrible after all” to get around to signing up for a firearms class, and years more before I acknowledged their utility for self-defense and felt competent to carry one around.
Ms Tarlin obviously loves her father, and is genuinely distressed by the dilemma her prejudice has led her into. I hope that still small voice is making itself heard in her mind, so that she can begin to overcome the prejudice that threatens to adversely affect her relationship with her father.
From the tone of her writing, I think there is hope. Hope that she will someday, purely out of curiosity or love, ask her father to show her how to shoot.
Hope that, when she is fiftysomething, she will experience the joy of winning a gold medal in a shooting match (without a single homicide fantasy).
Hope that she will someday write a guest column for this magazine.
This article first appeared in Women&Guns magazine, December, 1996. Copyright (c) 1996 Lyn Bates