Saturday, January 10, 2015

A Gun, in a Purse, by a Baby

Sometimes I don’t know what to say. I want to ignore events outside the shack, outside my neighborhood, outside my community -but I can‘t. They intrude on my thoughts, change the way I feel, nag my emotions. A mix of sadness and anger fills me up and makes me tired. Imagining the grief experienced by others wears me out.

I hesitate to write about guns and the violence caused by them because we are so polarized on the topic as Americans, but I was fascinated by the reaction to the story of the two year old in Idaho who shot and killed his mother in an Idaho Wal-Mart with her own handgun. I can’t stop myself from imagining the scene. Perhaps the mother saw the horrible sight of her baby boy, her only child, with her gun in his hands. It could have been the last image she saw on this earth. She might have been thankful the baby did not have the gun pointed at himself, or one of his older cousins who were with him and her on the shopping trip.

The shot could have gone harmlessly through insulation and steel roof of the Wal-Mart. It could have buried itself in the concrete floor, or ricocheted off it burying itself into the TV’s, or the laptops, or the other gizmos in the electronics section where the cart was parked. But it didn’t. I imagine him with the gun in his hands, startled by the noise of it going off, and seeing his Mom crumple to the ground, blood coming from her head, maybe spreading onto the floor. And then screams, probably from his cousins, or other shoppers, and the confused look of the baby, a two year old, trying to take in what was happening around him. That could be the most tragic moment in his life. I hope it is. I hope his life is long and he has excellent people surrounding him throughout his life who explain that moment and forgive him and help him forgive himself for as long as it takes. I hope it remains a private part of his personal history and he goes through life as a boy and a man without that moment haunting him through others who know his identity and remind him of it. I pray for him.

And I pray for his cousins who were with him and experienced the trauma, and his father, and everyone in both their families. No one should have to go through this. It’s an awful thing. But the truth is no one has to go through this. What occurred in that Wal-Mart need not happen.

The victim’s father in law went public with remarks to the effect that he was angered that the incident was being used by gun control advocates as an example of why stricter controls on firearms are needed. He also objected to his daughter in law being portrayed as either ignorant or irresponsible.

I never assumed either characteristic of her. Turns out she was a high school valedictorian who went on to get a degree in chemistry. She was an employee of the Idaho National Laboratory near Idaho Falls, Idaho, where she was a nuclear scientist. Gun owners and gun enthusiasts are part of every demographic category of Americans. Veronica Rutledge was licensed to carry a concealed weapon, and both trained and experienced in the use of guns. In Idaho 7% of the state’s citizens have applied for concealed carry permits. But this could have happened to any gun carrying citizen in any state and to their children as well.

The grandfather went on to defend his daughter in law saying that she knew guns, lived around guns all her life, knew how to handle them, enjoyed shooting at ranges and hunting with her husband. As it turns out she often carried her gun next to her in her car and elsewhere and because of that, her husband had bought her a special purse for Christmas that featured a zippered compartment designed to hold a gun so she could more easily carry it with her. The 9 mm pistol was in that zippered compartment in her purse next to the baby when he found it.

I am personally not a gun owner and while I am against the widespread ownership and use of guns not radically so. Like her I also lived and grew up around guns. On the farm we had an unlocked gun cabinet upstairs, made by one of my brothers as a high school wood shop project I think, and stained a deep red. In it were .12 gauge shotguns, various twenty two rifles, and a .410 gauge shotgun for kids starting out. Dad kept the shells in a cabinet downstairs, also unlocked. We hunted pheasants and rabbits on the farm, in season, and occasionally but rarely found a use for guns to kill some varmint on the farm. A skunk in henhouse, stray dogs after the sheep. We were fairly blasé about the guns. They were more like tools.

Guns had a use which was to kill animals. We weren’t denied access to the guns as kids. Dad taught us how to clean them after they were used. He gave us the general guidelines. Don’t point them at anything you don’t want to kill. Never load them in the house. We didn’t put shells in them till we were out in the field ready to hunt. In fact, I hunted from time to time with a guy who came out from town with hunting dogs. He carried a double barreled shotgun and kept it broken open, taking shells out of his pocket, sliding them in the chambers, and cocking the gun only when his dog was on point. Guns could be and were handled very safely.

Each gun on the farm had a different kind of safety mechanism which Dad taught us how to use. The safety prevented the gun from being discharged accidentally. If the gun was loaded the safety was always to be on, taken off only immediately before firing, and switched back on after shooting stopped. It was all pretty simple and straightforward. I never was part of a hunting accident, and only heard of a few. And so as crazy as it seems, I thought guns were pretty safe things.

As for handguns, until my brother brought a fancy revolver home from his stint in the army, along with a nice hand tooled leather holster, we neither had one nor saw the point of one. If we were going to shoot something we used a long gun, which was more accurate anyway. As tools go, they seemed useless, effective only at close range. We all knew handguns were for killing people.
I don’t own a gun now because I have lost the desire to shoot anything. I shot my share of pheasants, rabbits, and some, not many, quail because they’re hard to hit. I stopped hunting in my twenties. Just lost interest I guess. We always ate what we shot, learned how to clean game. Cleaning rabbits is deceptively easy by the way. Their skin and fur peels off them like a glove turned inside out. I shot and killed my first pheasant while hunting with my Dad. We were walking a fence row by our farm’s western most field. Dad carried the old Remington 97 .12 gauge (with a hammer) and I carried the little bolt action .410. A pheasant flew up very close to me and my Dad yelled “Hen!” which is was what one yells to indicate it was a protected bird and could not be shot at according to Illinois Hunting regulations.

It’s an adrenaline rush when game birds flush in the field. They make a bunch of noise. The whole thing can scare the hell out of you. It is amazing really that in the span of a few seconds amidst all that commotion hunters can coolly aim, take the safety off, squeeze the trigger, sometimes leading the bird (shooting ahead of it, especially when it is passing laterally in front of you) so it flies into a pattern of buckshot, and knock birds out of the air. It’s truly sporting. There are lots of instances when the bird wins and lives, flying away unharmed. On that particular day either I didn’t hear my Dad or wasn’t thinking. I found the barrel of my gun pointed right at the bird flying straight away from me. I clicked the safety off and simply pulled the trigger. The poor pheasant dropped out of the sky like a stone. Dad walked while I ran over to it lying still there between rows of cornstalks. The pheasant’s brown head lolled to one side when I picked it up. Hen pheasants lack the brilliant colored feathers of the cock pheasant and the white ring around the neck. She looked so dead. Dad came up beside me.

“You shot a hen David.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You got excited didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Well it’s against the rules. But we’re going to take her home and eat her. No sense us taking her life for nothing.”

He stuffed the bird into a big pocket built into the back of his stiff brown canvas jacket, a jacket we only wore when for hunting. He turned around and asked me if tail feathers were visible, hanging outside the coat. I don’t think he wanted to be seen, as remote as that possibility might have been, possessing a freshly killed hen pheasant. When we got back to the house we cleaned the bird in the basement, the way Mom and I cleaned chickens. Mom cooked her up for dinner that Sunday. I chewed on that pheasant wishing I could have been happier about the whole thing.

I didn’t get this story done on Friday, opting instead to stay in a warm house rather than coming back to a cold shack after supper. This morning as I was in the shack building a fire in the stove three deer walked up out of the ravine and past the shack, into Bill and Helen’s yard. The largest of the three, a doe, stopped and looked at me through the glass patio door. She swished her tail and sniffed. Maybe she smelled the wood smoke. It was only a moment. Then they went on, walking slowly and serenely through the half light and the cold, quietly. I am sure I couldn’t shoot one of those pretty deer.

Like other Western states, gun rights are a big issue in Idaho. State lawmakers passed legislation earlier this year allowing concealed weapons on the state's public college and university campuses. Despite facing opposition from all eight of the state's university college presidents, lawmakers sided with gun-rights advocates who said the law would better uphold the Second Amendment.
I’m not writing this to suggest blame go to gun advocates for this little boy’s death, or the National Rifle Association, or especially that bright young mother. That family will suffer enough without others pointing out fault and blame. Blame is always after the fact and in itself accomplishes little.

I’m writing this because of something the father in law said in defense of his daughter in law, whom he clearly loved. The interview he gave was valuable and provided more information than any other piece I read on the incident. He said that Veronica Rutledge, 29, did not carry a gun out of fear. That would mean she went in to Wal-Mart with a loaded pistol, instead of leaving it in the car, for some other reason than because she was afraid.

She wasn’t afraid? I thought the motivation for carrying a gun was to defend yourself or those around you. I imagined that she and others who carry guns into stores and public places envisioned a scenario whereby she would direct the kids to get behind her on the floor while she pulled her pistol from its compartment in her purse, took an upright stance, both hands holding the gun, legs spread, like she had done on the range so many times, and plugged a bad guy barreling out of men’s clothing, down her aisle, brandishing an ugly weapon, say an assault rifle with a big banana clip, clearly intent on doing her and her family harm.

She didn’t carry a loaded concealed weapon out of fear? If not that fear or something like it, why in the world would you carry a loaded gun into a store? If it wasn’t because you believed you may desperately need it quickly why would a loving mother leave a gun with a live round loaded into its chamber in a purse beside her two year old baby boy? What in God’s name could possibly be the reason?

I pride myself on having a good imagination. I can’t imagine why she did this or why I would do this. I can’t imagine why anyone would do this. And yet if we are to believe the media in Idaho and places like it millions of Americans do the same thing. I’m not playing dumb. This is not rhetorical ignorance. I don’t get it. I need help here.

When I’m stumped for logic I search my own life and its circumstances for clues. I have lived totally without guns since I left the farm at age eighteen. In 45 years I’ve wanted a gun exactly twice, both times to kill animals in or around my house. That’s two other stories.

This may be caused by a Pollyanna attitude towards my fellow man. Excuse me for that, but I don’t want to shoot and kill anyone. Hell, I don’t even want to hit anyone. And although it happens from time to time, more than I’d like, I prefer not to speak unkind words that make others feel bad. Call me naïve or deluded, but the stores I frequent: Kroger, Handy Foods, Farm and Fleet, Home Hardware, Herman’s Liquors, and Walgreens (in order of frequency, except maybe Herman’s) do not seem dangerous to me. Not in the least. I believe the odds of someone shooting and killing me, there or anywhere, are infinitely small. I would take no comfort in having a loaded gun near me. Just the opposite. I don’t want guns around me, especially hand guns.

Why are so many Americans carrying concealed weapons? I don’t know. I assume its fear. Can there be another reason? But whatever drives this trend it appears we have to deal with that reality. Here’s an idea, instead of the NRA spending millions lobbying Congress to preserve our right to own assault rifles with lots of rounds of ammunition loaded into them, why not take their extensive membership base and financial resources and launch a world class, research based, practical gun safety initiative that produces real results? Commercials on TV. Ads all over on the internet. Given the second amendment and how our courts continue to interpret it, I’d guess guns will be plentiful in American life for a long time. How about a drive to reduce gun violence akin to the highway safety campaign that has been so effective? How about applying new technology to the problem? My smart phone now unlocks when I put my right thumb on a little round pad at the bottom. It reads my thumbprint. Why not put one of those on the handle of a gun so it can only fire when the registered owner is holding it?

I used to dig in my Mom’s purse all the time because she kept candy in there. Her purse was not off limits to me. What if my Mom had a gun her purse? No family should have to go through the kind of personal hell that surely was created as a result of the accident in Idaho. We can do better. It starts by figuring out what we’re doing. And I can’t for the life of me figure that out. I could use some help here.


  1. In the expansion of the west, people died from drowning and accidental shootings. We do not learn from history. There is so little need to shoot our food now. The accidental shootings should not happen. As for the shootings that are not accidental, there have always been mean people. It seems there has been no reduction in their numbers.

  2. well said....My thoughts exactly! What have we become--in great part because of the NRA promoting everyone needing a gun. The thought of a teacher having a gun in class scares me. The idea of me needing a gun for protection is ridiculous. I have lived 70+ years and NEVER felt the need to protect myself with a gun. If I thought I was going to a place where I needed that kind of protection, I shouldn't be going there.