In my family, it’s not a real holiday if someone doesn’t end up shooting something. This Thanksgiving, my grandfather shot an arrow through his foot. Apparently, he was trying to take the arrow out of his crossbow and something went awry, sending the arrow not only through his foot, but also into the floor.
He’s diabetic, so he didn’t feel the arrow go through his foot. He didn’t even realize it had gone through his foot, at first, until he saw the circle of blood creeping out from under his foot.
My grandmother tells me that he just reached down and pulled it right back out, and now there’s a hole in the floor to prove the story.
When I heard about it, I cracked up — before his gastric bypass surgery, my grandfather used to be 400 pounds. He’s a rugged butcher, with a big, thick, black mustache, who says things like “she was sweating like a whore in church,” and “your eyes look like two pissholes in the snow.” He calls my grandmother The Old Battle Ax and he used to drive around with a shotgun shooting cats in people’s yards (even if they were pets). He wears big, padded camo jackets and has his wallet chained to his belt. He walks with a stomp. He is aggressive and prideful and toxically masculine.
To hear that he shot an arrow through his foot made me laugh, not because I’m particularly sadistic, but because it felt kind of like that feeling you get when you see a speeding asshole who rode your tail for ten minutes get a ticket up the road. It felt like the crossbow had foiled him. It felt like it had proved him wrong, in some way. Something that gave him power and that he gets off on using ended up backfiring (pun intended), and he had to eat up his pride when we all asked why he had a limp on Thanksgiving. Then, he had to revisit the time that he accidentally shot his truck, the time that he shot his garage, the time his gun jammed and he lost the opportunity to shoot the 15-point buck.
Of course, we all laughed about it.
Several years ago, also around Thanksgiving, one of my uncles blew part of his hand off with a gun. I don’t know if it was a pistol or a shotgun; I just know it was the byproduct of Busch Lite and a long day of hunting. Before, my uncle had big hands. The kind you wanted to scoop out candy for you at Halloween, but also the kind you wouldn’t want to meet in any other context. His hands were attached to long, gangly arms that are disproportionately thin compared to his beer belly, his big, bald head, and his thick thighs.
Now, his left hand is permanently a gun — his index and middle fingers partially fused together, his ring finger curled down like a trigger. If he holds it up to point at you, the only thing that sets it apart from a real gun is skin. His hands, like my grandfathers, are equally as dangerous as bullets. His laugh booms, but isn’t contagious. It sounds like gunshots.
He still scoops Halloween candy just fine.
Both of these men have a lot of things in common, and I’ve been hesitant to write about them because they’re family. But I think it’s important to talk about them in the context of the gun control debates, because I think they illustrate the complexities in how we approach gun violence, and maybe the hopelessness, too.
The personalities of my grandfather and uncle are as hulking and aggressive as their physical presence. Both are ruthless — to animals, to women, to their children. In his younger days, when my grandfather drank, he’d put a shotgun to my grandmother’s head — with disturbing frequency — and threaten to kill her because he thought she was having an affair. His son, who wasn’t even a teenager yet, at the time, had to consistently wrestle the gun from his hands, and often was beaten in the process. My grandfather beat his wife. He beat both of his children, to the point of broken bones. He beat his dogs and shot them when they weren’t useful to him anymore, or when they made him angry.
Now that he’s older, he’s stopped beating people, but his touch still feels a little too rough, even to me, someone who hasn’t been beaten by him. He still kills his own dogs and makes his own bullets. He still has a case of guns. He even has a lineup of guns with his crossbow in front of his kitchen window, in the instance that a deer or a stray cat shows up.
My uncle is similar — he has a stockpile of guns, he beat his children, he likes to kill animals. I don’t know if he beat/s his wife, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I sometimes wonder what exactly his wife is to him, if not just a sex object — both he and my grandfather talk about women as if they’re only walking around to be pulled into their laps and f*cked.
One thing I do know: Neither of these men should have guns. Neither of them should have crossbows, or hunting knives, or even their bare hands. Neither of them have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and neither of them have ever spent time in jail (which is quite surprising to me, actually). They’re certainly not felons, and despite their violent nature, they generally are good at producing belly laughs in public. They’re like the big, lovable teddy bear trope, except if the bear was wounded and any situation had the potential to be salt.
In the context of gun control and mass shootings, I’ve heard the angry white men theory, the domestic abuser theory, and other theories like them, and that’s not what I’m here to debate. I generally think that there are too many contributors to gun violence to nail down a solution, which is why we keep spinning our wheels.
What I want to focus on here is the idea that men like my grandfather and my uncle will never be prevented from owning guns (no matter what the legislation), nor will they be prevented from committing violence (with or without a gun). If they want to commit a shooting, whether a single, mass, or suicidal one, there is literally nothing stopping them.
There are several reasons for this. They live in rural Wisconsin, where weapons may as well be limbs. They have (almost disgustingly) easy access to guns. They regularly attend gun shows and would probably live at Gander Mountain if given the option. It’s a tradition in our families to buy guns for and pass guns down to others. (In fact, one of my first gifts from my grandfather was a gun. I was about five years old). It’s easy to get guns anywhere in Wisconsin. I even went to a garage sale once where guns and crossbows were being sold on card tables. In other words, there are plenty of ways, both legal and illegal, to obtain guns around here, and there’s no way to regulate this, at least easily.
The guns (and the crossbows, and the hunting knives, and their hands), are, of course, things that make it easy for them to commit violence. But the biggest contributors?
The minimization of violence they’ve already committed.
The continued acceptance (and even encouragement) of their violent tendencies and behavior.
Every child of these men was abused, and multiple people in the family knew, and even encouraged it, because they were either scared of the abusers, thought that adults have the right to discipline their children, or that it wasn’t their business. Now, the children have grown up, and are all abusers themselves (some more physical than others). I’ve personally heard several of the grown children make threats about firearms, from If I see that cat again, I’m going to shoot that son of a bitch to I had to give my guns away so that I wouldn’t turn them on myself…or someone else.
This cycle of abuse continues to happen, and combine it with firearms and other weapons and you have, well, “isolated” shootings and sometimes, yes, mass shootings.
Yet, how do we respond when my grandfather boasts of wringing a cat’s neck?
Silence. Awkward laughs.
We change the subject.
My grandfather and my uncle might seem like extreme examples, the exception to the norm, but they aren’t. This. Happens. Everywhere. And I’m not saying that all children of abusers will grow up to commit violence. I’m not saying that abusers are the ones we need to devote all of our energies too, either.
What I’m saying is that when we witness violence, or know about it, or know people who should never be able to get their hands on guns, we shouldn’t leave it up to our legislators to prevent them from purchasing firearms. We have to start doing some of this work ourselves and refuse to accept violent behavior and excuses for it.
Whenever our country talks about gun control, we talk about it in the context of mass shootings. Indeed, it’s convenient to do so around then, because we can point to a specific villain, because there are children involved, and because there is a lot of publicity in the aftermath of the event. Not to mention, it is easier to enter debates about events from which we are distanced — we generally don’t know the shooter, nor the victims (I’m talking about abstract debates, here, not movements like #MarchForOurLives).
Of course these conversations are important, because it is crucial to prevent mass shootings, but it might also be productive to discuss other, “smaller” instances of gun violence at the same time to help learn how to more effectively prevent all gun violence. We tend to see homicides, suicides, and accidents committed by firearms as isolated incidents while we see mass shootings as a pattern.
The problem? All of it is the norm. Not just mass shootings.
In 2017, the CDC noted that there were 12,979 homicides and some 22,018 suicides committed by firearms, while mass shootings claimed the lives of 590 people in 2017. These numbers show that several thousands of people fall victim to violence from firearms, whether at the hands of others or their own. All of these numbers are significant, but mass shootings take up relatively .02 percent of the total 32,997 deaths. Why aren’t we also talking about other, seemingly isolated, incidents? Is it because we’ve deemed preventing them hopeless? Because they are the norm? Because they don’t seem as bad as mass shootings because they don’t claim as many (immediate) victims?
Could it be because it’s easier to avoid taking initiative that extends beyond Facebook battles, and even voting?
Yes, we should have productive conversations in the aftermath of mass shootings (and any shooting, really), and we should tighten gun restrictions to prevent them from falling into the wrong hands. However, I think there are too many people who already have guns and currently (and will) fly under the radar to continue talking about gun control as the fix for gun violence. I think that we need to work on having conversations about singular instances of gun violence to help inform our approach to curbing it.
I want to be clear, here — I’m not advocating against talking about mass shooting prevention. I’m advocating for placing equal energies into preventing violence involving individuals as we do violence against mass amounts of people. Why? Because the numbers are stark, and both types of violence will inevitably continue to rise if we keep oversimplifying the conversation about mass shootings, gun control, and mental health.
I’m wondering if part of the answer is to start in our own sphere — in fighting toxic masculinity, in reporting abuse (or helping create systems that are more effective and safe in dealing with it), in consistently condemning violence/violent tendencies, in avoiding authoritarian approaches to parenting, in getting our heads out of the sand when violent people are people we know. There’s no easy answer, but these are efforts we can put forth while we work toward reasonable gun regulation.
In our crusade to be right politically, we’ve lost thousands to gun violence, while we could have been more productive in looking at how to address the factors that contribute to violence in our very own families and lives. It’s time to start thinking about what we, as individuals can do, as well as what we can do collectively as a country. We have to start looking at the whole picture, rather than just at the glaring focal point.
Our answers might be lying right behind it.