I have a friend who's priority as a single mother is to protect her three children, which she does by keeping them indoors a lot. I like to take them out and teach them how to safely explore the outdoors. We go down to the creek and climb around. I teach them how to see the dangers and negotiate them safely. I teach them to look out for each other. I try to teach them the importance of loving each other.
This last is not easy, especially for Nicole, thirteen, who has mercilessly tortured her eleven year old brother Matt since before I ever met them. She is a wonderful girl, as smart and fun and good hearted as you will ever meet, except for this streak of perversity. She used to have a very loving relationship with Bruce, Matt's twin brother, but Bruce had to side against her as her torturing of Matt got worse. That strengthened Matt, who now hurts Nicole as much as she hurts him, but she still won't stop.
My solution? Teach all three of them about guns and gun safety and take them shooting. Guns are the perfect tool for teaching kids about love. First, guns teach them the responsibility to be vigilant about each other's safety. Whenever a gun is out, the kids have to follow the rules of safe gun handling: 1. They have to always treat every gun as if it is loaded. 2. They have to be aware of the muzzle of any gun they are handling and always keep it pointed in a safe direction. 3. They have to know their target and what is downrange of it, and be sure that everything in the direction they are shooting is something they are willing to destroy. 4. They have to keep their finger off the trigger until they are pointing the gun down range and are ready to fire.
I ask them as we are driving: "If you hear a noise at night, can you assume it is a burglar and shoot?" "No," they answer, disdainful at such a stupid idea. "That's right," I say. "That violates the rule about positively identifying your target." They are getting pretty good. "What do you do if we are target shooting," I ask, "and when you pull the trigger, nothing happens?" "Don't look down the barrel to see what is the matter!" they cry out. They like that one. "That's right," I say. "Keep the gun pointed down range and wait for me to come get it. Don't swing it around towards me!"
Just teaching them to be constantly vigilant about safety is teaching them about love. The magnitude of the potential harms involved brings complete clarity to their understanding that they don't want anyone to get hurt. Nicole tries to avoid this lesson. "Don't put a gun in my hands," she says, "I'm a psychopath!" She realizes that she has a perverse streak, but I want her to come to grips with that perverse streak and understand that it only exists because she indulges it, which she is perfectly capable of not doing, and certainly will not do when the consequences are high. "You're no psychopath," I admonish her.
She acts like one because the stakes seem so trivial. She tortures her brother as a way to pass the time. Yet I see their childhoods passing in hurt and anger and misery instead of the fun they should be having together. If only I could teach them to think like adults and love what there is to love about each other. The stakes are high, and I reach them by teaching them about high stakes.
I break open a shotgun to verify that it is empty and hand it that way to Nicole's torture victim Mr. Matt. He asks, with the wry humor that is his trademark: "Is this to protect our valuables?" "What is more valuable than your valuables?" I ask him back. "More valuable than valuables?" he crinkles his brow, feigning bemusement. "Your life," I tell him. "Ohhh. My life..."
"The only reason you can ever shoot someone" I teach them, "is if you have to to defend yourself or someone else from grevious physical injury. You can never shoot someone out of anger." It is a subtle point that requires elaboration. "That does not mean you can't be angry," I continue, "because if someone forces you to defend yourself or each other, you will likely feel anger at him for trying to hurt you, but anger must not be your reason for hurting back. The reason has to be to stop the attacker from doing injury. That is the law. Shoot someone out of anger instead of to prevent them from doing injury and you'll spend your life in jail."
This distinction applies perfectly to the escalation that goes on between the kids. Matt gets so mad at Nicole for hurting him that he no longer is thinking about defending himself but is just trying to hurt her as much as he can and beat her down by shouting "shut up" every time she starts to open her mouth. Nicole too wants revenge in spades for the injuries inflicted on her, and Matt's volatility makes him a puppet in her hands. The concept of self-defense offers them a way to draw the line on their agressiveness and pull back from war. It is not the feelings inside them that define self-defense, but the external circumstances they face. What goes on inside their own heads is their own responsibility.
This understanding is not beyond them. Driving with their mother -- the precious cargo in the back seat -- I offer an example: "When people use guns criminally, when they commit murder, it is usually because they are blaming their feelings on someone else." I describe a jealous man who has decided to fix his interest on a woman who does not want him, and when he sees her with another man, blames them for the anger and pain he feels. "But he is the one who chose to fix his interest on her" I explain. "He is wrong to blame her for what he chooses to fix his thoughts on, and wrong if he harms others over feelings that he has chosen to indulge."
That is a little abstract for them at their age, so I use an example close to home. "When Nicole finds Matt annoying to look at, and tortures him for it, who is responsible for her feelings of annoyance, herself, or Matt?" "Herself!" Matt crows triumphantly. "That's right," I say, "she is choosing to focus on what annoys her. So when she acts on her annoyance, by torturing, is she acting in self-defense, or is she in the wrong?" "She's wrong!" Matt and brother Bruce both agree.
But I have an offering for Nicole too. "What about when Matt fights back," I ask, "by constantly looking for any hint of meanness in whatever Nicole says, so that he can slam her for it? Who is responsible for Matt only seeing meanness in Nicole, if that is all he ever looks for?" Nicole understands that I am describing her unloved condition. As she stares unhappily out the window I think she is admitting to herself that I might not be all wrong. It is a beginning.
The boys from Jonesboro Arkansas needed someone to teach them these lessons about right and wrong, but the public culture that used to pass on a code of honor about the use of arms has been eradicated by the anti-gun forces that dominate our nation's illiberal media elite. Never mind deeper understandings about the concept of self-defense, the anti-gunners are even trying to keep the NRA from getting its 14 word "stop, don't touch, leave, tell an adult" message to young children.
Nicole's natural inclination is to shy away from guns. Not the boys. They jump at a chance to learn about guns or touch a gun. That is why learning about basic gun safety is so critical. Half of all households own guns. Many kids will at some point find a gun. Left untutored, the first thing Bruce would do with any gun he found is point it at Matt to try to make him wet his pants. He may protect his brother from his sister but that does not mean he is going to pass up a chance to humiliate him himself.
"If you see a gun, it is loaded," I instruct the trio. "If you point it at someone, they are dead." Silence. "So Bruce, if you find a gun, are you going to point it at Matt?" "No." Good, I scared him out of joking about that at least. "... Maybe at Nicole." D'oh! The boys laugh while I see Nicole frowning out the window again. Poor girl.
"Let's try again," I say. "If you find a gun, what is the rule?" "STOP!" the boys sound the alarm, "DON'T TOUCH IT!" "And..." I prod them. "call everyone to leave." "And..." "Tell an adult." Excellent.
When the subject is real responsibility, the message can't help but sink in. The things I tell them about needing to love each other start to make sense. If they fail to love each other -- if they aren't thinking about protecting each other and keeping each other safe -- they could do something they really regret. Loving each other becomes one of the requirements of gun safety, and failing to love each other becomes a violation, like letting a muzzle point in an unsafe direction.
And what a fine sight there was at dinner that night. Nicole was letting the boys play little contests with her. Whenever one of them beat her she took pleasure in declaring herself the loser or him the winner. Her generosity was making her smile and laugh. "Holy cow," I realized, "she is actually loving her brothers." It's enough to make a grown man cry.
(Alec Rawls is running for sheriff of Santa Clara County.)
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