We've been hearing from a lot of people on the left who hate guns. Good for them. They're saner than I am. I like guns. I always have. Allow me to explain.
I was a good student as a kid - bookish, math-and-arts oriented, and shy. In my neighborhood, that was a good way to make sure you would be the subject of considerable violence. Something changed when I was 14 or so. I began to become angry - very angry - at the slightest provocation. I started getting into fights, and I was suspended from my school on a a regular basis. I had developed that condition known as an Aversion to Authority. And, unbeknownst to my liberal parents, I had also developed a fascination for guns.
That was in 1967, a period that is ironically remembered now as the Summer of Love.
I also started playing music - but not the psychedelic rock popular at the time. I started playing country music (and, later, other kinds.)
With a good friend of mine (we'll call him Frank, though that wasn't his name), I started firing guns on weekends. His dad's guns, mostly, although he had some of his own. I nearly broke my wrist test-firing a shotgun we sawed off one weekend. (In retrospect, I was lucky not to have blown my hand off.)
I was never a great shot, although I might have become one with practice. The people who taught me how to use guns always pointed out that, while I didn't always hit the target, my bullet holes were always clustered together. "You've got good control," they'd say. "Just spend more time with the weapon and you'll do fine."
I liked shooting guns. I liked examining them, too, for the craftsmanship and the heft. You could say I appeciated guns.
I liked what I thought they stood for, too: Freedom. Independence. The Frontier Spirit.
I never understood how drinking too many beers and shooting out streetlights reflected the Frontier Spirit, exactly, but I liked doing it.
Then I went away to college and didn't think about guns much anymore. And I lost some more of my enthusiasm for them when I was 26 or so. That's when my good friend from high school, Paul Keating, was shot dead by two twelve-year-olds with handguns on a New York City street. He was trying to prevent them from robbing a college kid ... of his roller skates.
They called it "The Good Samaritan Murder." (They've called quite a few killings "The Good Samaritan Murder" over the years, as it turns out.) As Paul lay dying in the street, the robbery victim ran to an all-night deli for help. The owner locked the door and wouldn't let him use the phone. He didn't want to get involved. Paul was a fine and gentle man, a photographer for TIME Magazine with a great life ahead of him.
The Mayor of New York gave Paul a medal - posthumously, of course. He said: "Nobody was watching that night. Nobody made him step up in the time of crisis. He did it because that's the kind of person he was."
He didn't explain why there had to be a crisis that night.
Life moved on. Years later I found myself working by day as a health policy consultant, traveling the world for clients like the U. S. Department of State and the World Bank. By night I would make the rounds of DC-area bars, playing for bikers and other rough crowds with my country band. It was an odd sort of double life, but the aura of latent violence in those bars never bothered me. In fact, I felt at home in it.
I've seen strangers gunned down on television my whole life, of course: the Kennedys. Dr. King. Malcolm X. Those shootings didn't turn me away from guns, though. Maybe on some level they encouraged the fascination, made me feel safer in the presence of firearms.
I suppose I should mention the conflation of guns and sex, which may be a uniquely American invention. I was never taken in by that combination, but ... I am a huge ZZ Top fan. I'll admit it: "Gun Love" still sounds damned good to me - especially on a warm summer day when all the windows are open, I'm driving down the highway, and the stereo's on full blast.
Is it insensitive to contemplate my attraction to a song that rhymes "pistolero" with "Robert de Niro" in an erotic context, the day after the worst gun crime in American history? I hope not. I'm just trying to process everything, now that it's been so many years since I held a firearm in my hands. That's all.
I've fired guns. I've sung songs about guns. I've played those songs for gun-carrying crowds. My screenwriter brother John Eskow wrote this line about guns, and it was spoken by American gun icon Clint Eastwood: "I have a very strict gun control policy: if there's a gun around, I want to be in control of it."
Why does our country have the highest rate of gun-related deaths in any of the world's 36 wealthiest nations? Is it our lack of meaningful gun control laws? Probably, at least in part, no matter what some commentators are saying.
In 2001 3,000 Americans died and we changed our way of life. Nearly ten times that amount died from gun violence that same year, and we didn't do a damned thing.
We won't put serious controls on handguns - but you can't carry more than three ounces of liquid or gel on an airplane.
I'm sure it has as much to do with our gun-loving culture as anything else. I's the culture that formed me. I'm not proud of that fact, but I'm not ashamed of it either. It's what you do with who you are that counts. I'm a gentle person again, and I'm proud of it.
I don't know if movies or video games encourage violence. I've never seen a convincing study that says they do. I don't know if any government initiatives could have prevented this tragedy in Virginia - but sound gun control could prevent some others.
As for the cultural issues - well, there's some reason why there's so much gun-related killing going on, and I'd like to see us make more of an effort to understand it.
I've put my youthful issues behind me - although I'm sticking with ZZ Top come hell or high water. But I'm the same person I was then. Guys with my background need to talk more about the need for a sane gun policy. I respect people who have always hated guns. As I said, they're saner. But I'm not sure they'll ever help win the debate over gun laws and the culture of violence.
To be honest, I don't know if the debate can be won. But I know that it's worth a try.
Would I fire a gun again? Sure. I imagine I will someday. But I hope the laws change, and that I'll have a lot of paperwork to fill out if I ever buy one again. And I hate paperwork. I'm an American. I hate having guys in suits in a distant city tell me what to do. I hate screwing around with red tape. But, as the expression goes, it won't kill me.
It's a shame that the 30,000 Americans killed by firearms each year can't say the same.
Follow Richard (RJ) Eskow on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjeskow