I’ll never forget the look on the desk sergeant’s face as he gazed down at me from the heights of his dark-paneled police podium. Before him was a neatly dressed, wavy-haired 18-year old cradling something seemingly as long as baseball bats wrapped in a tattered brown army blanket. Not fitting the profile of the regular string of miscreants who normally paraded before him – “hoods” as my high school friends called the few greasy-haired “bad boys” who inhabited our affluent North Jersey suburb – he targeted his puffy eyes at me and asked, “Yes, what can I do for you?”
I cleared my throat and said, “Sir, I’d like to turn these in.” Laying my little bundle on a heavy oak table before me, I slowly pulled the edges of the blanket away to reveal a single-shot, bolt action .22-caliber rifle and a single-barreled, 16-gauge shotgun. For a moment, the sergeant appeared to drop his right hand to his sidearm, but quickly discerning I meant no harm, planted both his elbows on his desk and glared at me asking, “What do you mean ‘turn these in?’” I told him what I would later tell my parents and quizzical friends, that I was sick of the violence and the killing, that for any of us to keep guns in our homes was nonsense, and that the only way to end the killing was for all of us to give up our guns.
This was June, 1968. Senator Robert F. Kennedy had just been gunned down in California. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been slain two months earlier in Memphis. Four years before that, I sat at my George Washington Junior High School desk listening to our principal announce the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That “violence was as American as cherry pie,” a notion reinforced daily with bloody TV and magazine images from Vietnam, the streets of Newark, and the Columbia University campus, had become for me a palpable reality to which I could either succumb, attempt to suppress, or perhaps, in a fit of youthful naïveté, resist.
My relatively benign weapons – the heft of their polished steel and wood across my eager teenage palms, the crack of their retort against my eardrums, and the sting of ignited powder in my nostrils – had once pointed a way to manhood and dominance. But like the progression from the toy Davy Crocket musket, to the six-shooter cap pistol, to the battery-powered rata-tat-tat of the plastic M-14, my “real” guns had only perpetuated the myth of power and control over the world around me. The young boy pointing his stick at an imaginary aggressor and screaming “bang, bang, bang!” is the precursor to the adolescent hunter, jolted at last to adult consciousness by the pellet-riddled pheasant now lying limp on the forest floor. The boy’s cocoon of security is at last shattered, his omnipotence exposed as an illusion, and the choice to commit violence or non-violence the only one that matters.
It’s been a long time since I’ve cried, but I made up for the dry spell this past weekend. As a former resident of Connecticut, where for 25 years I did my bit to bring healthier and saner options to that state’s children, I could not help but steep myself in the misery that is now Newtown’s lost children. I will not patronize that community’s pain by claiming to feel it, but I can sense their loss more acutely having gained a grandson just five days before the elementary school shootings. Little Bradley is safe and secure with his 3-year old sister, Zoe, in the United Kingdom where my daughter chose to marry and live. Though their distance limits my time with them, I take some solace knowing that they have greater protection from the gun-toting mayhem that rules the U.S. and takes cowardly sanctuary behind the fortress of our Second Amendment. While the United Kingdom has its share of profoundly disturbed people, the prevailing wisdom is to protect people from guns rather than protect the gun enthusiasts. The fewer guns in circulation, the less means the tragically deranged will have to snuff out life. The United Kingdom is far from perfect, but at least I know that my grandchildren will not have to attend an elementary school bristling with the characteristics of a minimum security prison that will soon become the norm at U.S. schools.
Becoming a man or a woman these days means making tough choices and often surmounting difficult obstacles. We eventually leave behind the security blankets of our childhood and learn that the best path to safety and happiness is through an open and creative engagement with others. The most society can do is attempt to clear life’s minefield of man-made hazards like poverty, junk food, and yes, guns. And to better achieve that end may I suggest the repeal of the Second Amendment to henceforth be replaced with an amendment that reads: “A safe and healthy people, being necessary to the prosperity of a free state, the right of individuals to keep and bear arms shall be severely restricted.”