The School Shooting That Didn’t Change My Liberal, Pro-Gun Childhood

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Photo: Corbis

Opinion pieces on gun control tend to be written by people who fall into one of two categories: conservative gun nuts who equate restricting weaponry with an all-out assault on the Constitution, and liberals who find guns garish and repulsive and can’t understand why anyone would want one.

But those perspectives aren’t universal. Yesterday, Justin Cronin wrote “Confessions of a Liberal Gun Owner” in the New York Times about how he, a New England liberal transplanted to Texas, came to be a gun collector. When he remembered his NPR-listening daughter self-confidently racking her Glock 9-millimeter after an instructor condescendingly told her women have trouble with it, that sounded familiar to me. Cronin sounds like my dad, a Jewish, New York–born philosophy professor relocated to western Pennsylvania. And I sound like his daughter. I, too, come from a family of liberal gun owners — and, when I was 12 years old, there was a school shooting in my hometown.

On the night of April 24, 1998, just one month after the Jonesboro school shooting and one year before the mass killings at Columbine, a 14-year-old student named Andrew Wurst brought a gun to a junior high dance and shot four people, killing a science teacher named John Gillette. The dance was at a local entertainment place; Wurst killed Gillette on the outdoor patio of a reception hall while I stood nearby at the first hole of its mini-golf course. I watched parents scoop their children up in horror and flee from the scene. I hid in the concession stand with crying junior high students as a few adults convinced Wurst to give up the gun. (I’ve written more about that night here.)

In the weeks and days after our shooting, we sat through school-mandated group therapy sessions, groping for a language to describe what had happened to us. We marveled at the little fishbowl our town had become, wondering if the global news media that had descended on us shared our horror, or were just gross voyeurs. Speculation about what caused the shooter to commit his crime ran rampant. But I don’t remember anyone debating the moral implications of owning guns. If you asked, we probably would have told you that our guns were not potential weapons of mass murder. They were just, you know, our guns — instruments for target or skeet shooting or hunting.

During my more difficult teenage years, a trip to the gun range with my dad was a bonding experience. I loved the deep exhale, the slow squeeze of a trigger, the big bang, and the sense of accomplishment I got from hitting near the bull’s-eye. I took my first target and hung it on the door of my girlhood bedroom. It was still hanging there, across from my princess canopy bed with sheer butterfly curtains, when I left for college. Nothing about this ever seemed strange to me.

As I got older and moved to Washington, D.C., I even got a sort of perverse satisfaction from the looks on the faces of liberal friends — ranging somewhere between surprise and disgust — when I revealed that I grew up shooting guns and still took trips to the range when I went home to visit. This, I was certain, was evidence that I had come from somewhere different than my colleagues in the media. Somewhere real. (Despite my dad’s persistent efforts, he’s never convinced me to bring a gun to Washington with me.)

Maybe most importantly, I enjoyed that my upbringing among guns gave me a sense of confidence, perhaps irrational but deeply felt nonetheless, that knowledge of these dark instruments could provide some security against our most unimaginable fears.

In the last few days I’ve been questioning my parents about their gun ownership. (They have always favored greater gun control, especially on assault rifles.) Our relationship with guns began about 40 years ago, when my dad decided he needed to find a hobby that would help him get along with the largely conservative, blue-collar men in our town. He found that learning about guns fulfilled a boyish curiosity about machinery. He enjoyed the rituals of safety and care. (His guns have always been kept, locked and unloaded, in a gun safe with a hidden key.) He liked going skeet shooting with the guys around town. Soon, his interest became a family interest.

I recently asked him whether he’d be willing to sell his guns as part of one of the buyback programs currently being pitched as a patriotic duty, towards a society with less public massacres. He told me: “I would sell back some of my guns, if I got a reasonable price for them. But that's a problem with everybody's guns — they are generally slightly used, slightly worn, but buyback programs probably can't pay anything near what they cost the buyer. But I'd keep my .22 Ruger target pistol, my backpacker's .22, my Taurus ultra-lite, my ‘assault’ knockoff rifle, and one shotgun.”

Before you conclude that I come from a family of weird, cultural misfits (which is true, but beside the point), know that my parents aren’t the only ones. The voices of liberal gun owners may have been pushed to the margins by a belligerent National Rifle Association, but a national Gallup poll from 2011 puts the number of Democrats who say they live in a home with a gun at 40 percent. Twenty-eight percent of those Democrats say they own guns personally.

Liberal gun owners appear in the social media campaign of “The Truth About Guns,” a blog encouraging gun owners to post photos of themselves in order to humanize them. There's the woman in a salmon-pink blazer who voted for Obama, the socially liberal anti-war veteran of Iraq, the pro-union, pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro–Second Amendment feminist. And they are engaging in debates like my family’s on forums like the Liberal Gun Club. Some of them think their fellow liberals are demonizing gun owners and trying to take their guns away; but they’re also working through the moral implications of different gun-control measures, the ones we hope will prevent the future Andrew Wursts and Adam Lanzas from accessing guns. How could the government more effectively track the mental health of its citizens? How could they do it without invading privacy? What would the threshold be for determining mental instability? Could some sort of point-system be applied?

Last night, I asked my mom whether, in the wake of my school’s shooting, she ever considered that gun ownership could just be wrong. “I don’t consider simply owning guns to be morally wrong," she said. "Some people have them for target shooting or skeet shooting or hunting.”  Indeed, they are our friends, our neighbors, our family — they are us. Still, she told me, “even people with the best of intentions are sometimes prone to error, and I count myself among them, which is why, if your father dies before me, I’m going to personally have them destroyed. I’m going to watch them be melted down.” (If you’re reading this: I’m sorry, Dad.)