Unwinding the “If”


Every time an event like the tragic massacre in Aurora occurs, our country embarks upon the circular arguments that surround gun control.  We’ve heard it all before…

From advocates for more gun regulation, we hear:  It’s the gun industry’s fault. If the shooter had not had access to an assault rifle, there would have been fewer victims.

From advocates for fewer regulations:  It’s the theater’s fault for not allowing concealed weapons.  If someone had only been packing, the gunman could have been stopped.

If if if… So many if’s.  So much finger-pointing.  So much wishing that we could go back to the moments before the event and do one small thing that might have prevented this horrible tragedy.  Our leaders seem stuck in an in-between land where they can’t seem to move beyond that one-syllable, two-letter word, if.   In this particular argument, that tiniest of words has trapped people who should be taking action.  Around and around we go.  Circling the mighty if.  But, what actions should be taken?  What is the truth? 

 Well, here’s one startling truth:  According to GunPolicy.org, in the year 2005 in the United States, there were almost twenty-eight thousand gun-related deaths.  Broken down, there were ten thousand homicides by gun, seventeen thousand suicide deaths by gun, and almost eight hundred accidental deaths involving a gun. 

You heard me, twenty-eight thousand!  Imagine for a moment if there were twenty-eight thousand deaths by any other cause, what our response would be.  We become alarmed when two or three people contract avian flu.  We stop importing cattle when five or ten people show signs of mad cow disease.  We embargo spinach and strawberries at the slightest sign of salmonella or E-bola. 

And yet, we’re willing to allow almost thirty thousand people a year to die on the receiving end of a gun.  We’re a country in thrall to guns.  But we’re even more in thrall to the old chestnut:  Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

How can anyone deny this?  Such a plain and simple truth, yes?  The problem is not with guns.  Rather, it’s with the people who use them.  Blame must be placed on the user, not on the weapon.  It seems so logical.

But what is there to be done about it?  What is our responsibility as writers for children?  What do we owe our young audience?  It’s an enigma because a message-driven story too often comes across as simply political propaganda.  It’s not our job, or at least I don’t think it is, to preach to our readers. 

However, I do think that it’s our job to challenge anything that is held as a “truth.”  Gary Paulsen did this remarkably well with his book, The Rifle.  In his brief novel, Paulsen follows the 200-year history of a rifle.  In it, a gunsmith makes a perfect gun, a flintlock, one that is considered “sweet” because of its accuracy.  He knows he’ll never make another like it, but he is forced to sell it for financial reasons.  It goes to a patriot who uses it to full effect in the Revolutionary war.  It’s left to a relative who stashes it away in an attic, forgotten for many years.  Then it’s restored and placed, like the piece of art that it is, on the wall above a mantel.  While it’s resting there, a spark from a candle heats up some unspent black powder, and a musket ball that has been resting in the barrel for years and years is released and fired through the window where it tragically hits a young neighbor who was adjusting the lights on an outdoor Christmas tree. 

It was a case of a gun killing someone without a person pulling the trigger.  It defied the adage. 

I remember being startled by the book when I read it, and I admire Gary Paulsen for the guts it must have taken to write it.  A quick look at the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads will show that most readers fall into predictable responses.  They either hate it for its attack on guns, or they love it for its attack on guns. 

The thing is, Paulsen doesn’t attack guns at all.  He treats the gunsmith with respect, and even goes into great detail about the care and craftsmanship that went into the making of the rifle.  He clearly admires the patriot and the risks he took in fighting for independence.  He bears no grudge against the person who hung the gun on the wall.  Paulsen himself is an avid outdoorsman.  I’ll bet he owns a gun or two.

There’s no attack here on guns.

What he’s attacking is that tightly held belief, guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  What he’s showing is that a gun is made to kill.  It can be a thing of beauty.  It can be a useful tool.  It can be a treasure.  But from its inception, its whole purpose is to end a life.  That’s what Paulsen’s slim novel shows us.  Agree or disagree, he’s done his job.

My challenge to all of us who are writing for children, as well as adults who were once children, is to examine the things that are held as true and hold them up to the light.  Let’s see what is really there.  Let’s see if the if can be unwound. 


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