A couple of months ago, as we were getting rid of ancient family books that had started to smell too bad to keep, a handwritten note fell out of a musty volume of “John Brown’s Body,” Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem.
“Dear Daddy,” it began. “I wish you a (the word happy is crossed out) very happy fathers day. And when dove season comes I know I will like the gun that you have promised me. And even though I don’t hit anything I will still be happy. And I almost forgot that you are you the best father existing in the world.”
In the aftermath of Paris and San Bernardino, and the numbing debate that inevitably follows mass shootings, that short letter, evidently written when I was 10 or 11, comes back to haunt.
I grew up in a gun-loving family. Shotguns were mixed in with umbrellas in the back of the downstairs closet. (Boxes of shells, however, were stored out in the garage.)
So far as I can remember, my father never once mentioned the Second Amendment.
But he did make sure I took an NRA gun-safety class before turning me loose in the field with a loaded .410. He would erupt if I ever swung a firearm, loaded or not, in the direction of another person. He’d even wince if I pointed a toy gun at someone.
When I was at Coronado High School, an older friend shot himself in the head by absurd accident. The whole Island mourned the death of a popular native son. About that time, I said my personal farewell to arms.
Stephen Bartram, an Encinitas resident, grew up an Army brat, son of a World War II veteran. Gun ranges were as integral to Bartram’s youth as baseball fields. At his Hawthorne high school, a shooting range was beneath the auditorium.
“Can you imagine that today?” the Vietnam vet smiles over coffee.
A helicopter pilot with 20 years in the Marines, Bartram remembers the “controlled environment” at military firing ranges, the ID checks, the unflinching emphasis on safety.
Warriors with a responsibility, not just a right, to bear arms were pretty well regulated.
If a similar degree of oversight was applied to the nation at large, Bartram believes, his nephew might still be alive today.
The details are not crystal-clear, but the moral takeaway, at least to this retired Rancho Buena Vista High School teacher, is.
About 10 years ago, the 15-year-old boy was alone at his grandfather’s house in Florida. He got hold of a handgun and shot and killed himself. It’s unclear if this was a case of suicide (two-thirds of the nation’s 30,000-plus annual gun deaths are) or accidental. But either way, the easy access to a gun was integral to the family tragedy.
In 1993, a controversial study by the Centers for Disease Control, cited in a recent New Yorker article, concluded that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide” in that home.
It’s the desire to reduce that risk that motivated Bartram to assume a leadership position in the San Diego chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Bartram, husband of Encinitas Councilwoman Lisa Shaffer, knows the depth of the Grand Canyon in the American psyche.
“I don’t want your guns!” Bartram insists. “I don’t want your guns! I don’t want your guns!”
What he does want is a national recognition that gun deaths can be reduced by means of universal background checks and common-sense safety regulations. In other words, pay the same attention to gun violence as highway violence. If guns pose a safety risk, reduce the risk. Install the equivalent of seat belts, air bags, smart technology.
Here, it seems, is the sane middle ground where absolutists on both sides need to be lured. Once we concede that some lives can be saved from a scourge, research into gun violence, which since 1993 has been blocked in Congress, might be resumed. We actually might learn something outside the silos.
As it is, politicians who stray from partisan hymn books are tarred and feathered by their own parties. President Obama’s widely derided efforts to control guns, from bully-pulpit pleading to tears to executive orders, are most effective in driving up firearm sales.
Ultimately, it may take a Republican president – Trump? Cruz? — to move the country toward national reform.
Of course, we will never bid farewell to arms. We will never be Japan or even England.
But surely we can learn to point our 300 million (and counting) guns in safer directions.
©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
Visit The San Diego Union-Tribune at www.sandiegouniontribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.