Great-grandma’s Gun

My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I'm 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.
My sister and I with Great Grandma St, John. I’m 9, my sis is 4, and Great-grandma is 74 in this picture.

I have often found myself in weird discussions/arguments with people who assume that because I favor many extremely liberal policies, I must be one of those evil anti-gun people. So before I get into this tale, let me begin by saying that I used to be a card-carrying member of the NRA. I have owned guns. I have fired guns. I have almost never fired guns on a gun range, because we didn’t have many in the Rocky Mountain towns where I grew up. I was taught how to shoot a gun by being taken out into the wilderness by my father and grandfather and firing it for a couple of hours at various things we set up as targets. Then after the third of fourth weekend of doing that being told I needed to go shoot a rabbit or two if I wanted to eat that night.

Long before we got to that point there had been many, many gun safety lectures, because there were lots of guns (mostly hunting rifles) in the homes of most of my extended family. I knew how to take apart, clean, and put back together a bolt-action rifle and how to re-load bullet cases (by which I mean, measure out gunpowder, put it into a spent casing, align a new bullet and insert it with a hand operated press, and install a primer cap) years before I was allowed to hold a loaded gun and shoot it.

There were winters when the only reason there was enough food on the table for the whole family was because some of us had gotten a deer or elk during the appropriate season (not to mention rabbits, pheasants, and grouse). I should also mention that I was raised to look down my nose in disdain at people who hunted pheasant and other birds with a shotgun. As my Grandpa said, “If you can’t hit a flying grouse or dove or pheasant with a rifle, you have no business pointing a gun at anything.”

I should also mention, in case it isn’t obvious from the part about learning how to turn spent cartridges back into bullets, missing was considered wasteful. We couldn’t afford to waste a lot of bullets getting the food.

But as the title of this post suggests, today I need to tell you the story of Great-grandma’s Gun…My Great-grandma St. John lived by herself on a farm up on the side of a mountain in western Colorado. Great-grandpa had passed away before I was born, and two of Great-grandma’s sons (my great-uncles) had purchased nearby farms long before that. One of my great-uncles rented most of Great-grandma’s farm, since she couldn’t run a whole farm by herself any more. But she had an enormous garden and an apricot orchard, not to mention the old field she kept saying she was going to plant a second orchard in some day, but for most of my childhood it was the pasture for her last horse (that’s a story for another day).

One night when I was about 11 or 12 years old, our phone started ringing rather late in the night. And when Mom answered, she couldn’t quite understand what was being said. She called Dad over and said, “I think it’s Grandma S.J!”

Dad took the phone and spent some minutes calming Great-grandma down. I should mention that at the time we lived a few hundred miles from her, and she almost never called long distance, so clearly something was wrong. Eventually Dad said, “Okay, Grandma, I’ll try to get over there in the next day or two and take care of the gun.”

When Great-grandpa died, Great-grandma had given his hunting rifles and related equipment to her various grandsons (my dad and his cousins). She had kept only one gun, a single barrel shotgun. A few years earlier when she realized how old her shotgun shells were, Dad had made her new ones, and we disposed of the older possibly unreliable shells in a manner that would curl some people’s toes.

After getting off the phone, Dad said that Great-grandma had had a scare, had grabbed the gun, but had not shot it. She just realized that she shouldn’t keep one in the house any more, and didn’t want to explain why. We got the full story a bit later.

Great-grandma had been reading by her woodstove (and she figured she had probably dozed off) when she heard strange noises outside and was convinced someone was prowling around the house. She grabbed the shotgun from the closet and took a couple of shells from the lockbox. She stuck the second shell in her pocket and went out on the porch where she attempted to load the gun while calling out, “Who’s there? Tell me who you are! I’ve got a gun!”

She was having trouble getting the shell into the chamber. And suddenly a spider which she described as “nearly the size of a silver dollar!” ran out of the barrel and up her arm. She dropped the shell but not the gun. She swatted away the spider and started to pull the second shell from her pocket when there was a loud noise in the bushes. She aimed the empty gun at the moving shadowy intruder and shouted once again that she was armed.

Then her horse stepped out of the shadows. As he was prone to do whenever he escaped his pen or Great-grandma came out to his field, he walked right up to her and started begging for a sugar cube.

Once she got the horse back in his stable and she got back inside the house, she said she held the gun up toward a light and squinted down the barrel to see why she hadn’t been able to get the shell in. There were several old egg sacs and a number of dead spider bodies inside the barrel. As she said when she told me the story, “I was so certain that I had taken that gun out and cleaned it every spring! I guess I had forgotten to for several years. If you can’t take proper care of a gun, you have no business keeping it!”

She didn’t need to explain that the thing which had upset her so and made her call Dad to ask him to come take her gun away was the realization that she had nearly shot her own horse, thinking he was an intruder.

It wasn’t until years later that it occurred to me to wonder why Great-grandma called Dad rather than either of my Great-uncles or her son-in-law (my Grandpa) who all lived closer. I should have been able to put the pieces together, since Dad told us we weren’t supposed to talk about it with anyone. My paternal Grandmother and her brothers had been looking for an excuse to force Great-grandma to move out of her house, and she was afraid if they knew about the gun incident that would happen. She knew that Dad wouldn’t see it that way. Great-grandma stayed in that farmhouse, taking care of her garden and orchard— getting up every morning, rain, shine, or snow, to walk to the stable and feed her horse for another 10 years. She didn’t agree to move out until about a month or so after the horse died of old age. She didn’t live very long after that, herself.

I tell this story for many reasons. It’s relevant right now because there has been another mass shooting, and millions of people on one end of the political spectrum can’t understand why many on the other end aren’t willing to pass gun laws which are supported by a vast majority of members of the NRA, let alone everyone else. One big reason that the gun manufacturers’ lobby is able to stop those laws from being passed is because a significant fraction of the population keeps getting bamboozled into thinking that regulating the sale of assault rifles means that the government is going to come take away their hunting rifles, next.

When we say “common sense gun regulations” they hear “confiscate the hunting rifle that has been handed down through several generations of your family.” They hear “take away a tool you have used to provide food for your children.” They hear “end a tradition that you were taught by your parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents which you plan to teach to your children and their children in turn.”

They don’t recognize that we’re essentially saying the same thing that my Great-grandma meant when she said, “If you can’t take proper care of a gun, you have no business keeping it!” or when my Grandpa said “If you can’t hit a flying grouse or dove or pheasant with a rifle, you have no business pointing a gun at anything” or when my Dad used to say “There are some people who have no business owning a gun.”

Until we can find a way to bridge that communication gap, we will never solve this problem and children will continue to die needlessly.

“Here's some goddamn common sense for you. I want gun ownership to be as boring and annoying as car ownership. I want you to go to some Department of Weapons and sit for hours. I want folks who own guns to prove their skill, their mental and physical health, and to be licensed and reviewed over the years just as happens with our drivers licenses. You earn the right to drive a vehicle; earn the right to own and use a gun. I also want a voluntary federal buyback program for firearms, with hunting weapons and vintage/historical weapons exempt. I want the sale of weapons to be even more tightly controlled than the sale of Xanax and other controlled substances. I want advertising for firearms to be as regulated as DTC (direct to consumer) advertising for pharmaceuticals (
“Here’s some goddamn common sense for you. I want gun ownership to be as boring and annoying as car ownership…”

I most recently wrote about this here: They used to insist that drunk driving couldn’t be reduced either. If you feel an urge to argue with me, read that first. If you still feel that urge and you come back with any argument that would not hold up in a debate under the rules of the Cross-Examination Debate Association (of which I was a Western Regional {i.e. U.S. west of the Mississippi) champion two years running), I am going delete your comment and block you.

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