Confessions of a 14-Year-Old NRA Dropout

I was a 14-year-old high school freshman when I began collecting guns. It was Chicago in 1958, a time before a metal detector had ever darkened a school doorway. Disciplinary problems in most American classrooms meant kids sneaking out without a hall pass or sticking old Juicy Fruit under their desks.

Hanging on hooks, the antique weapons covered an entire wall of my bedroom. I remember that among them was a Remington carbine, a Winchester rifle, a dueling pistol, a Colt .44 handgun, a long-barreled Springfield rifle, and a Smith & Wesson revolver. Oh, and I also owned a few bayonets and a cavalry saber.

Today, as a gun-control supporter, I ask myself, what possessed me to do this? First of all, in those days, collecting guns, even antiques, was an inexpensive hobby. They would cost a lot more now (the Winchester 1873 rifle I bought for $35 back in the '50s would go today for over $1000.) I ordered the weapons from the mail-order catalogue of a New York antique-firearms dealer. There were no background checks, no checks at all except the ones my father mailed off with the order form. I'm sure he bought them in his name, but though I was 14, it wouldn't have mattered back then if I had used my own.

Shouldering an unwieldy Civil War rifle or squinting down the barrel of a Colt revolver put me in touch with my Walter Mitty fantasies. I would imagine myself as a soldier fighting at Gettysburg or a gunslinger blazing away at the OK Corral. Handling these weapons, like exploring the most secret aspects of manhood, was something intimate and personal, and as such I pursued it only in the privacy of my own bedroom.

While collecting guns, I got the idea to join the NRA. Back then, the National Rifle Association was about as controversial as the gas company. For my membership, I received a subscription to The American Rifleman, a glossy magazine featuring wholesome crew-cutted teenagers and their wholesome crew-cutted parents blasting away at targets or bagging the occasional unfortunate bighorn sheep.

I never met any NRA member in the flesh. But for a poetry-writing loner with a rich fantasy life, the membership gave me a sense of belonging, allowing me to join a club without actually having to meet anyone else in the organization face to face.

The biggest perk of belonging was a little gold lapel pin sporting the NRA emblem. I wasn't a member of a high school fraternity, but many of my coolest classmates wore frat pins to indicate they belonged. The NRA pin helped me to hold my head high at school dances. No one ever asked me what the emblem meant; they knew it meant I belonged to something.

Looking back, the weirdest part of my gun collecting passion was that in choosing firearms to buy, I insisted they be in firing condition. This was strange, because I never loaded them with ammunition. But somehow knowing they could actually be fired made those lethal artifacts that much more valuable. And okay, maybe it made me feel a little bit powerful.

The idea of actually loading one of the guns and shooting at a target (much less firing at an animal or a human being) was about as distant to my 14-year-old brain as the mysteries of sex, which I had trouble imagining even in the distant future. (I had never even seen a photograph of a completely naked woman, but that's a whole other story.)

Who was I back then? Just a moody, awkward teenager like so many others my age. From the desk where I did my homework, I would look out the second-floor window of my bedroom at tree-shaded Woodlawn Avenue, our quiet residential street, and watch the people passing on the sidewalk below. Sometimes I caught sight of lithe teenage girls from my high-school class, laughing and playing Frisbee on the lawn of the house across the street. I did not have the nerve to join them. At those moments, in my own isolated world, maybe surrounding myself with dangerous weapons made me feel a little less vulnerable.

My romance with firearms soon fizzled. Puberty slammed me with the force of a shotgun blast. My fascination with guns evaporated as my testosterone surged. I was more obsessed with covering up a pimple on my forehead than with buying another revolver to hang on my wall. I focused on learning how to shave, knot a necktie, and dance the jitterbug. By Junior year, I was elected president of my class. My subscription to The American Rifleman lapsed, and I could only dream of someday being allowed to subscribe to a recently founded new magazine called Playboy (knowing this would never ever happen).

When I went East to college, I left the guns hanging on my wall in Chicago. I never saw them again. My parents later told me they had sold off my private arsenal. It didn't break my heart. For me, collecting guns was a passing childhood fancy, like collecting electric trains or bowling.

I haven't owned a gun since.

But I still remember what it was like to look out the window of my bedroom at the lithe freshman girls playing Frisbee on the sunlit lawn across the street, how I felt alienated and alone. I can't help imagining a deeply troubled teenager, a disgruntled loner, with a collection of guns in firing condition like the ones I had on my wall. For a kid like that today, angrier and crazier than I was, what would he be capable of?

Unfortunately, we all know the answer.