My Liberal Life Among Guns

Like many responsible gun owners, I live in the dynamic tension between danger and necessity.
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"Jesus said to them, 'When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?' They said, 'No, not a thing.' He said to them, 'But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one ... They said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords. He replied, 'It is enough.'" -- Luke 22:35-39

When I was 5 years old, my parents bought a new home on Chestnut Hill. Behind our new home was a stone wall, and beyond that, an overgrown apple orchard surrounded by a woodland that led down to Boston's reservoirs. On the day we arrived, I wandered through our new yard to an old garage with an unattached shed pushed up against the back of it. I looked in the dark, narrow gap between the shed and the garage and found a .12-gauge shotgun. I pulled it out. It was heavy and taller than I was. My father had been watching. Suddenly, he lifted the weapon from my hands.

"What's this?" he asked, as he looked at the rusty weapon. "It's a gun. It's mine. I found it," I said. My dad replied, "It's yours, but I'll keep it for you until you are older."

Weeks later, my dad took me into the woods behind our house, and loaded a shell into the chamber of the cleaned, oiled and newly blued Iver Johnson Champion. He had taken it to a gun shop and now had it back. He lashed the shotgun into the crotch of v-split tree, and tied a long string to the trigger. We hid behind a large pine tree. He wanted to be sure that the gun fired safely. He pulled the string and the gun fired. BANG! He unlashed it and fired it again. He let me fire it and showed me how to stand. It knocked me on my ass and bruised my shoulder. It hurt, but it was exciting, too. That was the last time that we fired the shotgun together.


My dad kept if for me, as promised. I have it here as I write this. That night over dinner, he told this story:

In the summer of 1949, the year my dad graduated from high school, several of his friends had gone bird hunting on Chestnut Hill. As evening approached, the boys headed home, and they crossed the stone wall in the same place where we had crossed it that day to fire my shotgun. His friends were laughing and having a good time as they stepped over the stone wall. A shotgun discharged accidentally. A boy lay dead. It was tragedy that summer. My dad attended the funeral at his church. Over dinner, Dad wondered if it was my shotgun that fired the shot that had killed.

He hung the gun on the wall, high and out of reach, and never kept shells inside the house.

One day my dog was in our yard when a hunter shot him in the leg. The bullet skipped once against the yard, thank God, before wounding my dog. My dog survived. When I became a Boy Scout, I liked target shooting. I earned my riflery merit badge, and one summer, just before going off to college, I became a rifle instructor at a camp. One day there, an emotionally ill boy pointed his loaded .22 at my belly from six inches away, with his finger on the trigger and the safety off. It took me minutes to talk him down. I do not think he meant to threaten me, but I was threatened. Young fool that I was, during that same summer, I fired my .22 into a cornfield. I nearly shot a man, missing him by inches.

In divinity school I was a practitioner of nonviolence, and a civil disobedient, anti-nuclear activist. Some would see me as a radical. And my shotgun remained hanging in the same spot in my parents' house, right by the back door.

One day I was driving around New Haven with my friend in his car, we got lost and took a wrong turn onto a dead-end street. We pulled into a driveway to turn around. As we backed out, a group of men spilled out of the house with guns in their hands. They started shooting. My friend floored it. We escaped. Crack. Crack. Crack, gunfire exploded behind us.

One day I was in Nicaragua, listening to stories from the people who had risen up to fight. They spoke of their suffering, and of their losses, and I thought to myself that I would also have risen against the Somoza regime. Had not my people fought for freedom and injustice in America's wars?

On the flight home from Nicaragua, we stopped in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. At the airport, I could see United States war aircraft, clearly marked. Congress was investigating the Iran-Contra Affair. It was reported that no American aircraft were stationed in Honduras, but there they were. I disembarked the plane and began to take a picture. Behind me, I heard the metallic click of a safety going off. I turned. A young Honduran soldier, wearing American fatigues, had his M-16 an inch from my chest. His finger was on the trigger. He told me not to move. He radioed his commander and told the commander that he had found me on the tarmac. We had been ordered not to leave the plane. I was in violation. The reply came into an earpiece. He ordered me back onto the plane. I began to question my commitment to nonviolence. The world was a dangerous place.

One night when I was a young pastor on an island, the state police called and asked if I could see or hear any vandalism at the elementary school across the street from the parsonage. I did not. They told me to call them if I heard anything. A half hour later, I heard vandalism. I knew most of the youth on the island and they all knew me. I did not want to call the police on them, so I went outside in the night to speak with them. I shouted to them to stop and talk to me. They ran. I ran after them. I caught up to one who had stopped running and was walking. Another one rushed me from the shadows. He shouted. I caught sight of him as he swung a sign at my head, intending to slosh my brains around. I blocked most of the blow with my arm, but I was knocked backward and fractured my ankle. They ran. The one who had swung the sign was caught and arrested. On the day of his trial and conviction, his father, who recently had been released from a long prison sentence for bad deeds, caught me alone outside of the district attorney's office. He waived his finger under my nose, and said, "I know where you live. I am going to get you."

I told the DA. He said get a gun. I told my friends among the island's lobstermen. They said, "Believe him. He is dangerous. Get a gun." I held a revolver in my hands and weighed the consequences. I did not buy it. Within a year, we left the island. I took a pastorate in a resort town.

A prisoner wrote to me as the new minister, claiming innocence and asking if could get him out of jail. He gave me permission to research him, including calling his childhood neighbors. I learned that he was mentally ill and was guilty of committing arson. I told him no, I could not help him. When he was released, six years later, he petitioned the court system to rescind a stipulation of his five-year probation that prevented him from living in his trailer that is a walk through the woods from my house. People in my neighborhood feared him for justifiable reasons. We held a meeting, which I organized, along with law enforcement, a representative from the parole office, and the Department of Mental Health, and together we wrote a letter to the court, signed by 91 individuals, asking that his probationary restrictions remain in place.

Months later, my church conference minister called me, told me to drop everything and drive immediately to his office. No explanation was given. A letter had arrived from the convict's family. It was scary enough that I took it to the sheriff's department, who said that it was a life-threatening letter. They considered the convict dangerous. They told me that to protect my family, I needed a dog, security lighting and a gun. The situation was serious. I did as they urged. We got a dog. We installed lighting. I drove to my parents' home and got my shotgun. I bought shells. Also, I was loaned, long-term, a Mossberg and Sons .22 rifle. I officiated at the wedding of police officers. They knew what was going on. They gave me an Iver Johnson semi-automatic .22 pistol. I learned to use it. We locked the guns.

We live in a town of hunters. Many people here have guns. For the safety of our children, we taught them gun safety and marksmanship. The convict came back to live in his trailer after his probationary period. We have since and of necessity befriended him.

One day, as I drove home on my rural road, I saw cars stopped and people standing in the road. A doe had been hit and was suffering. The doe needed to be put down. I said so aloud. A woman ran next door and returned with her holstered and loaded .45 semi-automatic pistol. She handed it to me. I said, "It's your gun, you do it." She said she had hunted and killed deer from a distance, but that she could not do it up close. I put the pistol to the deer's head and said a prayer for the both of us. The deer looked into my eyes. The crowd took three steps backward and turned their backs to me. I apologized to the deer. I fired. The deer died. I cried later.

Two months ago, I was driving home at night. A fully furred fox ran in front of my car. I swerved, but hit him anyway. I stopped and found him. He was alive, but unmoving and suffering. I spoke to him. He mewed to me. I petted him. He took comfort. I waited for him to die. He did not. He mewed. I spoke. I realized I would have to drive the eight mile round trip to get my .22 rifle. When I got back, he was still alive. I could see fear in him as I got out of my car. I spoke to him. He recognized my voice and mewed to me. He was suffering, in pain. I approached and petted him. I loaded a subsonic round into the chamber. We looked deeply into one another's eyes. I apologized to him for hitting him with my car, for hurting him and for having to kill him. I prayed for the both of us. I took close aim and fired at his head. I re-loaded, fired again and killed him. I carried him and dropped him over the guardrail. Later on, I cried.

I have befriended our ex-convict neighbor, and I am perhaps his only friend in our entire village. He is, as I said, mentally ill, kind enough and dangerous. People still fear him and justifiably so. He relies on me when the power goes out, and talks to me when we meet on a woodland trail or at the beach. He says God bless you to me, and I say the same to him. We keep an eye on him, all of us.

We keep a lookout for each other anyway. Out here on the edge of civilization, especially in wintertime, it might take a sheriff thirty minutes to reach us. There was a break-in recently. The owner was home. She locked herself in a room. She shouted at the burglar to get out. He threatened to kill her and escaped. She called the sheriff. They got to her home as quickly as they could. We are all on watch now.

I do not need a weapon suited for a theater of war. I never want to shoot a human being. It was hard enough to look a deer and a fox in their eyes and then squeeze the trigger to release them from suffering. I do not want to shoot anyone. Not ever. Not ever. To kill would be a mortal sin that would haunt me into afterlife, where there will be an accounting, and yet I will defend my family from those who seek us harm.

Like many responsible gun owners, I live in the dynamic tension between danger and necessity.

Like many people of faith, I live in the dynamic tension between what my faith teaches me -- that God is love, that I am called to love my neighbor as myself and that I am to do unto others as I would have them do unto to me -- and what the world teaches me: that it can be a dangerous place.

"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword." -- Matthew 26:52

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