Growing Up with Guns

By Susan Robinson

Susan Robinson posted this comment on my October 7 blog post, “Gun Store on Main Street.” It’s an eloquent story in its own right so I asked and was granted permission to reprint it here. It’s been slightly revised. Susan and I belonged to the same women writers’ group in our Washington, D.C., days, before I came home to Massachusetts and she left for New York and eventually New Mexico, where she’s lived for years with her husband, Albert, and a diverse family of critters, including the dogs Tony and Red (pictured below). SJS

The Mud and Slime of the Place . . . This reply is from the mountains of northeast New Mexico, where the mud when wet has the slipperiness of slime: ask anyone who’s driven on it. I have an unevolved view on gun control, dating from growing up in Texas, where for my 10th Christmas I was given both a 4-10 shotgun and a contraption where from a tripod three arms stuck out, a heavy cardboard duck on the end of each, and a pretend rifle that sent out small plungers. The idea was to knock each duck off as they whirled down a spiral on the central pole of the tripod. I became a very good shot.

My first living targets were two young mallards who landed on the lake, joyously turning somersaults in the water, not knowing I was about the blast them into oblivion, which I did when my father said “Pull,” meaning the trigger. I saw them lifeless on the water and trembled for a horrified minute. My father chuckled to me during that time. I saw my choice and, in the rest of my life living with my parents, shot many ducks and quail. Our family ate these but we had enough money and certainly didn’t need to. Once my father shot a swan by accident, thinking it was a goose, and gave it to our dog, who dragged it around for days, to the laughter of family and friends.

I remember my father’s telling me about gun safety: always the barrel pointed straight up or down indoors and, when not intentionally shooting, the safety always on until the last minute, and the gun cleaned. If the barrel isn’t clean inside, the shooting can go badly awry. I remember vividly the scent of the oil we used on cotton discs to thread through the eye of a rod and twist around inside the barrel, and the sight looking through the immaculate barrel when done and I could put the gun away. We kept my father’s gun and mine in the closet in their leather cases. He and I were not to shoot in a group or when other people might be around—too dangerous. I doubt my safety instructions were unusual for a white, upper-middle-class or upper-class Texas child.

Through my childhood and adolescent years, I heard of several people known to immediate family members who were shot. The first was B.B., a white man, hunting in a group of fabulously wealthy friends and relatives, who shot himself by accident climbing over a fence with his gun. I was told about this as an object lesson: If you climb a fence with a gun, pass the gun through first. Next I heard that a boy in my brother’s high school class at the all-male St. Mark’s School of Texas had shot and killed another boy, naked, in the shower after a party at the first boy’s house. Two weeks later the shooter was seen pumping gas at his father’s gas station. None of this was in the newspapers. The two boys involved in the murder were white. (There were no children of color in this school because S.M., the one black fifth grader brought in to integrate the school, another classmate of my brother’s, had hung himself within a year of entering the school. My father, then chairman of the school’s board, did not consider himself oblivious to institutional racism).

When my friend across the street became engaged to L.S., who was white, my mother gave her a wedding present. A week before the wedding, she and her mother appeared at our back door, returning the present and telling us that L. had shot himself while “cleaning his gun”—the standard explanation for suicide by gun at that time and place.

My uncle Robert Treat Paine Thompson (white) had a long career as a hired gun for John Paul Getty. Uncle Bob’s job was to threaten and when necessary kill anyone who tried to get in the way of Getty’s buying any piece of oil property he wanted in east Texas. I never met Uncle Bob until I was 25 and living in Houston. My father, having heard Uncle Bob had tracked me down and was going to invite me to dinner, cautioned me that as a child my father had seen Uncle Bob corner a rat in the bathroom and kill him with a pocket knife, and from then on my father had never crossed Uncle Bob.

Once when I accidentally picked up an extension phone at my parents’ house when the Uncle Bob on my mother’s side was visiting (I had two Uncle Bobs), I heard him threaten to kill the man on the other end of the line if he failed to go by a certain business decision. That Uncle Bob’s brother, H., threatened to kill his daughter if she didn’t hand over her inheritance from my grandmother, threatened her so often and so convincingly that his wife (a woman not allowed to leave the house or have a telephone) managed to help her daughter run away and come live with my family. Uncle H. kept a gun under every bed in his house, and when my cousin, years later, returned to her home with her fiancé so he could meet her mother, her younger sister and brother came to the door with guns pointed at the fiancé until the sister recognized my cousin in the car. The children had been taught by their father to come to the door with guns whenever someone they didn’t recognize showed up.

I only learned as an adult that not everyone in the U.S. or the world shared the (white) Texas gun culture I lived in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, my husband and I live on a street that was called “Heroin Alley” when we moved here, and the gun deaths were both drug-related and a consequence of (Latino) family members not having role models for anger management. The stresses of poverty, including lack of options for earning money, have played their role. My dogs are terrified of the sounds of neighborhood gunshots and can distinguish them from gunshots on radio newscasts. At our mountain cabin, the gunshots have become more frequent over the years, limiting where we can climb and, along with climate change, making the (welcome to us) deer, elk, owl, bobcat, mountain lion, coyote, and bear sightings, footprints, and scat we find fewer and fewer. These mountains have become increasingly dangerous. My priority in leaving our land to someone when we can no longer care for it is that they will not hunt there.

These events have festered in my life and still inhabit it with the ear-splitting report of a shotgun at close range and the kick of a shotgun butt against my shoulder. All this has led me to become a Quaker, a vegetarian, and a person deeply skeptical of the term “reasonable gun control.”

two dogs

Tony and Red, happy that their waiting has paid off and Albert
and Susan have made it over a fence to go home (in the mountains).

About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has been preoccupied with electoral politics since 2016. She just started a blog about her vintage T-shirt collection: "The T-Shirt Chronicles." Her other blogs include "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories," about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard, and "Write Through It," about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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4 Responses to Growing Up with Guns

  1. I often think too many people associate guns with the Good Old Days without remembering them with any clarity. There was a reason Civilization came to be associated with places that made you check your guns with the sheriff before you entered town. And there are many a dead pioneer sifting dust who erroneously thought that a gun insured their safety instead of their demise. When everyone owns guns, the most powerful and or the most rich will decide how or IF the rest of us get to live. And sooner or later someone is always better or faster or smarter… most often when they aren’t wearing white hats or caring about constitutional rights and liberties. A wonderful and powerful post, Susanna…


  2. Thanks to Susanna and to Susan … I certainly never read before such a vivid description of US gun culture, how long-lasting and deep-rooted it is.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Shirley says:

    Wow – powerful, but scary to think that children are being brought up with those attitudes and values – kudos for Susan who turned away from that upbringing……..


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