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John Engel: Reflecting on male fascination with guns

As a teacher, I remember school shootings.

I remember Jonesboro. I was a high school teacher in 1998, a time when schools were safe, we thought. Then, at a middle school located in an unincorporated section of an Arkansas college town, two boys, armed with 13 fully loaded guns, shot 14 people, killing four students and one teacher. The shooters were ages 11 and 13.

I remember Columbine, too. I had recently left a teaching position at one of the top high schools in Wisconsin and was working for a gun violence prevention organization. During my last semester at that school a freshman boy, who was tired of being bullied, brought his father’s gun to school, and after luring the older boys to the parking lot, pulled out the gun to even the score. Unlike Columbine, the incident was diffused without a shot being fired.

For years I had considered myself fortunate to teach at that school, in part because in accepting the position I turned down an offer to teach at a different school. The fall I almost began teaching at that other school, nestled in a small, rural community, police narrowly foiled the plot of five students to massacre a list of targeted students, teachers and administrators.

I remember Northern Illinois University, surrounded by farm fields and endless horizons, where I earned a master’s degree. A few years later, when I was between college teaching jobs, a student walked into a crowded lecture hall there and fired more than 50 rounds, killing five people, including the teacher.

While still a teacher, now I am a father, too. So most of all, I remember Sandyhook.

For weeks, and still occasionally, it is our 6-year old Zoe whose body I see among those precious children in Newtown. Yet, it is fathering our 3-year-old son, Adam, which leaves me anxious about the way our culture shapes male fascination with guns, and the tragic consequences that often result.

I remember being fascinated with my first gun. The chrome barrel and cylinder were shiny and the white plastic grip fit perfectly in my little hand. I felt big when I pulled the trigger, the red ribbon of caps making popping sounds that echoed throughout the backyard of our small, middle-class, suburban community.

I remember being a young boy when our teenage neighbor was also fascinated with a gun. Showing-off for his friends while his parents were out, he playfully put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, thinking it was unloaded. He was wrong.

I remember one of my high school buddies being fascinated with a gun. He and his friends were fooling around with his father’s rifle, while his parents were at work. When the friend pulled the trigger, a bullet shot through the side of the house and into the neighbor’s living room. Fortunately no one was home.

I remember the teenage brother of one of my college friends, who was angry about being suspended from athletics at his small, private Christian high school, and then brought his father’s gun to school and shot the teacher who had caught him smoking in the bathroom.

And I remember, just weeks before Newtown, waiting at the bus stop one morning.

Two boys, kindergartners, showed up at the bus stop with toy guns, chasing and shooting at each other, startling other children, and parents. Our 3-year-old Adam stood motionless, fascinated with the big boys and their brightly colored guns.

When the school bus arrived, the mothers took the guns from the boys. Then as Adam and I waved goodbye to Zoe, we watched as one of the mothers walked up to the side of the bus, playfully pointed the toy gun at her waving son and pulled the trigger, Adam’s gaze fixed upon her.

Adam loves trucks, power tools, dirt and sticks. In time, he might love guns, too. The scenes at the bus stop are just the first of many seeds that will be planted in his fertile imagination, shaping his thoughts about guns and masculinity.

Despite the male fascination with guns, very few boys and men commit accidents or crimes with them. Yet, nearly all gun accidents and crimes occur at the hands of boys and men. No single, parental act will void this unfortunate truth, not in a country with 300 million privately owned guns.

But changing culture has never been accomplished by single acts. So, while entrenched political forces disappointingly, yet predictably, hold to the status quo, we have choices as parents.

We can begin reclaiming the sanctity of our own homes and communities by saying “No!” to toy guns, violent video games and gun-saturated media. And while these simple yet difficult parental-acts will not immediately prevent gun deaths, the accumulation of our acts, in time, can help shape a culture where boyhood fascination with guns is as outdated as young children riding in automobiles without car seats.

And yes, when boys don’t have toy guns they often use a stick, instead. But boyhood fascination with sticks does not cause accidental shootings, nor do troubled young men show up at places of worship, movie theatres and schools to kill people with sticks.

John Engel is an organizational development coach and consultant living in Florence. Engel can be contacted through his website, www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

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