There is no greater joy than seeing the wide-eyed look of wonder in a child's face the first time he's successfully shredded a target with a full magazine of hot lead death from a rifle.
My wife and I always intended to teach our son Anthony to shoot. It's a good skill for anybody to add to his personal quiver. If you can shoot, you have a means for putting food on the table in tough times. If you can shoot, you can defend yourself against dangerous animals (javelina and coyote wander our rural Arizona neighborhood, while mountain lion and bear frequent some of our favorite hiking trails) and malicious assailants (if he runs into a gang of tax collectors, is he supposed to beat them with his shoe?). Shooting encourages concentration and develops hand-eye coordination—and enables bonding with friends who have similar interests.
Those friends might include other kids his age in our boomstick-friendly region—but they could also include the nonagenarian rancher and former cop who took a shine to Anthony at a gun show. He'd flown his private plane to town to man his table, but was a bit downcast that his doctor was no longer willing to perform the medical assessment required for him to maintain a pilot's license.
"Maybe I'll just fly anyway," he said. "At my age, what are they going to do to me?"
We saw value in the self-confidence and personal responsibility Anthony would gain from learning to engage in the sport safely. We'd seen him grow and mature through five years (and counting) of Tae Kwon Do and were certain he'd benefit just as much from discovering how to properly handle guns.
But I had told him we'd wait until he wanted to learn, and for years he'd shown little interest.
Then in June 2015 I had a fairly serious health scare. Suddenly, it seemed that I might have a limited window of opportunity to transmit my hard-acquired knowledge and skillset—such as it is—to my pre-adolescent kid. So I started pushing to get him ready for life. In between seemingly endless bouts of medical tests, I taught him to bore holes in wood with an eggbeater drill and to drive screws and nails. I shared with him my wisdom (or lack thereof) and insights into the world. I showed him how to do some basic repairs and passed along the secrets of making a campfire.
"I know what you're doing," Wendy, my wife, said to me one day when she had me cornered. "You think you're going to die."
"Maybe," I responded.
As it turned out, I was fine after a period of recovery, and even better after the end of all that damned poking and prodding. But my come-alongs had had an effect. Of his own accord, 10-year-old Anthony announced that he was ready.
"Dad, if it's OK, I'd really like to go out shooting some time."
We made a family outing of it. We loaded the car up with a .22 rifle, reactive targets, a cardboard box for affixing the same, and plenty of ammo. Then we headed for an old sandpit in the desert that's commonly used for exactly this activity.
Anthony already knew the four basic safety rules, which we'd run through with his Nerf revolver:
The gun is always loaded (that is, you assume so).
Never point the gun at something you are not prepared to destroy.
Always be sure of your target and what's behind it.
Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
Admittedly, not everybody thinks children should learn to shoot. The usual control freaks not only oppose gun ownership but think that, despite the spectacular failure of Prohibition and the war on drugs, they've hit on the one activity that enthusiasts will happily surrender when threatened with sufficiently gruesome legal penalties. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) insists, "The absence of guns from children's homes and communities is the most reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries in children and adolescents"—as if risks exist unbalanced by benefits.
The AAP habitually prods physicians to badger patients' families with unsolicited advice about bicycles, car seats, cribs, eating habits, pools, tobacco use, and, of course, guns that, if fully followed, would strip life of a good many reasons for drawing the next breath. To quote my pediatrician wife, "The American Academy of Pediatrics can kiss my ass."
Anthony wasn't going to surrender knowledge of a potentially useful tool for the supposed safety to be gained from remaining ignorant. And Wendy and I weren't going to deny him the pleasure of mastering a new skill that could improve his life and give him greater control over the world around him. So off to the desert we went, down unpaved roads, to a spot where soft mounds of dirt caught spent bullets.
One round at a time went into the magazine under his thumb, with Anthony emulating what I'd taught him. He assumed a reasonably comfortable position on the ground. He bent over the rifle and sighted down its length. And darned if he didn't show natural talent. Not every round struck true, but the colored splotches where the bullets hit the reactive targets helped him adjust his aim, improving quickly.
"That was awesome," he told me.
Yes, it was. But not as awesome as showing him how to clean the rifle so I didn't have to do it.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "My Kid Packs Heat".