The Culture of Death by William Klein

When I was a kid, I remember going with my friend and his dad to the shooting range. His dad wanted to teach us to respect guns. I was eight or nine years old. Our family didn’t own a gun, and my mother was opposed to the idea, but I kept bothering her to let me go because all my other friends had gone, and I felt like I was missing out. Her instinct was to protect me. My dad looked at me like I was crazy. “What the hell’s that going to do for you?” he said. My friend’s dad walked across the street and talked with them about how safe it would be. They relented.

The lodge was just that. It was a cabin-like structure and the outdoor range was safely tucked away in the back. There were a few patrons at the bar, sitting and chatting about their exploits from the last season of hunting and the types of guns they used to take down their prey.

Golden trophies and plaques adorned the walls and other trophies of note; stoic beasts with marvelous antlers and lifelike — wide-eyed but mounted, nonetheless. Buffalo, stags, moose, and a bear, a tiger and lion growling full exposure of their fangs demonstrating that this animal was a tenacious threat to the survival of humans; prized possessions of hunters leaving their mark on the world by conquering those beasts that could destroy us with the swipe of switchblade paws like the monster Freddy Krueger.

If I remember correctly, his dad was able to order the type of gun he’d like to use for that day and the proprietor pulled it out of the cabinet. He picked ones we could handle and a powerful one for himself. I remember going out to the range. It was a club. Everyone knew each other and people were friendly as my friend’s dad bought us a coke for the range. Smiles and camaraderie were the order of the day.

Out on the range my friend’s dad taught us how to respect the power of a gun. He had multiple guns and explained what each one could do. There were bullseyes off in the distance and paper figures to see where you hit.  My friend Pete had handled a gun before and was a regular at the club. He could hit it.

I can still remember my friend’s dad, placing his goggles on, standing and marking his target. The firepower and explosion from the barrel was daunting. His dad laughed when I jumped. “Powerful.” To a pre-teen it sounded like a canon even with earphones on to muffle the sound. 

It was my turn. I placed the earphones on, along with my goggles. I looked through the periscope at the target as he gently gave me the instructions on how to aim. Most importantly, he warned me time and again. “Respect the weapon. He gave me a 22 caliber rifle. “It’s gonna kick, so be careful.” Boy, did it kick. It almost knocked me off my feet of my scrawny body.

My friend and his dad laughed at me and my horrified look having experienced the power of that thing. I was shaken. It was like the gun took me over. I had a profound understanding of the reality of guns. It was like I shot my innocence through the barrel. I get it. This thing is dangerous. Lesson learned.

My mom smiled when she saw the look on my face. She knew me well enough to know that I got the lesson, as I politely thanked my friend and his dad for the outing.

There was something that stayed with me. Everything about it was disturbing to me. I don’t know if it was the dead animals that looked sad or the power of the blast or the fact that I knew I had the power to destroy something with it.

We played guns as kids. We watched police shows and mimicked playing cops and robbers taking turns at who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. After that experience, though, I wasn’t into cops and robbers as much. I never felt compelled to return to the range.

It stays with me to this day. What was the big fascination with a gun going off? What was the addiction for others? Was it the control? Was it the ownership of power? A sense of false security? What does it say about the psychology of needing this?  Why does someone need that experience to make himself feel alive? Why do people feel the need to protect the right to own one over the loss of innocent lives? Why are people unwilling to limit what kind of guns are owned? Or limit the access to guns from mentally ill people and terrorists?

In his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II wrote about a culture of death vs. a culture of life. We are fascinated by the culture of death. We watch bang ‘em up movies with gratuitous violence, our children play video games that detail the deaths of characters. We love our gladiator sports where guys knock the hell out of one another. The acceptance of concussions and premature deaths of players whose brains have turned to mush is a small price to pay for winning a Super Bowl. Take a pill and a fetus is terminated. You have to wonder if that culture of death hasn’t anesthetized us from the reality and horrors of guns.

Philosopher Rene Girard’s work reminds us that we are in love with the drama of pain and suffering. Certain peoples’ love for violence and the high it gives them takes precedence over our love for life and the care and concern for others. It stimulates something profound in our senses to know that we are playing the game and able to overcome. In so many words, we are enamored with the culture of death. Politicians who support the NRA know it’s big money and that’s why they are unwilling to do anything about it.

My students had video of the gunman at the Buffalo supermarket before it was taken down. One of them said, “It’s like a video game, Mr. Klein.” There’s something wrong with this picture. Not only does it undermine the dignity of the victims, but it glamourized death. Shortly thereafter we have the killing of 21 people at an elementary school – two adults and nineteen ten-year-old children.

Police were so scared to enter the building that they waited over an hour to enter and take down the gunman. Parents were pleading with them to go in and save the children. One parent was tasered. There’s something wrong when even our police are unwilling to enter a scene for fear of their own lives. Shouldn’t we all take note of that or is our love for guns all-pervading and fulfilling until the next elementary school shooting? We’ll shake our heads and say, “Damn, what a crying shame” and nothing will change.

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