I remember on one such trip meeting a solitary hiker as we approached Tesnatee Gap, a shallow pass where the AT dips down to a scenic two-lane highway crossing the Blue Ridge mountains of Georgia. The hiker we met was from New Jersey, probably a “through hiker”, those hardy souls who hike the entire length of the AT, usually from north to south. I still remember this encounter decades later mainly because this hiker from the Garden State was a little rattled by something he had seen just before we met him.
He explained that in the little parking lot back at Tesnatee Gap there had been someone in a pickup truck – with two rifles prominently displayed in a gun-rack inside the cab’s rear window. The presence of the guns had clearly unnerved him. As I recall, upon hearing the “Yankee” hiker’s concerns, most of my hiking companions, all local Georgians, just shrugged our shoulders.
|Typical pro-gun Facebook photo.|
We couldn’t see what the big deal was. As Southerners, we were fairly used to having guns around, and hunting rifles in a gun-rack in a pickup truck, well, it’s practically a fashion statement in some places, though nowadays it might be more of a political statement.
That short chat with a stranger randomly met on a ribbon of worn dirt, almost swallowed in the lush vegetation of summer and stretching all the way back to Maine, was perhaps my first inkling that, when it comes to guns, the South is different.
At least, it used to be different from much of the rest of the US. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. And that, in my mind, is not something to be proud of.
America as a whole has always had some kind of gun culture, born as the nation was out of armed revolt against Britain and the violent conquest of Native Americans. Though I’m no authority on other parts of the US, the “culture” of guns has always seemed to run deeper in the South, where the history of armed revolt didn’t stop with the Revolutionary War and the tradition of hunting seems more ingrained than in other, less rural and impoverished, regions of the US.
Many Southerners like to hunt. And they like guns. They, in a sense, have a close personal relationship with them.
I recall hearing how during the Vietnam War commanders would often tap a platoon’s ever-present Southerner to be the “point man” when going out on patrol, because they were supposed to be better hunters and shooters. Maybe that’s a myth, though it’s one happily fostered by Hollywood in such movies as “Saving Private Ryan”, where the expert sniper in the band of brothers led by Tom Hanks was an unmistakable Southerner.
While the shooting skills of Southerners wasn’t enough to ultimately give them in the upper hand in the Civil War – since they lost – they were presumably better than those of the other side. An army commander from New York was so dismayed by the poor marksmanship of the Union infantry, which managed to hit only one Confederate soldier out of 1000 shots fired, that after the war he helped create an organization to improve the aim of Americans. That group, the National Rifle Association, nowadays seems dedicated more to ensuring that disgruntled secessionists can fight against the United States.
When I was growing up, we always had guns in the house, since my father was a serious hunter. He hunted everything from grouse to rabbits to squirrels to, later in life, turkeys. But his big passion was deer hunting, and I still have fond memories of being with him on some ridge top watching the sun rise on a cold winter day, staying deadly quiet so we could hear any tiny sound of a deer approaching through the woods.
|Another photo proudly shared on Facebook.|
If I remember correctly, we had at least three deer rifles, a couple of smaller-caliber rifles, at least one shotgun, and a revolver. We had a gun rack in our truck. My father often carried .22 shells around in his pocket, just out of habit. Guns were just a fixture in the house. And, all of our guns, except the revolver, were strictly for hunting. I don’t recall my father ever explicitly mentioning self-defense as a reason to have any of our guns, though maybe that just went without saying.
So, I do understand how “normal” it feels for many Americans to have guns. I understand the “benign” use of guns by hunters, though I long ago stopped hunting myself and have no plans to start again. I understand that some people want guns for personal security, though I think that's often exaggerated. I might even understand shooting for sport, especially if it’s for target practice and not just for the “thrill” of it.
What I don’t understand is the fetishism surrounding guns, or the pervasive fear of “tyrannical” governments that apparently grips so many supporters of “gun rights”. Many gun advocates say that guns are merely “tools”, but it seems to me that for far too many of them, guns have become more than that. Guns have almost taken on a mystical quality, becoming practically an object of worship for some people.
If that sounds like I’m going too far, then you can’t deny that some people have ascribed guns with an importance that goes far beyond their actual use in everyday life (which hopefully is rare). They have become emotionally invested in guns in a way that to me seems irrational, or unhealthy, or just silly. Why else would anyone dream up a new holiday, “Gun Appreciation Day” (which happens to be today) if they weren’t, um, a little too attached to their firearms?
The same goes for the delusional notion that privately held guns are all that’s holding back those menacing black helicopters full of “jack-booted government thugs” (to use the elegant phrasing of Wayne LaPierre, the CEO of the NRA) that are ready to swoop in and oppress Constitution-loving Americans. That is a long way from shooting contests or rabbit hunting. It’s a long way down into one very strange rabbit-hole.
Finland itself is a country with a strong hunting culture and one of the highest levels of gun ownership of any nation in Europe (reportedly something like 32 to 45 guns per 100 people, compared to America’s 86). But I know no one here who obsesses over firearms the way I see many Americans doing. None of my Finnish friends ever shares gun-related memes on Facebook (it’s not a political issue here). And I can’t imagine anyone here posting a video on Youtube openly threatening a killing spree if even the smallest measures are taken to restrict access to guns.
In short, Finland doesn’t have “gun culture”, and I wish America didn’t either. I for one won’t be wishing anyone a Happy Gun Day today.