Mommy, what’s a gun?
My five year old asked this question after I demonstrated how our sweet 13 year old puppy can still recall the tricks she learned from the kids who regularly played on the porch of our Baltimore row house. The porch was large and had a huge glass window looking into our living room. Our dog, then only a few months old, would sit in the window and watch the world go by. Sometimes the world stopped to play with her–the world in the form of 3 or 4 boys whose ages were between 5 and 8, as far as I could tell.
The boys would hang out on the porch and talk to her through the window. Sometimes I was home, and would go outside and offer drinks and snacks. They were sweet kids, never caused any trouble and always said thank you. They giggled a lot. And they knew something about guns.
They taught our dog to roll on to her back and play dead when someone made a shooting a motion with their hand. Bang, bang. She’d drop, tongue hanging out to the side, eyes bright and waiting for praise. It was only mildly unsettling and mostly cute. I thought it quite amazing that they could teach her though the window. I thought that it is was only appropriate that my dog would learn such a thing in Baltimore.
Now, there are no kids hanging out on my porch, except for my own. They are 6, 5 and 2. They don’t watch the news and we try to prevent them from watching television shows or movies with any sort of, even comical, gun violence. Yet they live in a house with guns, with a father who is in law enforcement. Still, they haven’t really seen a gun. Ever. You see, it’s entirely possible to believe in the need for stronger gun laws and own a gun. Life…and politics…they aren’t so black and white.
So when we were standing in the kitchen, rewarding our old dog for her old tricks, it was the first time it occurred to me that the gun trick was strange. Or maybe it was strange that my 5 year old daughter was so puzzled by the notion of a gun.
We don’t have toy guns, not even water pistols. Guns are not toys. And frankly, I’ve always found the idea of making them out of neon resin and letting kids run around with them, shooting at each other–I’ve always found it to be perverse. I wouldn’t let them run around with rubber butcher knives threatening to slice each other open. I wouldn’t let them drink from bottles of pretend poison just for fun. I get that others disagree or might even think we’re crazy. That’s okay. We are crazy in lots of ways.
We are also privileged to have gotten this far along in the parenthood game without having had to talk about guns. Unlike so many others in this world, in this country, in our city, my kids have not experienced the havoc that gun violence…or just plain ‘ole violence can wreak in one’s life. They are lucky. We are lucky–in lots of ways.
On the news every day, in my Facebook feed every hour, there are stories and opinions about guns. Comments about their ownership and our rights. When police officers can or should use their guns. Whether guns are to blame, or people. Comments about how and when to shoot and second guessing of the motives and choices of those who buy, sell, store and carry those guns for their jobs or for personal protection.
Woven through and around these stories and opinions are threads of race and inequality. Yarns of fear and myth and truth and injustice. Sometimes these threads add context and texture. Other times they strangle the discussion. They can squeeze well-formed reason and honest discourse into something so misshapen and ugly, that there can be no response.
In the last few weeks I’ve felt like I’m on some kind of ridiculous scale, balancing “Racist” against “Cop Hater.” As if they are mutually exclusive monikers or even natural opposites. They are not.
You can be a racist and a cop hater. You can live your life and raise your family in such a way that you do your best not to make judgments, or decisions, or form relationships steeped in prejudice, while still believing that most law enforcement officers are good people. You can be a law enforcement officer and admit that sometimes you and your colleagues make mistakes. You can believe that everybody makes mistakes but that only rarely, if ever, does a person deserve to die for their mistakes. You can support law enforcement officers, their service and sacrifice, and acknowledge that racism sometimes, and in some places, plays a role in the administration of justice.
You can understand that there are no certainties when it comes to human behavior and feeling. There are no certainties when it comes to categories of humans based on race or ethnicity or religion or chosen profession. You can say that not all law enforcement officers are bad or racist. You can say it because to say otherwise is the epitome of prejudice and bias. It is to paint a large swath with the same brush. It would be wrong to say “all…anything” unless we’re talking about how we all come to these issues and questions and dilemmas with our own experiences. So here I am, tossing out that scale and declaring my allegiance to multiple sides. Placing myself on the side of those who peacefully protest against racism and injustice and placing myself on the side of those who support the men and women who leave their families every day and choose to walk into danger. I can do and say both.
I wonder about those boys on my old porch and where they are now. I wonder what I’ll say to my kids when it’s time to have a real discussion about guns and race and anger and the ease with which any one of us can fall into the trap of painting all of any particular group with the same brush. I wonder what it would be like to be unlucky. I wonder what it would be like to be having this conversation because one of my kid’s friends was shot by a police officer. I wonder what it would be like to be that police officer. I wonder what it would be like to be having this conversation because their father didn’t make it home from work.
I wonder what happened to the story I meant to write about the silly tricks I’m going to miss when my sweet old dog is gone.