Good Guys: How I Talk to My Sons About Guns
I am a school shooting survivor. My brother was a school shooter. This is a conversation I had with my son about guns.
“Mom. I want to have this gun so I can practice. If I practice, I will be very good with guns.” This is my six year old son. The gun he wants is a cap gun. I hate those damn things. The sound they make grates on me . . . it is the thing I thought I heard when the shooting happened.
“I know, buddy. But I just want you to know that we’re going to have some rules about that gun. Like you can’t shoot it in the house.”
“ . . . and I know I should not shoot at people.” He interrupts, with great confidence. “We have a zero tolerance policy.” He is very proud that he knows the rules. We’ve had toy guns in our house for a long time. It might surprise people, but I am not anti-gun. In fact, I’m pretty pro-gun in that I think guns are a culturally important and powerful force in our society, should be discussed on the regular, and should be treated seriously and with respect. Which is why I don’t mind my boys having practice guns. And why I will also take them away and destroy them if they do not follow the rules. We have a zero tolerance policy.
”Well, listen.” I say. “It’s not just that. You see, this specific gun makes noises, and the noises bother me. So. I will let you have the gun. But you’re going to need to understand that sometimes the noise will make me upset. And I am going to ask you to stop shooting when that happens. If you are disobedient, there will be consequences.”
“Okay Mom.” He says. Then a pause. “Mom, why are the noises upsetting?”
I take a deep breath. “The noise the gun makes reminds me of the time your uncle shot people at my school. It frightens me, and it makes me very, very sad.”
I read an article recently that a lot of school shooting survivors haven’t talked to their children about the thing they lived through. It surprised me, and reminded me that I’m a little bit different. In our household, it’s not an option to not talk about it. My sons have met my brother. They have visited him in prison, and we’ve had to talk about why he is there. About what it means for our family for him to be there. I try to be very open and matter of fact about the shooting and the consequences of my brother’s actions.
It is actually much easier to talk to kids about it than is to talk about it to adults. Kids understand school shootings. They have lock down drills regularly, so they think about being shot at in school. They plan for it. But it’s a little more tricky in our family, because it is a thing that has happened. And a little less black and white, because the “bad guy” is a person we know. A person we love. It’s complicated, but I try to make it simple for now. I do not want to keep secrets or endorse shame. I really have no idea if this is the best way to handle it, but since there isn’t a handbook for this, I do the best I can. I trust my gut, feel grateful for years of training in psychology, and wing it.
I pause. I want to see if he will continue.
“Mom, I want to have a gun so I can be a good guy like Chief Tom. Or in the Army, like Uncle Chris. I don’t want to be a bad guy like Uncle Michael. I don’t want to hurt people with a gun.”
I think about this for a second.
“I like that.” I tell him. “If you practice a lot, you can be a good guy with a gun. You will have to be a very good shooter.”
He nods enthusiastically.
“But bad guys practice, too. And they can be very good shooters. Do you want to know the difference between a good guy with a gun and a bad guy with a gun?”
“Yes!” He was excited now.
“A gun is a very powerful thing. It is a big responsibility to have a gun. You can use a gun to make people safe, or you can use a gun to make people unsafe. You can use a gun to hurt people or to protect them. The difference between a good guy with a gun and a bad guy with a gun is not how much he practices or how good he shoots. It is how he chooses to use it.
If you want to be a good guy with a gun, you must always choose to use your gun to make people safe. And if people feel unsafe around your gun, you’ll be respectful of that, and you’ll talk to them about what you can do to make them feel safe. Even if you are not doing anything to make them afraid, good guys know that some people are frightened of guns, and good guys are caring about that. Because good guys protect people.
Bad guys use their guns to hurt people. Sometimes they shoot people, and that is awful. But some bad guys never shoot anyone. They use their guns to frighten people, or to intimidate them. Or they are not caring about people’s feelings. Even if they never shoot anyone, they choose to use their gun to hurt other people, and that is not being a good guy.”
I told him the story of the time I met Chief Tom. When Tom learned that I had witnessed gun violence, he asked if his carrying a weapon bothered me. “I can lock it up when I’m around you. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable.” Because of that, I felt safe around Tom. I trust him to have a gun, because I know he will keep me safe. I know he is a good guy with a gun. I know lots of good guys with guns - we don’t talk about that enough.
I want my son to consider the power of a weapon. To think about the impact that the mere presence of a gun can have on another human being (including his mom!). I hope my son is not afraid of guns. Maybe one day he will serve in the military, or be a police officer. I’d be so proud of those things. But I’ll be most proud if he is a kind and caring person - with or without a gun. I want my son to be a good guy. I want him to understand that protecting people includes helping them feel safe just as much as it includes protecting their bodies.
So I let him have the cap gun. And when the sound is too much, I ask him to put it away. So far, he has. And the other night after he put it away, he came over, hugged me, and said “Mom, I’m sorry that the gun upset you. I’ll protect you.”
He is a good guy with a gun.