Iwas 11, the same age as Drew Golden, one of the two pubescent boys charged with murdering five people in a Jonesboro, Ark., schoolyard. I was at summer camp in the Adirondacks. There were only two camp activities that I really liked -- tennis and riflery. I had become so good at riflery that I won an NRA Marksman medal.
To understate the case considerably, nothing in my life predisposed me to shooting. It was the last period in my life when I would have a gun in my hands. I knew very well why I liked riflery so much. I had an instrument of death in my hands. It was only a .22, but I was intensely aware of the deadly damage it could inflict. That was because the riflery counselor -- whose name I forgot decades ago -- made us all aware of it.
Nowadays, the feeling I had is rather smugly characterized as "empowerment." It is not a feeling that comes naturally or easily to 11-year-old boys.
One day we were shooting at the targets (always the targets, nothing else). A squirrel happened to dance across the target range. One of my fellow 11-year-olds took a potshot at it. He was a bad shot and didn't even come close. All he did was kick a pebble 30 feet in the air.
The riflery counselor -- to his eternal credit -- erupted as if the kid had tried to shoot us all. He gave him a well-deserved thwack on the side of the head and forbade him from ever coming to the range again. The point he was making was that guns were deadly and no single bullet would ever be shot on that range without his permission. Killing a living thing, even a squirrel, is not a spoiled-brat joke. It's something you do only when you intend to do it and know why you're doing it.
It turned out that his iron sense of discipline wasn't quite what we thought. The camp directors threw him out for stealing off to town one night, getting roaring drunk and coming back to tell them off. I can only imagine his rage and despair dealing with spoiled brats all day, especially if he had been (my guess) a Korean War veteran.
To know what guns can do, even .22s, and to deal with kids whose joke du jour is to pop off at a squirrel with wanderlust -- regardless of who might be walking down the range -- must have been tough, to put it mildly. It's hard to blame the guy for sneaking off at night for a shot or two of Wild Turkey and some grown-up talk with the locals.
There's something ridiculous about all the sanctimony that has been poured over those terrible five deaths in Jonesboro.
Don't those people remember what boys are like from pubescence to, say, 18? I used to joke that we should all be locked away during those years to minimize the damage. Hormones make monsters of us all. Some of us handle it better than others, but the basic frustrations and barbarities are close to universal.
When you add those to a gun society -- which there is all through the American South and West -- events like Jonesboro are depressingly predictable, however infrequent.
Guns are the problem. Guns.
If they exist in freedom and plenitude, there is simply no way to keep them out of the wrong hands. It doesn't matter whether those wrong hands belong to a Bed-Stuy crackhead holding up a mom-and-pop liquor store or 11- and 13-year-olds in Arkansas taking armed empowerment to homicidal extremes. With so many guns considered essential to the American way of life, many of them are going to go off in horrific ways.
It's difficult to get around the Second Amendment. We have an 18th century Constitution that rules us on the lip of the 21st century. After the First Amendment, which remains one of the miracles of Western civilization, you have two amendments clearly aimed at an 18th century colonial world in which citizen militias were comforting and everyone remembered wars fought on American soil.
In fact, the intent of the Third Amendment (no compulsory quartering of soldiers) clearly seems to be the removal of peace-loving citizens from wartime hardships and the line of fire. You have to wonder if the framers of the Third Amendment would still cherish the Second Amendment if they could see late-20th century schools and urban neighborhoods that are armed war zones.
But NRA or no NRA, the Second Amendment is still there wreaking horrors on us all the way antique laws often do. Until we're ready to look at it in the cold light of day, nothing should surprise us.
Kids will always be kids, which means, yes, they will sometimes be little monsters.
The question is what they have at hand to express their monstrosity with. The answer in Jonesboro was an arsenal. And it did an armed militia's worth of damage.