I must have been 10 or 11 years old, the same age as many of the victims of the Robb Elementary School shooting. I remember being herded with my classmates into the combination gymnasium/cafeteria at Saffell Street Elementary in Small Town, Ky. Metal folding chairs were set up in long rows in front of the elevated stage. There might have been some jostling or some goofing around, but students were largely respectful and well-mannered in that era. We took our seats and waited to see what was next.
A man appeared on the stage and walked us through a presentation about safely handling guns. I had never held a gun or seen anyone else handle a gun. Nonetheless, I remember paying careful attention, because I evidently knew there would be a test at the end. And I always wanted to do well on every test.
I learned the importance of keeping all guns and ammunition locked away when not in use. I learned how to carry a gun safely if I were ever hunting with others. What I remember most, perhaps because it concocted an image of traipsing across fields and farmland and crawling over obstacles—something I loved to do—were the detailed instructions on the importance of unloading a gun before climbing over a fence, handing the empty gun to someone on the other side (or, I suppose, shoving it under the fence), and then climbing over the fence unencumbered before retrieving the gun and reloading it, if necessary.
The presenter represented the NRA. He was there to ensure that children living in a rural area where there were certainly many guns available knew about basic gun safety. His job was to keep us safe, to preserve our lives.
This was the role of the NRA in 1970.
Heather Cox Richardson, in her Letters from an American post on May 26, 2022, reminded me of that. She wrote, “By the 1980s, the National Rifle Association had abandoned its traditional stance promoting gun safety and was defending ‘gun rights.’”
Today, the NRA opened its annual convention in Houston, despite the recent slaughter in Uvalde, Texas, five hours due west. The organization has a very different purpose and different goals than it did 50 years ago. Its lobbying efforts have clearly led to the proliferation of guns in American society, where there are more guns than people. Their efforts have also convinced legislators to refuse to back even the most moderate, and widely supported, gun legislation.
This week, after the senseless murders at Robb Elementary, Republican office holders have proposed arming teachers and eliminating doors in school buildings rather than raising the age for lawful purchase of a military-style weapon or expanding background checks. Because of the work of the modern NRA, more children will die in mass shootings.
As I’ve watched the transformation of the NRA over recent decades, I have frequently recalled the hour or so I spent as a youngster learning about guns. I have to smile at my earnest interest in a lesson that now makes me cringe. Contrasting that innocent hour to the hour of terror endured by the few surviving 10-year-olds in that Robb Elementary classroom spotlights where the NRA has taken this country.
I suppose I did OK on the test. I imagine we all were rewarded with the same wallet-size card indicating we had successfully completed a course on gun safety. I was immensely proud of that card and kept it in my billfold for many years. I probably still have it somewhere.
I’ve still never held a gun in my hands. I never intend to. I hope I never need to. (As I type that, I am reminded of numerous Ukrainians who have reported they shared my aversion to guns before they felt compelled to learn how to use one.) And the NRA better know that my abhorrence of weapons of mass killing will propel me to the polls every time I have the opportunity to vote against an NRA-endorsed candidate. We cannot let them get away with killing our babies.