“Wait,” my daughter said. “He wants a gun?” She was astounded. Before we started watching A Christmas Story on Friday night, she had asked what it was about, and I said it was about growing up in the 1940s, a time before television and the Internet and video games. And specifically, I said, it was about a 9-year-old boy who wants a special gift for Christmas.
“Is that a real gun?” Lea asked, still very puzzled. We had just watched the opening scene of the movie, where Ralphie sees the rifle for the first time, in a department store window.
“It’s a toy gun,” I said. “But you can shoot it.”
“What does it shoot? Does it shoot bullets?”
“No. Not real bullets. BBs.”
“Could you shoot a person with it?” she asked. She knew nothing, or perhaps very little, of the carnage that had taken place earlier that day, half an hour away from us. We don’t keep her in a bubble — my wife and I had a very active discussion about current events over dinner — but we didn’t feel we needed to shove the details in her face, either. Later, after the movie, she would catch me reading the news on my iPad, and though I closed it quickly, she caught a glimpse of the picture on the New York Times Web site and asked me what that was. I told her I didn’t want to discuss it right before she went to bed, but she persisted, and I told it to her plain. She asked if the shooter was dead. I said that he was. She said, okay, and kissed me goodnight.
But that was later. “Could you shoot a person with that thing?” she asked, referring to Ralphie’s dream present.
“You could shoot a person with it, yes,” I said. “You couldn’t kill a person with it, I don’t think, but it would certainly hurt. You could kill a small animal or a bird with it.”
“Huh,” she said, and then she sat back and enjoyed the movie. I’d seen A Christmas Story about 50,000 times before, of course, but this was the first time for my daughter. It really is a very good movie. The young Peter Billingsley, with his guileless blue eyes, is fantastic, and I’d forgotten just how many great lines Jean Shepherd gets off as the narrator.
In the end, Ralphie gets his air rifle, though I’d forgotten exactly how that happens. After all the Christmas presents are supposedly unwrapped, his father points Ralphie to one more gift hiding in the corner. The father has done this on his own; the mom had no idea. “Aw, I had one when I was eight years old,” the father tells his wife as she stares at him.
The rifle Ralphie desires is a Red Ryder model, and it turns out that the fictional cowboy Red Ryder was an actual thing — a long-running character, who started off in the comics and then jumped to the radio and movies and television. He was, of course, far from the only Western hero of that era. Head over to Old Time Radio Westerns and you can hear some of these shows even now: The Lone Ranger (soon to released as a big-budget remake), The Cisco Kid, Gunsmoke.
There was a radio show about Wild Bill Hickok, who was of course a real person, a central figure in America’s fascination with the Old West — a West settled by men with guns; men who would go on to become idols for a generation of little boys.
People like to express puzzlement about America’s relationship to guns. But it is not very hard to figure out how guns became so deeply embedded in the American DNA. Guns have a prominent, important place in our history, and so do the men who held those guns. Many an American hero would not have been a hero without that gun. Those heroes became figures of American folklore, and those stories inspired comic books and radio shows, which in turn gave way to an ocean of American-made movies and television shows.
It’s not complicated. History and culture conspired to make us who we are today.
We perceive ourselves as a nation of gun nuts because we have a long history where that was true. But our evolution is in fact moving us away from guns. Oh, there are pockets of enthusiasm and there always will be, but in general, the romance of the man with a gun has been fading for a long time. We have a more complicated relationship with our history — no longer is the cowboy automatically the good guy and the Indian automatically the villain. We have a better understanding of what a soldier goes through out there on the battlefield — American men will never again rush en masse to join the armed forces, as they did during the World Wars.
How many people would now buy a working rifle for a child? A lot fewer than when Jean Shepherd was growing up in Indiana.
Indeed, according to this round-up of gun-related data, both gun ownership and gun violence are in serious decline. It’s still much higher than pretty much any other developed country, but we are working against the last 150 years of our history, and there is no easy way to shorten the path.
In the wake of Friday’s violence, we can pass new gun laws and probably will. It is possible — though hardly assured — that these new laws will be effective. A more surefire weapon against American gun culture is simply the passage of time… hastened, unfortunately, by horrors like Newtown. At least the evolution of our gun culture is heading in the right direction, as reflected by the disbelief in my child’s eyes, that a 9-year-old would even want a gun, much less that a parent would buy him one.