An abused J. Stevens single-shot, break-open 12-gauge holds of place of honor today, and receives more attention than the SIG Sauer M400, Beretta Storm Carbine, Kimber 84 and Remington 700 that share the vault. I knew it could never be, but somehow I’d hoped it would always be with Dad, proudly hanging on the den wall like it did when I was growing up, visually teasing friends until they’d finally inquire about the old gun and sit hypnotized as my father shared hunting tales from the Great Depression.
Wall-hanging legacies like this have, unfortunately, been replaced by wide-screen TVs and even those deadly accurate Mayan calendars. Part of the reason is the perceived safety issue. Parents are encouraged to inquire about firearms before their child ever steps inside a friend’s house, yet the same “child welfare” groups don’t address pools and pets, much likelier suspects in regard to injuries.
My father’s approach, like many gun-owning parents at the time, was dirt simple and eloquent. That shotgun was displayed proudly and unloaded. Cleaning the den meant we checked again that the chamber was empty. Ammunition was stored in a separate room and as a result any time one of my young friends asked about it, the gun came down, where they witnessed all the safety precautions and saw how to open the barrel and ensure there was no shotshell inside. Only then did his tales begin.
I’m not quite sure how it worked, but it did. There was no mystique, I never once touched it without an adult present and it was the same with my friends.
Even back then there were anti-gun sentiments, though, and there was a single “inspection” from my best friend’s parents. They were deeply religious and highly anti-gun (which are not mutually exclusive terms), but open-minded enough that their son hunted with us for 10 years afterward.
Things don’t go as well today if the anti-gun Gestapo shows up at your door. “Little Billy said you have guns in the house and that one of them isn’t locked up. Is that true?”
It’s a trick question. At this point you know the snotty-nosed kid’s claim he’d gotten lost on the way to the bathroom was to buy time to inventory most of the house with his iPhone, put the photos on Facebook to summon reinforcements for his parents, alert the social-media-monitoring school and cement his chances of winning a third student-of-the-year award.
“I messaged the parents of some of his friends, and they confirmed their children have seen a gun here.” The message is cryptic, but it roughly translates to, “I’ve seen to it that no one in the neighborhood is going to speak to you or your family again, the pediatrician will be informed tomorrow when I take Billy in for his toe-fungus checkup and your son will no longer be invited to pool parties, soccer leagues or the annual subdivision steeple chase.”
The prospect of confrontations with vocal minorities like Billy’s mom is one of the reasons fewer guns—even non-working family heirlooms—hang proudly on walls today. I had a similar encounter while going through a child-custody battle long before iPhones dropped from the Mac tree. For a year I was in court more frequently than Fox runs “American Idol” advertisements.
Another reason is the fact that today’s gun owners are also far more educated and safety conscious. They have to be, with the increase in population, urban migration, designer drugs and even lifestyle-monitoring health-care professionals. The industry has responded to their need for added security and privacy with some great new firearm-security devices that leave them instantly accessible in an emergency. GunVault’s fingerprint-recognition system, for example, was the stuff of science fiction when dad was spinning yarns.
Does that mean proudly displayed guns are an endangered species? Not in my case, anyway. Old Model ’94s (like the one I’ve inherited) aren’t much of a collector’s item, with tens of thousands of the bargain-priced, utilitarian shotguns produced by the Stevens factory in Chicopee Falls, Ma. Despite the model being discontinued sometime in the 1940s, a new-and-in-the-box specimen fetches only slightly more than $100 according to the latest “Gun Trader’s Guide.” The specimen I have is in bad shape, though, with a well-worn lockup that has relegated it to wall-hanging duties since the ’60s.
My father lost his fight with emphysema in late January, but this scarred shotgun will continue his legacy. When one of the grandkids brings over a friend who inquires, I’ll take it out, explain the safety procedures and tell him how my father hunted with it during the Great Depression.
Some traditions are too important to lock up, so long as they’re celebrated safely.