Each year at the Camp Kotok gathering in Maine, there is an optional morning for those who want to shoot. A variety of weapons are available. All shooting is supervised and all is on ranges or safe venues. We debated doing this for a few years and then tried it. The response was large. Many of the attendees hadn’t experienced guns and wanted to learn more about them.
The teachers of weaponry come from among the local fishing guides; many are also hunters or hunting guides. Some folks shoot pistols, others shotguns, and some automatic weapons. Some are doing it for the first time. I recall a 60-something financial professional whose experience with the outdoors was derived in Central Park. Her reaction to firing a weapon was surprise and respect. Conversations at lunch or dinner reveal that respect.
All realize the destructive capacity of the weapon. And all articulate additional respect for law enforcement agents who have to face such weapons daily. Several of our guides have or had law enforcement roles during their careers. Many households in northern Maine have a weapon. The same is true in Wyoming or Montana or Florida, where we also gather. Guns are part of the culture in those places. Like it or not, in America, that is not going to change.
Among our group of invitees and also among the Maine guides there are supporters of the National Rifle Association, and there are also detractors. Supporters argue that the NRA is the leading defender of their constitutional right to own a gun. Detractors say the NRA is now an intensely rigid and purely political organization. Passions run high on both sides and at all levels of the arguments. That said, the New York City resident who hates guns and the NRA member and fishing guide who taught her how to shoot a gun didn’t shoot at each other.
Both of them behaved as mature, collegial adults. She learned more about the weapon she hated. He learned more about her fear. Each of them acknowledged that our nation has a problem. And each agreed with the other that something must change when a teenager can shoot up a school. In Maine, we have had this discussion every year for a while. It is not a new subject. We will have it again this coming year. Our Maine guides are just as saddened by the news flow as are their visiting guests.
Some personal notes.
My farmer grandfather (everyone in the family called him Papa; neighbors called him Jake) had a gun. In those days nearly every farmhouse did. The first gun I learned to shoot was a single-action twelve-gauge, full-choke, long-barreled shotgun. You pulled the hammer back with your thumb. The trigger action was stiff. There was no cushion on the end of the wood stock. Papa used to say it “kicked like a mule.” By age eight I could hit something and fire a few shots before my shoulder hurt.
The first life I took with that gun was a rabbit’s. I hunted the rabbit, stalked it and killed it. Thinking about that rabbit today, I regret shooting it. The rabbit didn’t do anything to me. But as a young boy on a farm with a gun, well, hunting seemed like the right thing to do. I remember looking at that dead rabbit after it had encountered a full-choke twelve-gauge. The impression of the gun’s power is still with me.
We hunted in my town. David B. and his older brother Jerry; Gary (whom we nicknamed “Gobble” because he knew how to call wild turkeys); Vic, who took me into duck blinds and taught me to row a duck boat; and Bob M., who showed me how to “jump shoot” ducks in ditches – these were among many who owned guns and shot guns and cleaned them and stored them in cases in their houses. The Boy Scout troop was proud of teaching gun safety and respect for guns; the NRA supplied the learning materials. Several merit badges involved rifle handling and shooting. As an Eagle Scout, I earned those badges.
I remember the Remington pump twelve-gauge that was a source of pride when I saved up enough to buy it. It could hold five shells, but New Jersey law then limited shells to three, so you had to have a plug inserted to shorten the magazine. Pete’s gun shop was the place to get that modification done. Everyone in town knew Pete’s gun shop. Boys were in there looking at the guns that were behind the locked cases. Hunters were swapping stories. Yup, Pete’s was the place. Having a gun from his shop was something else, indeed.
The advantage of that Remington was that you could also use it with buckshot for deer. And my shiny new pump had a ventilated rib that allowed better “pointing,” since the heat generated by the barrel would more easily dissipate through the ventilated rib. That meant the heat waves above the barrel were less distorting. That factor becomes important when you are shooting a five stations, 25-shell round of trap (clay pigeons).
Rifles came later. My favorite was a lever-action 30-caliber Winchester. Felt like something out of a cowboy movie.
Yes, there were guns and hunting and shooting. But not one of the kids I knew would shoot up a school or even think about shooting another person. Guns were respected. Households stored them properly. Supervision was clear and careful. Hunting licenses required tests. Gun ownership required meeting standards. And infractions were punished. I do not recall any shooting incident in a school in those days. Maybe such things happened from time to time, but I don’t remember them. There was nothing like the spate of shootings we seem to have in the United States now, with what now seems to be one happening every few days.
Later, life with guns got more complicated. The pistol whipping I encountered in front of the post office on Landis Avenue in Vineland involved an angry man threatening a woman with a handgun. “Whoa! Slow down. You can kill someone.” Talk and talk and talk while backing slowly away. Hands held open and palms showing. Wait and wait and wait while every second seems like an eternity until the Vineland police arrived.
In those days the police walked up very slowly. First, the car would carefully approach. No sirens, no noise. The slow cruising of the patrol car was part of the protocol then so as to allow the gunman time to reflect. Slowly the officer would exit the car. Slowly he put on his hat. Slowly talking and slowly walking. “Put it down,” he said. “Be careful. You really don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Slowly. Talking. Walking. The victim and bystanders were terrified, me included. We were frozen in time. I think about that experience even now, many, many years later.
But that was a handgun, and that was on the street, and that was out in the open, and that was in front of the US Post Office on Landis Avenue in Vineland, New Jersey. It was not an AR-15 being fired by a 19-year-old inside a school building in Florida. It was before Columbine in Colorado. It was in a different era.
Some years later, on the corner of 17th and Lombard in Philly, came the shots fired at me. I had parked in the garage on 16th street near Pine Street and was walking up the north side of Lombard Street, carrying my briefcase in my right hand. Near the corner, a pickup truck stopped at the traffic light. The first shot missed because the gun was fired just as I started to move behind the bus stop enclosure. The second shot missed and shattered the enclosure covering. I was already dropping to the ground. The US Army teaches you to get down fast when you hear the first shot.
The light changed. The truck pulled away. I didn’t see the license plate, and I don’t know why I was the target – perhaps simply because I was there, perhaps I would have been a robbery victim. Later I found the bullet mark in the brick wall of the building next to the bus stop.
The US Army teaches that guns are for killing people. Military veterans respect weapons. I was fortunate when I wore a uniform in the 1960s – my job kept me away from the gunfire. Many were not so lucky. Some remain silent to this day about their Asian experiences. Today, that silence is about other places but the characterization of internalizing is unchanged. Then and now, some have friends who didn’t return. But in the most part there is a rare and deep respect for weapons among those who served in the 1960s. And it seems that deep respect continues through today. Think about it. How many can you name that served in the military and then went on shooting sprees? Sure, it happens, but it is rare.
Every vet I know has the deepest respect for the power of a weapon. That is regardless of branch of service or rank or expertise. Everyone I talk with is dismayed by what we are seeing in the news flow. All say that this has to stop. Whatever we are doing isn’t working, so if we keep doing it, if we change nothing, how can we expect a different outcome?
In my personal journey, I don’t shoot guns any more. I don’t even shoulder my lightweight Browning, over-under, 20-gauge quail gun. As much as I liked it, I sold it, and I know the new owner will treat it wisely. He is a good shot and a safe gun owner. I do not belong to the NRA and haven’t for years.
If I had a way to do it, I might even reach back in time and forgo that shot I took that killed that rabbit. But history cannot be revised away although revisionists can try to distort it. The question facing America now is can we learn from it?
The first part in this series, “Guns: Part 1, A Personal Journey,” can be read online here: www.cumber.com/guns-part-1-a-personal-journey/
The second part in this series, “Guns: Part 2, The Investment Journey,” can be read online here: www.cumber.com/guns-part-2-the-investment-journey/
The third part in this series is titled, “Guns: Part 3, The Policy Journey,” can be read online here: www.cumber.com/guns-part-3-the-policy-journey/
David R. Kotok
Chairman and Chief Investment Officer
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