Thanksgiving time evokes some of my fondest childhood memories. A sumptuous turkey feast with family and friends around our dining room table, my father's heartfelt prayer of thanks for our abundant blessings, the warmth and security of a caring home - important things that a child takes for granted. But clearly my most vivid and pleasurable Thanksgiving memories are the hunting trips with my big brother, who was my hero. With the falling of the leaves in eastern Ohio came the season when squirrel, rabbit, pheasant and deer became fair game. Early settlers depended upon the abundant wildlife for their sustenance. Long after domestic sources of food replaced the need for wild game, however, hunting remained as a cherished manly tradition. In my small town school, the first day of hunting season was an excused absence for any of the boys who took off to hunt.
I was thirteen when I got my first gun - a beautifully engraved 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun with a hand carved stock. My father got it for me from a widow in our church whose husband had been a collector. Dad's confidence in my maturity to responsibly handle a gun was nearly as important as the gift itself. To own a fine firearm was a status symbol like no other. Its powerful kick against my bony shoulder inflicted pure pleasure - the kind of pain a man was proud to bear. Like a rite of passage, owning a shotgun gave me membership in a sportsman's culture.
The memories of crunching through the woods with the older guys were some of the richest of my life. Little wonder that such traditions stayed rooted deeply within me as I entered adulthood. When I began a ministry with troubled urban youth, I looked for healthy activities that would teach important values and build camaraderie and trust. Quite naturally I thought of guns and hunting. It didn't occur to me that enrolling my young friends in the National Rifle Association's firearm safety course was at all unusual - not until I saw the puzzled expressions on the faces of the "good-ole-boy" instructors at the firing range as I pulled up with a van load of black inner-city youth. Actually, it turned out rather well. The boys loved shooting and the trainers took a real interest in them. We never did shoot much game on our hunting trips but we built some strong friendships camping under the stars. Twenty some years later one of these young friends (with his wife and children) came to our home for a visit and produced a faded Polaroid photo of himself proudly displaying a squirrel he had bagged on one of our hunting expeditions. These were great memories.
Twenty-five years ago it was a rarity to see a gun in the city. Delinquent kids packed knives then. Only the most menacing criminals were "armed and dangerous". But times have changed. Today, every day, 125,000 guns are carried to school by kids. 60% of urban young people have immediate access to a gun. And they are using them against each other. More children have been killed with guns in the past decade than soldiers whose names appear on the wall of the Vietnam War Memorial. 40,000 of us are being gunned down each year. And for some bizarre reason the NRA, which was once the champion of firearm safety, now campaigns for the unrestricted distribution of weapons of all sorts - even automatic assault rifles that have nothing to do with the sport of hunting. Something has gone very wrong.
Perhaps it is time to retire an American tradition that was shaped by the frontier. Our romance with guns no longer blends with our urbanizing society. Even sheriffs in the wild west had to ban guns when things in town got out of hand. This fundamental right to bear arms must be re-interpreted in the light of our modern realities. I'm afraid the time has come for this urban dweller to turn in his guns.
I desire for the children of my community to grow up with the same kind of warm, homey and adventurous Thanksgiving traditions that enriched my childhood. But I am willing to part with one American tradition that began as a family sustainer but has turned into a family destroyer. The commercialization of lethal weapons, whether in the name of constitutional rights, free enterprise, safety or sport, is more than a political debate - it is an outrage. It is a tradition we can live without.