The nearest thing

I saw an online article from my hometown newspaper, The Bega District News, this morning. “Police hunt for armed man,” was the headline, and the first sentence: “police are searching for a man believed to be armed with a knife and hammer.”

As I followed the story over the course of the day, a tragedy became clear – this man had fatally stabbed a woman and seriously injured another man.

But it’s terrible – my first response reading the headline was to laugh. A HAMMER???

I laugh because I’m so enculturated to Montana and the US now, that anything less than guns blazing seems like de nada.

The hammer detail reminds me of what I wrote about in All we have to do is nothing: kids having strong feelings and irrationally lashing out, with whatever’s closest to hand.

What’s at hand here in Montana is guns. The gun you see in this image I found on a friend’s porch a few weeks ago – the contrast of metal and the pretty cover was captivating, but the reason the gun was there pragmatic: it was on hand for shooting squirrels nesting under their house.

Around the same time I came across that gun, I went out for a short hike in a cedar forest with our family and Haakon’s parents. In the car park, as we gathered sweater’s and hat’s, as it is cool in the cedars, a young couple were also getting ready to hike.

The guy busied himself strapping a handgun to his right thigh while the woman put granola bars in her pockets.

These moments happen so often here that I’m almost used to them, but somewhere in the back of my mind, the Australian in me is still confused: why the gun to hike in a fairy-glen? For an instant, my mind jumps to the worst scenario: maybe he brought her here to kill her. Maybe he will kill us all.

This guy probably thought he was protecting himself, and others, against bears [and lions! wolves!]. The problem here is that HE knows he’s a good guy. HE knows he’s a good shot.

I have none of that information.

All I know is that he feels unsafe for some reason, amongst the giant trees, the ferns, the crystal clear creeks.

Study after study has shown human fatalities in bear attacks are lower when we carry pepper spray, not guns. Pepper spray has a wide range compared to a bullet and can spray up to 30 feet, so a panicked hiker need not be accurate to let the charging bear known he is not worth messing with.

Last night I was in the woods, but high above the bears: lucky enough to be drinking wine in a treehouse with a bunch of lovely women.

One woman, Jen, I had only met once before, and I got to hear a bit of her story. Jen grew up in the nearby town of Libby but had most recently been living in New Mexico with her husband and daughter.

One of the reasons she had moved back here was because there was a shooting at the school where she worked as a middle school math teacher, and she thought it was less likely to happen here.

Is it? I don’t know. Our school community has recently formed a safety committee and held public meetings to discuss whether or not to arm teachers at our school’s.

“Arming teachers is not the solution,” Jen said last night “but having armed security guards is a deterrent.”

I kinda think if you are desperate enough to think that going to a school to shoot kids is a good idea, you are past assessing risk or caring about the threat of your own suffering, or death.

I am in awe of Jen, although I only just met her, for marching her students to safety on the day of the shooting.

“Some of them were crying because they saw the two who died, they saw it happen,” Jen said.

Mostly I admire how much she still wants to teach math, and be in schools.

This morning, Haak and I stood by the stove together in the pale sunlight, waiting for coffee to brew, and while we waited I told him Jen’s story.

“I just read that so far this year there are more people who have died in schools than in the US military,” Haak told me “so skip high school and go straight to the military – it’s safer!”

We lean towards each other, laughing in short, sad bursts, because what else can we do?

Next time Atticus goes to school, in Australia, I’ll worry about him losing his backpack, or breaking an arm falling off the monkey bars. I’ll worry about him being so excited he runs into a pole and gets a concussion.

I’m so relieved I won’t have to worry about him being shot at school anymore.

When someone is having so enraged, so irrational they could just pick up the nearest thing and use the force against anyone nearby, what do we want that thing to be?

A few months ago, I interviewed a handful of locals about the gun’s they own. A neighbor of ours, a very good man, told me that in his collection of 17 guns, he has a shotgun he keeps behind the bedroom door in case of intruder’s.

While I was there, he went to check on it. He came back, holding a gun: “actually, there were two back there,” he chuckled.

Guns are everywhere, man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hunting culture, guns and the rural Montana town I love.

When Americans think about increased gun regulation, probably what they don’t think about is this – my Australian dad, strolling through a paddock with his 22 rifle. My Dad’s name is Ian and he is likely wearing short shorts and a worn wide brimmed hat. There is a herd of kangaroos under a big eucalyptus tree on the hill and he is heading straight for them.

My dad had the rifle before the notorious 1996 gun laws passed after the Port Arthur, Tasmania massacre which killed 35 Australians.

And he has it still.

Right now Americans can easily purchase the kind of gun used at Port Arthur, but most, like my dad, need only one gun.

Here in Troy, Montana, where I live with my American husband and our two kids, September brings hunting season and our tiny supermarket is packed with people wearing camouflage, toting rifles and buying fried chicken under the watchful eyes of taxidermied deer and elk.

Even after 12 years of living in Montana, the visibility of gun culture is a shock. I’d never directly asked my 900 fellow townspeople about the guns they own, but with a son in kindergarten and the frequency of school shootings, it was time.

I chose to talk to people I don’t know well.

There was a feeling of breaking social barriers when I asked how many, and what kind of guns people owned – one of the reasons gun violence often comes as a surprise, especially in small communities like ours, is because like sex, money and politics, guns are a taboo subject in American culture.

We don’t know who has an AR-15 in their closet next to the yellow umbrella, because it would be impolite to ask.

But according to our chief of police Katie Davis: “almost everyone [in this town] has a gun.”

A gun – yes – but how many own just one?

According to a 2015 study, three per cent of American adults own half of the civilian guns, an average of 17 each, to hunt, defend their homes, or protect themselves from government takeover.

Just two blocks away from me lives Mike Peterson. Peterson is in his early 50’s and has the average 17 guns in his collection, including some assault rifles.

Peterson and his wife have a strong Democratic lean, and support gun control, but Peterson said he loves how easily he can buy and trade guns now.

Jennifer Meyer is 34, and not your average gun owner – she was shot when she was 12 by a peer and shows me the mottled white scar above her right hip.

Despite her shooting, Meyer is a passionate advocate for gun rights and is currently petitioning our school district to arm teachers.

I have a rifle in my truck,” Meyer said, “and a pistol in my purse. It’s not loaded but I have the clip in there with it.”

Meyer, like so many in our town, uses her weapons to hunt. When I ran into Meyer last fall, she told me she had shot a deer from her car while on the school run.

I saw this nice buck in a field and I knew I could take the shot,” she said, “so I did and then I thought: ‘what now?’.”

Mayer laughs as she tells me she hauled her baby, strapped in her car seat, into the field where she gutted the animal and called her brother to help lift the animal into her truck. And then this badass mom picked her kids up from school on time. 

Gary Britton, a retired military man, will not disclose how many, or what kind of guns he owns, but said he owns “multiple” weapons which would be sufficient to exercise his second amendment right to hold off the government.

But for now, his gun collection is used only for putting meat in the freezer, and on any weeknight, he and I, and hunters everywhere open our freezers and take out packages of meat to thaw.

I could tell you what it’s like to live where it is inconceivable that my kids would experience what Meyer did as a 12-year-old: “I woke up on the ground, and my ears were ringing. That sound is so loud when it’s coming right at you,” Meyer said of her shooting.

But how do I explain the absence of fear?

Let’s legislate for what people use guns for every day, not for that faraway hero scene – hiding from the military with a cache of guns. This image is used in Hollywood but nowhere else. Hunting culture, on the other hand, is something to cherish.

On the hill, my dad lifts the rifle and brings down a kangaroo. The meat is lean and dark like venison and he needed only one gun to provide for his family.