Volume 76, Number 49 | May 2 -8, 2007

Talking Point

Kids and guns: An irresistible urge in violent times

By Daniel Meltzer

Another school shooting, the worst yet. More deaths, more grief, more talk, more questions. Guns are too easy to get. Mental health care isn’t. Little boys in America have always played with guns, real or virtual. We are all sons of the Wild West, the Revolution, the Civil War, deer and duck hunts and urban combat zones. Contrary to some opinions, it doesn’t mean we were all potential killers.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s, in working-middle-class Brooklyn, my friends and I played “guns” after school. A broom handle was a 30-30 carbine, a pointed index finger and a cocked thumb a Colt .45. In the popular prison movies, Hollywood’s handsome and hardened hard-timers — Cagney, Bogart, Garfield — had grown up fast, like us, in struggling households, then got caught redistributing some of the world’s wealth, or just stuffing their own pockets. To us they were heroes, sharing loot with a poor widowed ma, or a kid brother so he could afford college or sis a prom dress, helping the blind or lame girl get an operation — or buying their way into the plush world of the real gonifs, the ones who already had everything, and kept it, and never got caught. Guns gave them instant power, and we loved every minute of it.

At play, we became them, with harmless if real-looking cap pistols of gleaming chrome or steel. In shop class, when the teacher wasn’t looking, one of us made a zip gun: a piece of pipe, some electrical tape, a carved wooden block, thick rubber bands and a nail as a firing pin.

We were far from innocent and far from the cream of society. Many of our parents or grandparents had been illegal immigrants: deserters from the Czar’s army, fugitives from Stalin, from the Third Reich; stowaways, thieves, smugglers, many with phony papers and new names. They filled our ears with firsthand tales of graft at border crossings, black markets, the bitter realities of the Great Depression, of bootlegging and speakeasies. Ancient history to us, until a classmate’s father made the Daily News front page one morning — a major Mafioso, a real killer, himself now rubbed out. A tenant in our building had done time in Sing Sing, I overheard my mother say, for “pimping.” Whatever that meant.

One summer evening, a few of us pre-bar mitzvah boys stumbled onto a cache of .45-caliber cartridges in a brown paper bag dropped or stashed on a vacant lot. We divided them and took them home, then feared nightly that the mob would come looking for them, and for us. They lay useless in our sock drawers for months, none of us knowing where you got a .45-caliber pipe. No one in our families hunted — except for jobs. But with tough street gangs in surrounding neighborhoods, we felt better having that ammo, along with our switchblades, “just in case.” Homework, high school, the World Series, girls, getting into college were what mattered.

One cool fall afternoon, as we were roasting marshmallows on that lot, one dimwit tossed a bullet into the flames. We ran for cover. It exploded with a crack and sent a lead round into a tree trunk. The following evening, after supper, we met on the corner and sadly dropped our arsenal down a sewer. I secretly kept one round as a souvenir. I think we all did.

Movies and TV are much more violent today, not to mention the inexhaustible firepower in video games. The media then, as today, was filled with stories of mayhem and carnage. World War II was not a distant memory to us. G.I.’s were killing and getting killed in a place we had never heard of — Korea. Russia had the bomb. We lived then, as now, in a violent, Darwinian world. Shivs in our pockets, live rounds stashed at home, homework under our arms, we swaggered into geometry or civics class; smart alecks, guys who could handle a problem, we believed, and pronto. Many of us had but one parent. Some not even that. We delivered orders after school; the phrase “latchkey kids” hadn’t been coined yet. We had attitude and, for a time, we had ammo. Ours families never feared that any of their peach-faced darlings would grow up to be Baby Face Nelson. And none of us ever did. Where did we go right?

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