Daddy used to spend his Saturdays with his buddies shooting doves and squirrels and rabbits. He’d bring the carcasses home and make us help him clean them while he told us stories about the woods. He could identify all the trees and mushrooms and critters, and he loved those weekends almost as much as we dreaded handling his bloody prey. There were seven of us kids, and it gave him great satisfaction to put food on the family table, despite our complaining.
Looking back, I think that spending time with his friends was the real point of the whole exercise. Guns were just tools, and as time passed, he’d go on those hunting trips armed with a camera instead of a hunting rifle.
My Uncle Ralph, on the other hand, was a gun nut.
At least that’s what I thought, back in the day. I don’t recall him fooling with pistols, although he doubtless had some, but he for sure had lots of expensive rifles that he used to hunt pheasant and deer, which was what we’d come to expect from a guy who’d blow into Knoxville every few months driving a Hudson Hornet or a shiny black Mercedes.
Uncle Ralph had cool stuff.
He was meticulous about keeping his guns in tiptop shape and even reloaded his own ammunition.
He was a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and could parrot all their talking points, which back then mostly consisted of rants about Saturday Night Specials, the generic slang term for the cheap, easily accessible handguns favored by small-time criminals looking to rob the local 7-11. It was a simpler time, long before they all became experts in interpreting the Constitution.
Uncle Ralph brought his gun collection with him when he and Aunt Manola took early retirement and moved down here from Illinois in the early ’80s.
They bought a house on the foot of House Mountain, joined the nearest Methodist church and the Masonic lodge over in Mascot. He founded a World War II veterans’ organization for guys who’d trained at the Sampson Naval Base in New York state and became its national president.
After he died in 2004, I helped sort through his stuff, which included towering stacks of old copies of The American Rifleman, the official magazine of the NRA. It didn’t take long to see how it changed its tone over the years. The older ones didn’t look much different from Daddy’s Outdoor Life magazines, which featured guys in plaid shirts crunching through amber fields of grain looking for animals to kill. Not my cup of tea, but they didn’t gross me out.
I absolutely hated the more recent magazines, though. They grew increasingly political in a dark, conspiratorial kind of way and were chocked full of conspiracy theories laced with warnings about gun grabbers out to destroy our American Way of Life.
It was unsettling. Would Uncle Ralph have surrendered to the tidal pull of NRA politics if he’d lived to see the Tea Party era? I really don’t know. I don’t recall him owning anything scarier than his hunting rifles, but would he have gone out and bought himself a semi-automatic in case the enemies of the Constitution knocked down his front door?
He’d been an officer in his Illinois State Employees union and a pretty conservative Blue Dog Democrat who was proud of his military service. Would he have morphed into a MAGA man if he’d lived a little longer? Would he have become one of those Second Amendment hardliners who insist that it’s the most important element of the Bill of Rights and was handed down by the God of Firearms to protect their right to tote any kind of lethal weapon they fancy?
I’d like to think not, but lots of churchgoers and lodge members who should have known better have gone that way, so who knows? Would he have been one of those guys who cling to the Second Amendment (as interpreted by Antonin Scalia) like it was biblical?
I know not. But writing about this made me think of a quote from another judge, former Chief Justice Warren Burger, who was appointed to the Supreme Court by Richard Nixon, which was reason enough for my lefty law school friends and me to talk about The Burger Court as if it were a fast-food joint slinging greasy fries. We didn’t cut him any slack for authoring the majority opinion in United States v Nixon, which stopped the most criminal president in history (at the time) from wrecking our system of government by claiming executive privilege in the Watergate investigation. We also ignored the fact that he’d been on the majority side of Roe v Wade.
Many years later, I came across something he’d said about the Second Amendment, and it turned out that he didn’t think much of it at all:
“If I were writing the Bill of Rights now, there wouldn’t any such thing as the Second Amendment – a well-regulated militia being necessary for the defense of the state, the people’s right to bear arms – This has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
So maybe I should adjust my thinking about what Uncle Ralph would have done. Sometimes an old guy will surprise you.
From January 1, 2023, to November 1, there have been 585 mass shootings in the USA.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.