Is That a Gun in Your Bedside Table? Or Are You Just Happy to See Me?

How I learned about America's love affair with lethal weapons

I grew up in a household without guns.

Never saw one, never touched one. The notion of firing one was inconceivable.

It wasn’t a political stand. It just wasn’t part of our family culture. No one hunted. No one felt we needed a gun for protection. Plus, there were a lot of kids in my family, a big houseful, and since guns are generally thought to be a bad thing to have around kids, the case against guns was closed before it was even opened.

And so I grew up, then I got older, and older yet, and still, no guns—no thought of guns, never held a gun, never fired a gun, never considered owning a gun, never, not once, not for a second.[SIGNUP]

In fact, it wasn’t until I lived in a sleepy Florida town for a couple of misplaced years in the early ’90s that I encountered the gun culture up close and way too personal. The prevailing attitude about guns in this Florida town was to keep one or two close by at all times, a notion completely antithetical to how I’d been taught to feel about guns. It was like dying as a practicing Catholic and having heaven’s gatekeeper tell you the Mormons had it right all along.

Ironically, the small Florida town where we lived was extremely wealthy and extremely conservative and—here comes the truly ironic part—extremely safe. Safe, and well protected. Heist a Snickers at a convenience store and you could be cuffed, carted away and never heard from again.

But because this town was located directly across Alligator Alley from Miami, a collective paranoia grew that the perceived mayhem and criminal madness in Miami (which is where I would have felt more at home) was one day going to be instantly teleported to this small sleepy town—and since it could happen at any moment… best load up.

Suddenly I was hanging around with guys—doctors, artists, lawyers, restaurant owners, all nice guys, mind you—who liked guns, who liked them so much, in fact, that they kept them in glove compartments, in boats, in their homes and sometimes on their person. Despite all evidence in this sleepiest of Florida towns to the contrary, they felt it necessary to be Glocked and loaded at all times.

It made me anxious.

Gun nuts. That’s what they were. Certifiable.

And I told them that. I smiled real wide when I said it though.

My brief love affair with this heavy-lidded paradise on the Gulf ended with finality when a neighbor asked that I please make sure our six-year-old daughter didn’t wander into her house unattended because there were loaded guns in desk and bedside drawers.

Funny how quickly the moving vans were pulling up to our house after that.

All this is to say that somewhere along the line, hard to pinpoint exactly when, the guys who believe guns are like Pez dispensers, kind of cute and nice to pop, began to carry the day, and not just in Florida but everywhere, while advocating for stronger gun laws marked you as weak, a liberal, a wuss.

For the longest time there seemed no sense even talking about it, let alone advocating for new legislation. Nothing was going to change.

Now, though, with the Arizona shootings not yet in our rear view mirror, the time for tougher gun laws is nigh. Speak up now. The case has never been stronger—even Dick Cheney is talking about banning gun magazines.

Change may finally be coming, but I don’t expect them to be nuts about the idea back in my old sleepy Florida town.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]), is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.