Gun School: Are Guns a Rite of Passage?

PHOTO: Fred Leatherwood, inset, on his 87th birthday, and the shack where he held his several-week-long "Hunters Safety" school.
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Fred Leatherwood always wore a red plaid wool jacket and drove a peculiar colored bluish green Ford pickup. He was a quiet man with dark hair and a narrow, wispy mustache. I'm not sure what he did for a living, probably drove a truck or ran heavy equipment. He was also an officer at the Sportsman's Club on the small island near the Canadian Border where I grew up.

Every 15-year-old boy, and sometimes a girl or two, ended up in Fred's gun class. The equivalent of the village elders — tough, hard working men in the community — backed up Fred during the several-week-long "Hunter's Safety" school. The classroom was in a musty, cold shack near a make-shift shooting range. The curriculum and study materials were provided by the National Rifle Association.

You couldn't get your gun permit without it although I'm not sure if that was a government regulation or just the Islander's rule to prevent a teenager from shooting someone.

It was a rite of passage into the community. Here you learned to respect guns and not fear them. The first rules are still firmly fixed in my memory:

Always assume a gun is loaded.

Never point a gun at anything unless you want to kill it.

Your weapon is your responsibility.

Any violation of these rules was met with certain ridicule and, often, severe punishment.

There have been two incidents recently that made me think of Fred. The first was in Mercer County, Pa., last week. Joseph Loughrey was trying to sell two guns at a gun store. He returned to his truck, set his hand gun down and tried to buckle his seat belt. The weapon fired and killed his 7-year-old son in the back seat.

In Snohomish County, Wash., police officer Derek Carlile left a loaded weapon in the family van along with his children. His 3-year-old shot and killed his 7-year-old daughter, Jenna. Jurors hearing the case couldn't reach a decision on Carlile's guilt. Prosecutor Mark Roe noted that it was an "unusual case because the punishment came before the trial." One look at the anguished father's face and you clearly understand the severity of that punishment.

If you do a quick Google search you will see that these incidents are not rare. Those involved are not often left accountable beyond personal grief or regret. That may mean a cruel, self-inflicted justice, but it does nothing to discourage others. Perhaps the discussion on guns should start with holding everyone accountable for responsible use and storage of firearms. That includes guns that are stolen and used in crimes — another relatively common result of violating Fred's rule. Your weapon is your responsibility.

Regardless of our forefathers' intent, gun ownership is not an absolute right. Felons can't have guns, and you can't own a battle tank or a machine gun. So, what we are discussing is a matter of degree or balance. When and where does an individual's right meet the greater interest of community safety?

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