Gun School: Are Guns a Rite of Passage?

In some communities, you learn to respect guns and not fear them.

December 19, 2012, 1:21 PM

Dec. 20, 2012 — -- 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:

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?

The theatre shooting in Aurora, Colo., instructs us on one possibility. James Holmes' psychiatrist, Dr. Lynne Fenton, was so concerned about her patient that she broke the code between doctor and patient to discuss his case with others and run a criminal check. Her options were limited. One possibility, rarely used, is what is referred to a psychiatric "hold" or a temporary commitment for evaluation. The bar is high for such procedures, as it should be. The patient has to be an "imminent danger" to others, and there needs to be a specific threat. Perhaps we should consider a lower threshold and establish a "hold" for a psychiatric patient to purchase a weapon. Colorado is considering a similar law.

The defenders of the Second Amendment get justifiably nervous when there is discussion of one person restricting the rights of another, but there might be a way to navigate those concerns. If Fenton had that option it's likely James Holmes would have not been able to buy the AR-15 assault rifle he allegedly used in that massacre.

There is much we don't know about the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and more, likely, that we will never be able to understand. The status of Adam Lanza's mental health is not known, yet but I'm comfortable with the notion that his actions were not those of a rational being.

It's hard to know how this or any other specific incident can be prevented, but it appears to me that one of Fred's three rules was violated -- your weapon is your responsibility. None of the weapons used int he Newtown shootings were registered to Adam Lanza.

Fred is 89, now. I hope he's lived a full and happy life. My classmates have moved on, but for a time, most of us on that island lived in a world without fear. The thought of needing to use a weapon on someone else never occurred to most of us. Since I left the island I've had the privilege of traveling the world with my wife and daughter more than once.

I've found the differences between Americans and others are far less important than those things we share. We've been invited into the homes of many. All were generous to us, fellow travelers on the road to discovery.

There is only one country where that universal sense of hospitality was not offered: here -- my own country.

My wife and I once bicycled across the U.S., and although we were met with characteristic American kindness we were never invited to stay in anyone's home. The reason was obvious to us. Sometimes it was declared, other times understood but not said. People are afraid.

I have several good friends on that island near the Canadian border. Some have permits to carry concealed weapons and regularly "pack" when they come to the mainland to visit Seattle. They carry handguns for protection, a reasonable choice given their perception of the violent world in which they live, or in this case visit.

Other than hunting and sport, it is fear that drives us toward guns. Fear of the government, fear of your neighbor or fear of a stranger, even a stranger on a bicycle. I will admit that those of us in the media are partly responsible for creating this world -- a world that is not actually real. Despite what we see every night on television, the chances of being involved in a street crime or home invasion robbery are miniscule.

Fred's rules can't change that imaginary world. But we can, surely, try to understand the real world better. It's not just the violence that is important. It's the generosity and kindness, so clearly shown after the shooting in Newtown that should instruct our personal choices. Do we move forward as a fearful nation or one that sees the best in each other? Do we need more guns to be safe or fewer?

I'm not sure what Fred would say, but I'd like to think that if most Americans weighed the real need to have and use a weapon with the true costs of gun ownership they'd make the right choice.

Fred didn't get paid for teaching us about guns. Neither did the men and women who supported him. They did it out of a sense of community, kindness and generosity. Fred isn't teaching anymore, but his world is very much alive. The shack by the firing range isn't there anymore, but Fred Leatherwood is still teaching us about guns.

This work is the opinion of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.