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The Day I Became a Killer

When I was thirteen, I went to 4-H camp. We were there for a week and I was given a rifle and taught to shoot. It was nothing unusual. All kids where I lived, Idaho, were taught to shoot.

It turned out I was a very good shot. I still have the target that won me a ribbon in the 4-H competition in 1968. I found it in my scrapbook along with the blue ribbon I received for my banana nut bread that year. I actually have several target sheets in my collection, accumulated over a couple of years of 4-H camps.

I was praised by the adults around me for my shooting abilities and encouraged to practice. I loved hitting the bulls-eye of the target, so I eagerly agreed.

My award winning 4-H target
One day, my parents took me to the shooting range just outside of town. It was not a fancy place. The targets were metal cans set on a fence rail, all of them rusted, punctured multiple times by bullets.

I shot a few cans off the rail, each shell making a satisfying ping as it found its target. I was firing a shotgun that day. I didn't really like it because it was big and kicked me in the shoulder when I pulled the trigger. We were about to leave when my dad pointed to a dark spot on the hillside. It was much further away than the cans on the fence, but he said he thought I could hit it. He said I was a great shot.

I loved being praised for my shooting ability. I don't remember even wondering what the dark spot was. All I remember is lifting the gun, peering through the sight at the spot, and firing. The dark spot disappeared.

My dad suggested we go see what it was. I didn't much care, as I was ready to go home, but I trudged up the dry hill after him, navigating around sagebrush and cactus. When we reached the location where the dark spot had been, I saw them: feathers. Brown and black and white feathers, spread across the hillside.

It was an owl, he said. Its body had probably been blown apart, he said, by the shell exploding inside the bird. I didn't hear anything after that, since my stomach was twisting and I turned and ran, overcome with guilt.

I had killed. I had not intended to kill, but that seemed beside the point. I had done it.

It had never occurred to me that all these shooting lessons were training to be a hunter. I hadn't wanted to be a hunter. What I wanted was the praise of my father and my 4-H leader.

I never picked up a gun after that. In less than a second I had gone from shooting paper targets and cans to being a killer. I could not change what I had done, or who I had become, but I could vow to walk away from the gun culture, the one that glorifies shooting and hunting and vigorously defends our "right" to bear arms.

Advocates of "gun rights" talk about a slippery slope that will ensue if we begin banning certain classes of weapons or types of ammunition. Our right to bear arms will be taken away, they say. The "sport" of hunting will be threatened, they say.

Very little hunting that occurs in our country is undertaken for the purpose of putting food on the table. We need to be honest about the true purpose of this "sport," and ask those who defend hunting why they find it is necessary to kill other living creatures in order to have fun. There is another slippery slope, the one we begin sliding down when we confuse hunting for food with killing for pleasure. This is the truly dangerous slippery slope.

It is true that we, homo sapiens, are predators. Our place in the food chain is at the top and we must kill living things, either plant or animal or both, to survive. Joseph Campbell has said that the one, horrible truth of the cycle of existence that we all must embrace is that other living things must die so that we may live. When we take the life of another living thing for food, in order that we can live, we must do it in a humane and reverent way.

In these few days since the horrific killings in Newtown, Connecticut, many have called for action. Where to draw the line between guns we don't need and those we supposedly do need is being debated. I personally see no use for guns of any kind in our society, except in the hands of the police. A total ban on weapons would be fine with me.


  1. I understand the feeling you experienced upon your first kill, as I remember the first bird I killed: the sudden horror in place of the elation or pride I expected. Mine was different, as I knew what I was aiming for, but that has not driven me away from guns; instead it has given me a respect for the power I hold while armed, and the damage I can do if I am not careful and aware of my surroundings every time I pull the trigger.
    The excuse of a person who opened fire in Connecticut was a killer because he intentionally killed another person while not in danger from that person. A soldier kills in defense of himself or others. A hunter kills animals for food or profit.
    Notice that none of the titles above describe the gun or weapon used; they describe the person who uses them for a certain outcome. While you have recounted the time you ended an animal's life, this does not make you a killer. The way you were exposed to the magnitude of the power you controlled, that shattering of innocence, was poorly handled but does not reflect on you as a person.
    You mention that "Our place in the food chain is at the top..." which seems to imply that has, is, or will always be the case. If either of us were wading unarmed in a bayou and encountered a 16' alligator, it might disagree with such a lofty mindset. Our place at the top of the food chain comes from our ability to make and use tools to help us overcome our weaknesses, and guns are but one powerful subset of those tools. A person misusing a tool for his own horrible purposes does not make the tool itself immoral or evil, nor should the tool be made illegal. If so, we should also ban cars, aircraft, the internet, prescription drugs and fire, because those are all regularly misused and cause preventable deaths of people and animals.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Emmet. I agree that the only reason our place in the food chain is at the top is because we have these tools to keep us there. Guns are not immoral or evil, but I still believe they should be illegal since we have proven over and over as a society that we are incapable of preventing their misuse for evil purposes. I think we will have to agree to disagree. Thanks for stopping by.

  2. Hi Raima,

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am not for or against guns. I think the issue of gun control distracts us from the real issue of how does it happen in our modern society that we, as a nation, or individually, sometimes fall into a killing mindset? What are the environmental influences that support that kind of thinking and how can we shift that to the kind of thinking that is more reflective of how we are all interconnected and how we can all support each other's growth and happiness. Your story really highlights your purity and integrity. How did you come to be that way? How did you avoid being corrupted by the influences that you mention in your story? Those are the issues that seem important to me. How do we protect human integrity?

    1. Hi Margi - and thank you for your kind comments, which I'm not sure I totally deserve. While I do try to live a life of integrity, I don't know if I always succeed. But I *try* and it's the yardstick I use to determine whether my life is the kind of life I wish to lead.

      Yes, you hit the nail on the head: how do we avoid being pulled into the sort of thinking that values killing as "fun"? I was quite young when this story happened, and I think it was just shocking enough that I was jolted into understanding what the full ramifications were of what I had just done. Killing was *not* fun, I realized, and I never ever had any interest in trying that again. Significantly, my decision was respected by the adults around me. I don't remember any pressure after that to take up hunting as a hobby, although plenty of young people in my community embraced it.

      It was not the first time I had ever seen an animal killed, either. Since my family owned a cattle ranch, animals were regularly slaughtered for food, but I always knew the motive for these events was not "fun" but survival. As I said in the post, I think we as humans do have to accept that killing is part of life. All organisms must kill other organisms in order to have food.

      I guess my point is that I don't think "killing" is the problem. The problem is pointless violence, perpetrated only to make another living thing feel misery or worse. I honestly don't think it takes a lot of integrity to avoid this in one's life. Every person needs to carefully examine their motives for actions that may potentially harm another. This is the way to live a life of integrity.

  3. I am very belatedly reading this post. Bravo.

    1. Hi Mary Martha - thanks for your note. I strongly identify with the issue of falling behind in blog reading! Better late than never, I say, so thanks for stopping by. :)


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