Talking about Guns


Tywen Kelly

Photo by Tywen Kelly

Hannah Bartman, Feature Editor

Growing up in a suburb on the outskirts of LA County did not give me extensive immersion into the world of guns. My parent’s interest in the Quaker society and Zen meditation probably didn’t help much either. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand my surprise when, in my first-year at Whitman, I entered Walla Walla’s K-mart only to be welcomed by multiple aisles of hunting and gun paraphernalia. This would not be quite the pacifist haven in which I’d grown up.

Despite this initial encounter, however, my understanding of guns in our local and national context has not increased in my three years at Whitman. The liberal culture of campus doesn’t encourage much interaction and discussion of these issues, either. However, if one looks hard enough, the subcultures of recreational gun users at Whitman and in Walla Walla reveals that these debates are highly relevant to our own community.

Whitman’s trapshooting club

The trapshooting club provides one example of the relevance these issues have to Whitman, as many of its members grew up participating in the sport. Run by junior Isabel Mills, senior Jon Miranda, and junior Gavin Guard, the club has been taking trips up to the Walla Walla Gun Club regularly for the past four years.

“I had no idea there would be a club at Whitman,” Miranda said. “I come from a big military family.…My father and grandfathers taught me to shoot when I was little.”

Similarly, Mills grew up in Alaska, hunting and shooting at her family’s small cabin, the “Duck Shack.”

“My entire family has been shooting, they did it when they were kids and it has been a really big part of my life at home. I have really good memories of being a teenager and hanging out and shooting ducks every weekend,” she said.

The importance of family in introducing their kids to recreational gun use seems to be an increasing trend according to Bob Bloch, the Secretary-Treasurer and 50 year member of the Walla Walla Gun Club.

“It’s getting to be a lot more of a family thing now…it got away from that in the 70’s and 80’s [where] there was just a cadre of professional trap shooters that was left. It’s been hard to get over that…we’ve been trying for 10 years or more to get back to the family deal and it’s working really well now and we’re pleased with the direction that it’s going,” he said.

In general, though, Bloch notes that there seems to be a decline in interest surrounding trap shooting.

“When I first joined there were a couple hundred members, it was very active [and] trap shooting was  a big deal still…People are not as excited about it as they used to be, it’s just not popular anymore. That’s why we’re going to the indoor rifle and pistol range because that’s where the interest is now.”

Trapshooting is one of the three sub components of clay pigeon shooting. Shooting with a 12 gauge shot gun, trap shooters are given five shots in five different spots at a clay disk that is projected from a machine. While Whitman’s club is not yet competitive, due to the need for funds and a full 10 person team, members are excited about both having the ability to practice a life-long hobby and welcome new members who might have never touched a gun before.

“The club is here to ensure that Whitties have a place where they can safely learn about firearms and the shooting sports,” Miranda said. “I’ve never had people leave an event unsatisfied.”

Photo by Tywen Kelly

Stereotyping guns

Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of guns are purchased for recreational use, including both hunting and clay shooting, it’s impossible not to discuss the topic of gun use without reference to the potential of violence associated with them. Guns have come to symbolize some of our country’s biggest concerns: social unrest and public safety (there have been 152 school shootings in the past two years alone).

Miranda relates the associations with guns and interpersonal violence to media and video game portrayals of weapons. He believes these depictions give people an inaccurate view of regular gun use.

“When I see firearm issues reported in mass media, it’s not that people are ignorant, they’re just not informed. The problem is that there’s a large portion [of the population] where the only exposure they get to firearms…[is] in this very unrealistic context in video games or in a very negative context like in these news stories about violence. And so they often times don’t see the fact that 99 percent of civilians [use firearms for recreational purposes].”

Bloch also believes the media inaccurately portrays the reality of gun use.

“A policeman gets shot and that makes the news but 500 kids went to a shooting tournament in Spokane and they all shot for three days and had a great time and that never gets to the news. That’s just what you live with in this business,” he said.

Guns and the tragedies of mass shootings are controversial mainstays of American news coverage.

The politics of gun control

The political debate surrounding gun control unsurprisingly ranges from hardliners on both sides of the political spectrum. Many on the conservative side cite the second amendment and deny the need for any increased restrictions on gun ownership. The liberal view depicts activists who push for greater gun safety and control laws, with some advocating for an ultimate ban on civilian gun possession.

There are also various opinions in between. Bernie Sanders, whose background on these issues put him in the spotlight at the recent Democratic Presidential Debate, believes that gun control laws should be regulated by their locality, and that mental health is the issue to address.

The relationship between mental health and accessibility to guns also divides the debate. Bloch favors the view that additional laws will not be beneficial, rather the laws that are already enforced are not effective.

“The federal, but also the states, are not enforcing most of the laws that we already have, so they’re just dumping a whole bunch of new laws [on us]–that’s not going to do any good. Most of the discussion in the shooting community [revolves around helping] these angry young guys that are doing all the violence,” Bloch said.

Miranda also views the laws already in place as not bing regulated effectively, thereby allowing people who shouldn’t own guns to slip through the cracks.

“Background checks for firearms…should be enforced but one thing that people don’t realize is that people slip through the tracks, not because a background check wasn’t done, but because of incomplete data sharing between agencies. Someone might have a crime that they committed or other issue that might stop them from owning a gun, but these agencies have not shared this information,” Miranda said.

In the state of Washington, guns are not registered to their individual owners. Each purchaser of a gun must fill out paperwork and undergo a background check before purchasing a gun. In 2013, Washington tightened its gun control laws, passing law I-594 which makes any gun transfer between two individuals illegal. Miranda points out that although this law is well-intentioned, it is very hard to enforce due to the difficulty to find records of possession for a specific firearm.

Gun advocates who look towards mental health as a target solution to issues of gun violence may also find pushback from some psychiatrists. In a study of 34 adolescent mass murderers from 2001, 23 percent were found to have a recorded mental illness. Background checks screen for any history of felony charges, mental illness, domestic violence, or other potential red flags. On the other hand, some psychiatrists cite these as potentially unreliable. In an article published in the Pacific Standard, Dr. Jeffrey Swanson, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Duke University School of Medicine, defines “behavioral indicators of risk,” such as sudden shifts in mood or mental state as a more important issue to consider.

“We think that if there are indicators of risk, that should be a time when firearms are removed, at least temporarily, with an opportunity for restoration of gun rights when the person no longer poses a public safety risk,” Swanson said.

Moving forward

Walla Walla’s gun culture represents the sport recreational gun use that a suburbanite like me could only imagine from afar. Despite what we say about the campus ‘bubble,’ the trapshooting club and local recreational gun use proves that controversial national issues still play a role in our community.

Understanding guns’ place within the context of both family tradition and contemporary politics with the recent tragedies of mass shootings doesn’t make discussing guns any easier. But it reminds us that these issues are closer to home than we think.

Photo by Tywen Kelly
Photo by Tywen Kelly