Americans have become too numb to gun violence, and there’s a reason why

Jack Ohman

I grew up with guns.

My dad, a Minnesotan and a decorated veteran, loved to shoot deer, ducks, woodcock, grouse, geese and, later - in the west - elk. He desperately wanted me to be a hunter, too.

He encouraged me to hunt by giving me a pump-action Daisy BB rifle when I was nine. Back then, BB guns could easily kill birds and squirrels. Now they’re much less powerful. I vividly recall shooting a bird in the eye in 1972 and it haunts me to this day. I only hunted a few times after that. I didn’t have the passion for it.

When I was a child in the 1960s, we played war constantly in our neighborhood in Springfield, Virginia. I had many different and very realistic-looking rifles. For Christmas 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, I got an M16 replica. Many of the children who played war with me had fathers in the war.

As a child, I recall many toy commercials marketing realistic guns and rifles. One I remember vividly was the Johnny Eagle M1 rifle, which I wanted in the way only a child can want something. I bought it with my own money at Toys-R-Us for $8.

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We shot .22s in our basement range. One time, a bullet ricocheted by my ear because I missed the trap. Another time, my 10-year-old brother was shooting a .38 for the first time and he pointed it at me from behind as he was getting into position. I screamed.

Jack Ohman

The first rifle I ever owned was a Ruger 10/22 with a rotary clip.

A boy named Kip Kinkel later used that exact same model to shoot his classmates at Thurston High School in Oregon. As children, we didn’t think about these toys as anything but toys. But in retrospect, I now realize that we were being programmed, in a way.

We were programmed to think guns were cool.

We were saturated by guns: in movies, on television, in war, and all through the rest of popular culture. When I was a small child, President John F. Kennedy was shot in the head with a mail-order Italian rifle fired by a 24-year-old ex-Marine. It was not shown on national television for 12 years. Too upsetting for America. You know. We don’t want to upset people.

After the Kennedy assassination, Congress finally banned mail-order weapon sales. However, you could still get them at gun shows and at most any store, including Walmart. Still can. Easy.

With the murder of JFK, and, later, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, many elements of American society reacted the way you would think they would: demands for bans, registration, checks, and so on. There were small reforms, but not much.

There was only one mass shooting when I was a child, and it was very much discussed at the time when it happened on August 1, 1966. No one discusses it at all now, because we now have so many of these blood-saturated events to discuss.

A 25-year-old former Marine named Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas clock tower and killed 13 people with a rifle as they strolled on the quad. The shooting went on for 96 minutes, and, believe me, this shocked the American people as much as the Kennedy assassination when it happened.

It was the first time Americans thought it could, in fact, happen to them.

Now, one would think that this tragic moment would lead to something, anything.

It did not. Not really.

Texas convened an inquiry, ironically called the Connally Commission (Texas Gov. John Connally had been seriously wounded in the Kennedy assassination in Dallas), and it reached the same conclusions the same kind of inquiry reaches now: The shooter was young, insane, angry.

Whitman did not have political motives.

The El Paso shooter did, along with many of the more recent shooters. You know there will be more. Many more.

After Whitman, there weren’t any major changes in how this society regulates guns, really. We are just as vulnerable now, and really, more so, than the students on the University of Texas quad in 1966. Whitman didn’t have an AR-15 or an AK-47. If he did, he might have killed 10 times more people.

You know, like in Las Vegas, where we didn’t do anything. Again.

I still own guns. I don’t look at them. I don’t touch them. I don’t think about them. I suppose I keep them because my dad owned most of them. Maybe that’s a kind of numbness, too.

My view of the Second Amendment is: OK, rifles and shotguns, go hunt. Not my jam. Be careful. Don’t shoot yourself or anyone, like my dad almost shot me the final time we went skeet shooting.

“It just went off,” he said.

I said: “Dad, that’s the last time we’re doing this.”

And it was.

The nation is getting numb to this violence because, in many ways, we have always been numb to it. Some people say we’re at a turning point, again.

Maybe. But we have to remember this: We were raised on it.

Jack Ohman has been at The Bee since 2013. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning, he also won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, Scripps Howard Award, national SPJ Award and National Headliner Award. A Portland State grad, Jack also writes editorials and columns.