As the gun control debate rages in the U.S., and continues on more quietly in Canada, one  idea that keeps popping up is that you have a different relationship with guns if you’ve ever actually used one. To those of us who’ve handled them, they don’t seem so strange and mysterious.

There may be something to this. I spent four years around weapons that ranged from a nine-millimetre pistol to hand grenades to the Carl Gustav recoilless rifle during my time in the Canadian Forces Land Reserve.

I don’t want to exaggerate the experience. It’s not like we were performing nightly patrols through the war-torn streets of Beacon Hill South — this was a summers-and-some-weekends-and-weeknights engagement, at least for me. And since I belonged to a medical platoon, proficiency with guns and rifles took a back seat to how quickly you could apply a field dressing or erect modular tentage for a field medical inspection room.

In my case, that was fortunate. Firing a C1 rifle, I only once managed a twelve-inch grouping at 100 yards from a prone position — and that on the target next to mine. And for about five years after I left the reserves, I had a lump of scar tissue over my right cheekbone from holding that same rifle improperly. (It had quite the kick.)

No question, though: I became familiar with guns, and they don’t hold much sense of mystique for me.

The damage they can do, though… that still preys on me.

A decade before I joined the reserves, my family lived in a tiny Southern Ontario town. There weren’t too many kids near our house, but I often played with the boy my age across the street.

That changed one evening.

My memories of that night aren’t clear or especially reliable. A lot of it I’ve had to reconstruct, and my parents told me more about it years later.

I don’t remember hearing a shot. I can remember someone banging on the fron door, my parents answering, my mom rushing me to my room as my dad bolted into the night. Him coming home later, hands bloodied; me again being rushed to my room.

And then the explanations from my mom in simple, reassuring sentences: my friend’s younger brother had taken his father’s rifle from the closet. My friend took it from his brother, pointed it at the wall to be safe. It went off, and somehow his father had been in the line of fire. My dad had gone over to help. My dad was okay. Don’t worry. Everything was fine.

My next memory is that my friend was at our house, white-faced, shaking. I was clinging to how everything was fine, and wanted him to feel the same way – so I joked about it. I can’t remember how he reacted, only that I realized as I soon as I’d spoken that something was much more desperately wrong than I knew.

That’s the last memory I have of my friend: an unwittingly, unspeakably cruel joke at the worst moment of his life. I can only hope he was too dazed to take it in, but that’s a pretty faint hope.

The reality was that his father had died on the floor while mine was doing his best to resuscitate him. I never saw my friend again. His family quickly moved out of town, and not long after, so did mine — hundreds of miles away.

So I don’t have a fear of guns’ mystical powers. But their real capacity to inflict terrible damage, instantly, irrevocably; to give poisonous delusions an outlet for carnage; to implicate a little boy in his father’s sudden death? That, at 150 yards or across the intimate distance of a living room, is still legitimately frightening.

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