SACRAMENTO — It was a Christmas a very long time ago that my dad gave my brother and me our first guns. And a stern lecture.
Always assume the gun is loaded. Don't load it until you're ready to shoot. Never point it at anything you wouldn't want to hit. Don't touch the trigger until you want to fire.
The gun is a killing tool. Respect it.
He gave us Remington bolt-action, single-shot .22s.
Single shot, he said, so we'd learn to hit the target on the first trigger-squeeze. No wasting ammunition, spraying the field with carelessly aimed, dangerous lead.
And another thing: Always keep those guns clean. I grew up savoring the smell of gun solvent and delighting in the smooth gliding mechanisms, the beauty of the glistening steel, the handsome wooden stocks.
So I get it. I get the mystique of firearms and the emotional attachment to them.
What I don't get is anyone's need for — or obsession to possess — a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds. Neither do I get the objection to registering guns or licensing owners. Or requiring a license to buy ammunition, for that matter — not when a slight inconvenience could save lives.
Does anyone still think that the Nazis or Commies are going to march into America, grab the documents, seize all our weapons and occupy us? If so, these warped people really should not be allowed to own guns.
On that long-ago Christmas morning, living on our small orange ranch in rural Ojai, we could walk out behind the garage that also served as a packing shed, stack up some logs and fire away.
America — especially California — has changed dramatically since then. A lot fewer people today live where there's open space enough to shoot off weapons without endangering the family next door.
Ours was a hunting culture. We could drive a short distance in any direction to good quail habitat. Actually, my brother and I could walk to a covey or two.
Guns weren't especially thought of as protection, except perhaps for chasing off coyotes drooling over our free-ranging chickens.
Today, in suburban California, there are few hunting opportunities unless you belong to a distant, expensive club. Hunting is on the decline. In 1981, roughly 543,000 hunting licenses were sold in California. Last year, the number was 282,000.
While far fewer people are hunting, gun sales are soaring.
Last year, there were a record 601,000 state Justice Department background checks of gun buyers, according to the attorney general's office. Many buyers were purchasing multiple weapons. This year, the background checks are expected to total nearly 800,000.
What all that means is this: the broad support for healthy, recreational gun ownership that my generation grew up with has faded.
It has been replaced with a narrower gun worship based on a fear of other humans. And it's not complete paranoia. Too often powerful weapons are the instruments of some nut job seeking — who really knows? — a kind of revenge.