A Crime Writer’s Uneasy Relationship with Guns

At the Edgars banquet with Joe Loughlin and my husband, Ken Cohen

Kate Flora: Sometimes, between books, between spurts of research, or after readingabout yet another awful shooting, I think about the difference between the world of today, where guns are rampant and used so carelessly and violently, and the world I grew up in, where guns were part of the culture but it was a culture that understood training and responsibility.

Back in my day, the NRA was all about gun safety and training. Boys like my brother John took NRA safety courses and got certificates. There were guns in our house but they were used for hunting. Hunting was a recreational activity—think armed forest bathing—but it was also essential for our financial survival. Getting a deer meant we’d have meat through the winter that we didn’t have to buy, a huge benefit for our tight budget. A lot of people, mostly men, carried .22s in their trucks that were useful for shooting the woodchucks that could decimate a garden a family depended on in a single night. Many of the men in my parents’ generation had fought in the war, where guns had been essential.

Deep in the Canadian woods, viewing the sentinel tree that the used to mark the location of Maria Tanasichuk’s body.

All of which is to say that I grew up comfortable with the idea that people had guns in their houses and fairly certain that in most cases, the people who owned those guns respected their dangerousness and used them responsibly. I think this is different from the way most people I know grew up.

Then I moved on. Moved away. Became surrounded by people for whom the idea of a gun I the house was shocking, not normal.

The world also changed. People’s relationship to guns changed. My assumption that people with guns were responsible people no longer matches the way guns are regulated, sold, and used today. So my country girl’s understanding of guns has changed, too. I absolutely believe in banning assault rifles. I believe in serious background checks for gun sales whether by a dealer or an individual. I believe that red flag laws are essential. I believe that all gun owners should be licensed just like drivers, that a license should be required to purchase ammunition, that gun locks and safe storage should be mandatory, and that owners should have to carry insurance against the dangers gun present. None of these things would have been a consideration back when I was growing up.

Brother John with his .22 pump-action. Mailboxes are safe, woodchucks not so safe.

Unlike my brother, I didn’t use the guns when I was growing up, but writing about crime and cops means I’ve had to have some exposure to guns in order to make my characters and situations credible. At one memorable conference in Florida, they bussed us out to a shooting range where we able to shoot a variety of weapons, then had a barbecue. Ear protectors, safety glasses, and an instructor at our elbows. I definitely learned firsthand that it wasn’t like on TV. It was loud and scary and the kickback was surprising. After that, and a few other episodes trying to be brave about guns, I know enough to leave that to the experts. But those episodes gave me a different, and vivid, insight into the situations I put my characters in.

Before I started writing with cops, “tunnel vision” was just an expression. It became a reality when I worked on Shots Fired: the misunderstandings, misconceptions, and myths about police shootings with Assistant Chief Joseph K. Loughlin. In story after story, the police officers interviewed for the book described what it was like to be in active shooting events. It was stunning, and surprising, to go inside their heads, relive those events, and then realize that they often took place in seconds. On TV, the characters may walk away unscathed. In the real world, being in a gun fight can have lasting impacts.

Sometimes research takes me in some strange directions, like to the shooting range.

Another situation that gave me insight into the world of guns and gun owners was working with retired Maine game warden Roger Guay on his memoir, A Good Man with a Dog: A Retired Game Warden’s 25 years in the Maine woods. Roger’s stories made me see his area of public safety in an entirely new way. Police officers may sometimes encounter people carrying guns; in the woods, far more of the people wardens encounter are. One of my favorite stories is that when I first went out driving with Roger so he could show me the territory he’d patrolled and start telling stories, his wife Jolyne got in the back seat with a shotgun. Not the usual way a writer researches a book. As she explained, it was bird season, so from time to time we’d stop and she’d shoot. I came away from the book with an amazed sense of how it is for public safety personnel to face down guns on a regular basis.

These writing relationships have given me experts I can turn to when I have questions

Maine wardens and volunteers with their cadaver dogs celebrating after finding Maria

about guns. And questions about guns come up often. I can send one of my emails with “Author Needs Help” in the subject line, describe the situation in my book, and ask what kind of gun the shooter might be using and what the aftermath might be like. While the world of uncontrolled gun ownership makes me nervous, I am grateful that I have these people, the responsible people, in my life.

I was given a gun once. It was a cute little pearl handled pocket gun. But I didn’t want a gun in the house, so I gave it back. There are times, these days, when the world seems so uncertain and so unsafe I wish I had it. But I don’t think the solution to our angry and unsettled world is for all us to be armed. I hope I’m right.

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5 Responses to A Crime Writer’s Uneasy Relationship with Guns

  1. jselbo says:

    Great reading. Thanks for this. Never grew up with a gun in the house. There were plenty of hunters in North Dakota but my dad relied on friends to do the shooting of pheasants and deer – they’d gift or sell us the meat and my mom would roast the flesh for winter night meals.

  2. John Clark says:

    Nicely done. You must have had to dig to find that photo.

  3. kaitcarson says:

    Great post, Kate. I’m amazed at the availability of guns in today’s world and the lack of respect and training people have for them. My mother’s family is from upstate NY and like a lot of rural kids, I was taught to shoot by my uncles and had my first hunting license at age 9. That meant safety courses and learning respect as well as how to use and care for the weapon. I truly do not understand why guns can be sold to people who do not show proficiency and undergo deep background checks.

  4. Louy Castonguay says:

    Thanks for this. Yes, and I especially like the
    “tunnel vision” comment. Most who are critical of law enforcement actions don’t recognize this.

  5. MJ says:

    City kid here. We had a summer camp where we had guns. We were taught how to use and store them. The guns stayed in the camp and did not come back to the city with us where it would have been dangerous to have them. It is difficult to understand how things changed so much in such a short time.

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