First hunting trip, age 4. “It was cold and I was a little scared,” he said.
First gun, age 6. “Santa gave me a .22. I get in good with Santa by leaving cookies for him and carrots for the reindeer. You can’t forget the reindeer.”
First buck, age 8. “A clean hit, and then we were following the blood trail.”
Since the Mullinix family settled here 150 years ago, this is how generations of children have grown up — a certain kind of American boyhood meant to form a certain kind of American man. There is a family rabbit hunt on Thanksgiving and a youth turkey hunt on the Fourth of July. One generation passes its guns on to the next, along with lessons about self-sufficiency and self-protection, life and death. Even as the family’s land dwindled over the decades — from farms that covered half of the county, to 16 acres of hunting woods, to a townhouse in the Washington exurbs — their traditions survived inside the safe at the top of the stairs. “I’m still country,” Chanse said.
It is a lifestyle his family fears is at risk in the escalating argument over gun control. Since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, parents and teachers at Chanse’s elementary school have been debating the basic role of guns in America. Do they encourage responsibility or recklessness? Do they foster relationships or endanger them? Are they part of our culture or an outdated relic from our past?
What are the results of America’s long relationship with guns?
One result is Chanse.
A boy learning to be a man
He is 4-foot-1 and 82 pounds, with a patch of freckles around his nose, a small gap between his upper front teeth and a disheveled head of brown hair that a family friend cuts in their kitchen. He lives alone with his father, a swimming pool builder named Scott Mullinix, whom he adores and calls “Sir.” He plays football, basketball and lacrosse, sometimes all three at once in the townhouse, jumping on the couch and ricocheting around the living room, breaking so much dishware and family memorabilia that now almost everything is stored safely away in the basement.
His favorite meal is meatloaf and mashed potatoes. He wears mesh shorts regardless of the weather. He might have had a girlfriend last year named Alexa, if being his girlfriend meant she sometimes smiled at him while hula-hooping during recess, but this year she’s not in his class and he doesn’t particularly miss her. He collects shark teeth and arrowheads on the beaches of southern Maryland. He sleeps with four youth football trophies at the head of his bed. He holds a Bible in his lap during important Baltimore Ravens games. Once, when he won student of the month, the school principal rewarded him with an hour in a limousine to go anywhere he wanted, so he settled into the back seat, admired the leather upholstery and then asked the driver to take him to Burger King.