Chanse Mullinix arrived home from fourth grade on the school bus, carrying a Cherry Coke and a plastic bag of his classmates’ handmade valentines. He shouted goodbye to the bus driver – “See ya!” — and ran down the sidewalk, because a youth football coach had recommended once that he run everywhere. He climbed the steps to a two-story townhouse — the only home he had ever known, and the place he sometimes referred to as a “great gun museum.”
He dropped his camouflage coat into a pile of hunting gear at the entryway and fired an imaginary bullet with his finger at a buck mounted on the living room wall. “Bang!” he said. There were replica guns on the floor, video-game guns on TV, Nerf guns in the basement and five generations of family guns locked upstairs in a closet-size safe. On display in the kitchen were dozens of framed photos of the seminal moments in Chanse’s nine years of life.
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 Are they part of our culture or an outdated relic from our past?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.
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.
He is one of the smallest boys in his grade, but his father’s highest praise — the compliment Chanse seeks out and repeats — is that he carries himself like a “grown-ass man.”
A grown man opens the door for women and does his homework as soon as he walks into the house. A grown man rides an XR70 dirt bike just like his dad and drives four-wheelers at a friend’s ranch. A grown man raises a 250-pound hog, loves him like a pet and names him Rudy, brushes his wiry hair every week for a year, and then sells that hog at a 4-H auction. He delivers that hog to the meat locker himself, choking back tears as he says goodbye and pushes him out of the crate one last time, and then thanks the butcher when handed a fact sheet describing what Rudy will become, a one-page diagram labeled “Pork Cuts.”
A grown man understands what it means to live and to die — knows that, as Chanse says, “life is a cycle, and it’s not always going to be fair like when everybody who plays gets a trophy.” A grown man knows how to sight his target through a rifle’s scope and how to manage the simultaneous surges of fear and excitement, counting out his breaths and slowing his heartbeat.
A grown man pulls the trigger.
Late one afternoon, Chanse urged his dad upstairs to the gun safe. It is too dark outside to shoot, but he wanted to see their arsenal anyway. Scott covered Chanse’s eyes with one hand while unlocking the safe with his other. “Time for gun show and tell,” he said.
Inside are two dozen unloaded guns, including four that belong to Chanse. Scott reached into the safe and handed them one at a time to his son, so he can feel each gun’s weight and learn its history.
Out came a German Luger, still in its holster. “A gift from my great-uncle,” Scott said. Out came Chanse’s great-grandfather’s 12-gauge shotgun and his grandfather’s 20-gauge. Out came a small .22 single-shot rifle, in a black case labeled “My First Gun,” the Christmas gift Chanse received in 2009. Scott had hidden it behind the couch until Chanse opened everything under the tree: toy trains, hunting boots, football cards and a nutcracker statue. “Guess that’s it,” Scott had said, before glancing behind the couch and feigning surprise. “What’s this?” Chanse had torn through the red paper as the song “White Christmas” played in the background. “Awesome!” he had said, turning the gun over in his small hands. And then: “How’s the blowback on this one, dad?” And then: “What can I shoot with it?”
Maybe other fathers would have waited longer, but what choice did Scott have except to include Chanse in his hobbies? His wife had disappeared to Pennsylvania before Chanse turned 1, making Scott a single parent, and he had devoted himself to the task. He accepted a swimming pool job with flexible hours and took the boy with him everywhere — fishing, camping and, before long, out to the deer stand. It was a place where Scott knew what it meant to be a dad, and where he felt confident in the lessons he was teaching. Respect for the power of a gun. Patience while waiting for the target. Courage to pull the trigger. Hard work to clean the kill and process the meat. When Chanse finally got his first buck, an eight-pointer, Scott took more than 20 photos of the two of them posed with the kill, its eyes still open and blood running from its nose. Chanse had set his rifle on the deer’s neck and lifted the animal’s head by its horns, his adrenaline making the buck feel almost weightless. He called his grandfather on the spot. “I did it,” he said. Scott shouted in the background: “A family tradition continues.”
“You got him with your single shot .410,” Scott said now, in the townhouse, pulling the shotgun out of the safe.
“My best hunting gun,” Chanse said, admiring it for a moment. But the gun he wanted to see most wasn’t in the safe. “Where’s the Kimber?” he asked.
“You don’t need to know where that one is,” Scott said.
“Because that’s not a hunting gun, son. That’s for protection.”
Scott had spent a mortgage payment on the Kimber a few years earlier, a silver .45-caliber handgun with a red laser sight. The gun had become like “a pacifier” to him, he said, always in reach while he slept, offering a sense of control over his house and his family even when so much else about America seemed unstable to him. Lately, as the Mount Airy economy continued to stutter and President Obama urged new limits on gun ownership, Scott had been craving even more control, so he had been test-shooting an AK-47.
“Can I please see the Kimber?” Chanse said again. “I just want to look at it.”
Scott took a drag of his cigarette. “One day you’ll have your own family to protect,” he said. “You’ll have your own gun for protection, and you can look at it whenever you want. Until then, I’m the sheriff.”
Later that night, three generations of the Mullinix family gathered around a table for dinner. Each had learned to shoot in the past 50 years, but their motivations for shooting tracked an evolution of guns in America.
Greg Mullinix, 65, Chanse’s grandfather, had learned to shoot in part so he could eat. He aimed for tails or organs so as not to spoil the meat. He fried up squirrels and rabbits and butchered his own game. Then he was drafted into the Army, where he did a lot more shooting in Vietnam, and he never cared much for hunting after that. He still took an annual hunting trip to Colorado with some Army buddies, but mostly they left the guns in the car and drank beer under the stars, talking about their memories of the war. “Seeing real violence changed it for me,” Greg said. “I didn’t have the stomach for it after that.”
Scott had learned to shoot in part for the challenge of sport. He was a marksman, and he collected hunting trophies and displayed them all over the house: a bobcat and a fox in the basement; two bucks on the walls; and a gigantic stuffed turkey in his bedroom. When hunting started to feel easy, he had learned to do it with a bow and arrow. “That’s back to Adam and Eve right there,” he said.
Chanse had learned to shoot in part for entertainment. He liked the smell of gunpowder, the echo of a shot and the smack of a rifle into his shoulder after it fired. He did his target shooting at watermelons or rotten pumpkins — objects that he could watch explode. Long days spent hunting sometimes bored him, with all that cold and quiet, so he sometimes brought along a hand-held video game and shot zombies in the deer stand.
“Kids don’t have the attention span,” Greg said. “Too many distractions.”
“He likes to be busy,” Scott said.
Chanse stood up from the table and walked into the living room. He turned on their 60-inch TV, grabbed a remote control and put in his favorite first-person shooter game, “Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.” He is allowed to play the game only once in a while, and in daylight he prefers to be outside.
He selected his primary gun, a Russian assault rifle, and listened to his battle orders. The screen went black and alit again with fires, crumbling buildings and blood. He was in the middle of a war zone.
“I get a little freaked out by those games,” Greg said.
“Moderation,” Scott said.
“Got him!” Chanse said, his eyes still fixated on the screen, where a young enemy soldier had stumbled into view. Chanse hammered his thumb against the controller and gritted his teeth, and the rattle of machine-gun fire sounded like a rainstorm in the living room.
The next afternoon, it was a real gun in his hand.
They had driven away from the townhouse in Scott’s truck after loading a rifle case into the back and ammo into the glove box. They traveled beyond the subdivisions and out into the country, where a friend had offered use of a 200-acre farm. They parked the truck on a frozen field and stepped out into blowing snow. Geese flew overhead. Trees lined the nearby ridge. It was empty and quiet except for the wind. Scott handed Chanse his great-grandfather’s .22. “This gun is timeless,” Scott said.
They shook up four plastic bottles of Coke and placed them in the field as targets, 25 yards away. Chanse held the rifle up to his shoulder as Scott knelt behind him, repeating the advice he had been giving for years. “Stay steady. Breathe. Relax,” he said. Chanse loaded a bullet into the chamber, shut his left eye and stared at the target through his right. He set his finger on the trigger.
“Get ’er done,” Scott said.
Beyond the ridgeline, in the rest of America, the complicated debate over gun control continued. “We need to do a better job protecting our children,” Obama was saying that day.
“We need to protect our rights,” an NRA spokesman was saying in response.
Guns were either problems or solutions; weapons or tools; a core piece of America’s identity or a threat to its future.
But here on the farm, a 9-year-old squeezed the trigger of an old rifle and experienced a reaction more basic and instinctual. The butt of the rifle jerked into his shoulder. A hot shell ejected onto the ground. A crack echoed off the ridgeline as Coke and plastic exploded into the air.
“Awesome,” Chanse said. “Let’s shoot another.”