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Culture

What I Learned About My Father, and Myself, By Inheriting His Rifles

After my daddy died, I wanted nothing to do with his guns. Years later, they’ve revealed a connection that we never had the chance to enjoy in life.

On an afternoon between the day my dad died and his funeral, in early November 2006, one of his brothers — not a man who was always on the right side of the law — came by, drunk, asking after Daddy’s hunting rifles. They were tucked away in a closet in my parents’ home in Clinton, Arkansas, a small, rural town on the southern edge of the Ozark Mountains. We had honestly forgotten about them.

Now we had to decide what to do with the guns. My mom didn’t want to give my uncle the rifles, which Daddy had owned forever. But she also didn’t want them in the house. If she’d been interested, she could have found evidence to justify her position. Mama’s reasoning was unscientific but no less sound: The guns made her feel unsafe.

One option, which turned out to not be viable, would have been to find someone to buy the guns. Mama wasn’t ready to go through the hassle, or the emotional turmoil, of selling Daddy’s things yet. Finally, my cousin Wesley, who was a cop in town, offered to keep the rifles for her. He cleaned Daddy’s rifles and put them in a large safe where he stored his own guns. Unused, unloaded, they stayed in the back of his safe for the better part of a decade.

If I’d been a boy, I might have been invited to join my father when he went deer hunting every fall. Instead he’d had daughters.”

Last summer, I saw Wesley for the first time in years, at the sheriff’s department where he works, and he reminded me about Daddy’s rifles. Wesley’s own dad had died in 1980, and he was especially close to mine growing up. About once a year he would message me to say how much he missed my dad, which would make me remember how much I missed my dad, and how many years had passed since I’d last heard his voice or seen his face. “I’m happy to keep them as long as you like, but they’re not mine, they’re yours,” Wesley said about Daddy’s guns. “They mean nothing to me, but they mean the world to you.”

My first thought was that Wesley was full of it. The guns didn’t mean anything to me. The way he said it, though, made me think they should, and that sense of unfulfilled duty gnawed at me. Maybe Daddy wouldn’t have wanted them sitting forgotten in a safe. I didn’t own anything of his. Retrieving the rifles might be a way to reconnect with my fading memories of him.

I’ve never been a gun person. Rifles and shotguns were part of a culture I’d always felt detached from, even when I was growing up in it. It’s hard to overstate how much I hated Clinton a conservative, isolated town — and how much I wanted to get away from it. If I’d been a boy, no doubt Daddy would have taught me how to shoot. If I’d been his son, I might have been invited — or obligated — to join him when he drove to the deer camp on the mountain every fall to hunt, his guns mounted on a rack in the back of his Ford pickup or piled on the passenger seat beside him. Instead he’d had daughters. Hunting was his refuge from a house full of girls.

The author and her father in 1981, near their home in northern Arkansas.

My dad was a big country boy, a gregarious, good-natured carouser who was almost never home. A self-employed plumber, his workday started at dawn, and he’d stay out long after it ended and I’d gone to bed. I’d go days without seeing him. When I did, he was almost always wearing a ratty old pair of jeans or jean shorts, with a t-shirt full of holes and covered in grease. He’d tuck his unruly red hair under a trucker cap like, my mom used to say, a Wooly Booger — a crazy mountain man who, in the hierarchy of Southern slang, falls just below hillbilly. He drank too much Budweiser and smoked two packs of Marlboros a day. He had several strokes at the end of his life, and by the time he was diagnosed with lung cancer, at 55, the sun had scorched his red hair and permanently burned his skin so that they were the same ruddy color: He was a literal red neck.

I loved my dad, but I wasn’t close to him in an everyday kind of way. I probably could have asked him to teach me to shoot, but I was an indoor kid who liked to spend weekends reading books. I wouldn’t have wanted to pass that many quiet hours with him, aware of how little we had to talk about. Our last conversation was about what we almost always talked about after I left home: the weather. I was living in New York City at the time. On The Weather Channel, he kept tabs on my local forecast.

Right before I saw my cousin Wesley, I moved to northern Virginia, about an hour west of Washington, D.C., with my partner, Samir. At that point I’d been living in one big East Coast city or another for several years. The move was part of my effort, as a settled adult, to reconcile the country and city sides of me. My new landscape reminds me of the Ozarks I grew up in. In the woods behind our house, our landlord keeps a homemade shooting range.

Samir has lived in Virginia since he was 23 years old and owns three rifles. He took me shooting for the first time at our landlord’s range soon after we moved in together. I found out I like target practice. There’s something soothing about sitting still in the woods while trying, over and over, to hit the same far-away bullseye. It’s a practice that requires deep breathing and a search for calm stillness. It’s a little like yoga, but with bullets.

I mostly shoot a .22-caliber bolt-action rifle Samir bought a few years ago, a light, easy-to-use weapon. There’s almost no recoil and it emits a mild snap when fired. It wasn’t long before I started to feel control over the gun. I’m getting better, hitting the target in a tighter and tighter circle, closer and closer to where I’m actually aiming. The progress is gratifying.  

I needed something of my dad’s to hold in my hands, and to have someone who knew him tell me about it, before it was too late.”

Even as I was getting into shooting, it hadn’t crossed my mind to reclaim Daddy’s rifles. Then, about six months after my conversation with Wesley, on New Year’s Day, my dad’s mom died, just after her 89th birthday. She’d outlived all six of her children, my grandfather, and my step-grandfather. I wasn’t close to Mammaw but her death hit me unexpectedly hard. It occurred to me one night, in the panicky way facts snap into inescapable clarity as you’re trying to fall asleep, that my dad’s family had disappeared. Without the generations above us around to keep us connected, I feared that my cousins and I — there are 15 of us on my dad’s side — were floating apart.

I needed something of my dad’s to hold in my hands, and to have someone who knew him tell me about it, before it was too late. Daddy hadn’t left many things behind. He’d built the house that my mom still lives in. Later in life, he started collecting coins in the hope they’d be valuable some day, but he left a note telling us to save his collection for his first grandchild. And then there were his guns.  

No one knows for sure how many guns are inherited every year in America. The federal government doesn’t collect data on gun ownership. Most of the statistics we have on the number of guns in this country come from wildly diverging surveys — which estimate there are between 270 million and 310 million firearms in the U.S. — or divine the numbers by comparing gun-manufacturing data, which the government does collect, with the number of people who go through the FBI’s instant background check system at the point of purchase.

Properly stored and cared for, guns can stay operable nearly forever. Passing them down to, and between, family members is a generations-old tradition. On “Real Time with Bill Maher” in June, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, talked about how he owns 14 weapons. When Maher asked why so many, Wilkerson said, “I’ve accumulated them! My father died and left me some, my brother died and left me some.”

Once I decided I wanted Daddy’s guns, there was still the question of how to go about getting them. The legal owner of most types of firearms can transport them across state lines if the guns are locked, stowed, and kept out of reach of drivers and passengers. What constitutes a legal owner can be less straightforward, as I was about to learn.

If I were buying a new rifle or shotgun, I could go to Arkansas, pick out the models I wanted at a gun store, pass an instant background check, and drive them back. (I couldn’t do the same with a handgun, as federal law requires that they be purchased in one’s home state.) I could also just pick up the guns and drive them back if I’d officially inherited them. But since Daddy hadn’t specifically left them to me in a will, they technically belonged to my mom, who’d come to own them along with the rest of the estate, such as it was. If she gave them to me, they’d legally be a gift, and federal law prohibits giving guns directly to someone who lives in another state.

The surest way to follow the law would be to ship the rifles from a Federal Firearms Licensed dealer in Arkansas to an FFL in Virginia, where I’d go through a background check to retrieve them. Jeff Pistole, the owner of Pistole Gun and Pawn in Clinton, told me it would cost at least $100 to ship Daddy’s rifles to Virginia. He wanted me to save the money.

This June I stood in Pistole’s shop, beneath the AR-15s and crossbows hanging from the ceiling, as he thumbed through a thick rulebook from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives and made a few calls. Finally, we figured out a way that I could drive the rifles back without breaking any rules. Now it was time to go get them.

I went to Wesley’s house early on a Saturday morning. He was still drinking his coffee as he brought me to his living room and opened his big safe. “You know that .30-30 was your Daddy’s pride and joy,” he said to me. Actually, I hadn’t known anything about the guns until Wesley was digging them out and putting each one in my hands.

The smaller of the two was a simple, single-shot .22-caliber my dad had used for the kind of plinking I now do behind my house. It was so old we couldn’t find a serial number on it.

The other gun was the .30-30, a Winchester 94 model with a serial number indicating it was manufactured in 1958. First made by Winchester Repeating Arms in 1894, the rifle was marketed as “smokeless,” one of the first mass-produced guns that didn’t require the owner to load black powder on his own, the way muzzle loaders did. The rifle is a bridge between old and modern, a piece of iconic Americana: The 2,500,000th one made was presented to President Dwight Eisenhower.

I found myself absurdly proud of Daddy for sticking with such an interesting gun instead of something he could have bought at a strip mall. I thought it was the kind of choice I’d make, too.”

Daddy’s .30-30 was manufactured before Winchester switched from steel to a cheaper alloy in 1964, qualifying it as a collector’s item. To cycle through rounds of ammunition, you pull a lever down and away from the body of the rifle and back up, with a satisfying clink-chunk, like a cowboy in a Western.

“People made so much fun of Uncle Bill,” Wesley told me, talking about Daddy’s time at deer camp. “They all had deer rifles with scopes, but he didn’t mind. If he’d wanted a new gun he would have bought himself the best gun in the world.” (It was just like my dad, I realized, to prefer the classic and sturdy to the shiny and new.) Wesley recalled one time when he and Daddy were talking in the woods and heard the dogs stir. They looked up and saw a six-point buck right in front of them. Without hesitating, Daddy pulled up the .30-30 and shot the deer square between the eyes. “Boy, did he crow then,” Wesley said.

I found myself absurdly proud of Daddy for sticking with such an interesting gun instead of something he could have bought at a strip mall. I thought it was the kind of choice I’d make, too.

He’d had the .30-30 for as long as anyone could remember, probably for as long as he’d been my dad. I studied the rifle more closely. It was clear it was carefully, lovingly maintained, polished and clean without a hint of grime or damage. Holding it, I remembered something about him I’d forgotten. Despite his old t-shirts and unruly hair, he could be so fastidious. He used to iron his money so the bills would lie flat and fold in his wallet easily. He kept papers in neat stacks on his desk, and had tight, tidy penmanship. The rifle had been his more than any other object could be.

After I got the guns from Wesley, Mom and I went down to the Pistole’s. There, Mom would legally transfer ownership to me — and by doing it in a licensed gun shop, Pistole could run me through a background check right then, rather than shipping the guns to Virginia and having the check done there. Since neither Arkansas nor Virginia regulates owning a long gun, the background check would be my only encounter with gun laws during the handover.

I filled out the form. As Pistole’s son entered my information into his computer, I went through a brief, frantic, mental inventory of every parking ticket I’d ever gotten, wondering if I’d paid them all or if that would come up if I hadn’t. (Answer: It wouldn’t.) Before I could finish, the younger Pistole received a message back that said “proceed.” Then he handed me a receipt for $0 with the guns’ information, on which he wrote, with a pen, “Transfer.” I walked out of the shop a law-abiding gun owner.

One afternoon after I returned with the rifles to Virginia, Samir and I hiked out to our landlord’s range in the woods. The .30-30 was surprisingly light for something so sturdy, and easy to carry. I’d been used to sitting and resting the barrel of a .22 on a stand when shooting, but that seemed wrong for a cowboy’s gun like this. The .30-30 was a gun to shoot standing up. We pinned two targets on a big tree and stood about 25 yards away. Samir took the first turn with Daddy’s rife. He’s 6’5” and built like a linebacker, and the .30-30 rocked him back a bit, firing with a bone-shaking boom. “The recoil’s really not that bad,” he said, not entirely reassuringly.

I practiced with the rifle unloaded first — the gun has no external safety, so once a round’s in the chamber, it’s cocked and ready to fire. Loading the .30-30 took some getting used to. I had to physically push each bullet into the magazine tube. Pulling down the lever to cycle through rounds exposed the rifle’s innards — the carrier, which hoists rounds into the chamber, came all the way down out of the body of the rifle, allowing a view of the next bullet popping into place. It was pleasantly steampunk.

I was nervous at first that I wouldn’t be able to control something with that much power. I tried to brace myself, but anticipated the recoil so much that I flinched dramatically every time I pulled the trigger. After 12 rounds, I could tell where my shoulder would be sore in the morning. I hit a target only once, and it wasn’t even the target I was aiming at.

Now I could think of lots of things to talk about if my dad and I went shooting together. What had happened to the rifle’s missing butt plate, its rare blemish? Did he know there was a screw missing on the rear barrel band, or was that new? Was one side of the rifle subtly smoother and shinier than the other because that’s the side he laid it down on, so that over the years it polished itself against the leather seats of his truck?

As I reloaded the rifle, I wondered who had taught Daddy to shoot in the first place. What tips did he have for my aim? Of course the answers are lost forever. Just like the rest of him.

[Illustration: Hanna Barczyk for The Trace]