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Formalists Under Fire

A few weeks before Christmas, my sons and I made repeated visits to a firearms store. Both boys had expressed an interest in hunting, and we had discussed what types of guns are appropriate when pursuing various game—rabbit, bird, deer, and etc. After doing some preliminary research, we then went out to price and heft different examples of each before deciding on what we might purchase.

I think it was during our third visit to this particular store that, as we were evaluating a certain .22 caliber rifle my 12 year old son held in his arms, an employee—an older gentleman who had been standing a few steps away at the end of the aisle—leaned over to us and said, “Young man, you never place your finger inside the trigger guard unless you are going to fire the gun.”

I looked down and, sure enough, my son’s finger had been lying casually on the trigger for a good portion of the time we had been discussing different aspects of the rifle. Joe sheepishly said something along the lines of, “Oh, ok. Sorry,” and then looked at me with a “for real?” expression on his face. I nodded in agreement with the gentleman and thanked him for reminding us. This incident, as you might imagine, sparked a dimension to our family conversations about firearms that, frankly, I should have begun weeks earlier.

Subsequent to Christmas, my boys and I made our first visit in many years to our outdoorsman’s club. When they were much younger, I had taken them there several times to fish, but never to the firing range.

As we arrived, I noted that, although this was my first foray to the range in many years and my boys’ first ever, we fit in quite well with the other members who had arrived before us and had already begun to practice on their targets. In fact, we were all wearing quite similar glasses, and we had all donned some form of ear protection.

Our conformity went beyond mere appearance, however. Indeed, everyone at the range was exhibiting behavior that was strikingly uniform. When one person finished firing their gun and wanted to go downrange to evaluate his performance or change targets, he would place the firearm, almost always chamber open, on the table at his station and patiently watch the other sportsmen. When a lull in the firing came, he would inquire, “Clear?” which query was invariably answered with a chorus of, “Clear!” He would then be free to walk downrange to accomplish his purposes.

I also noticed that, even if they did not join the down range party, most of the other parties at the range also placed their firearms on their tables until everyone had returned to their station.

I had prepped the boys as to how all this worked, and I was pleased to see they caught on quickly. As a result, we had a delightful day together at the range testing their new guns.

But at one point in the excursion I had to chuckle. Here, among a group of people who barely knew each other and, as a class, are frequently regarded in some corner of society as less civilized, was one of the strictest examples of formalism I had ever encountered.

Before I finish, I want to anticipate a likely objection to my point. I am not saying that a lack of formality in worship will result in someone lying bloodied in the aisle, even metaphorically. I do not wish to make a strict analogy at all.

The fact is that, during our third trip to the gun store, my son was in absolutely no immediate danger of harming anyone. The gun was not loaded. The muzzle was pointed at the ceiling. The situation itself was harmless. But the store employee who intervened did so out of the urgent burden that every potential owner of a firearm understand the grave responsibility that accompanies that privilege.

My point is that the group of rituals we know as the firearm safety code is an obvious, extant example of how form has, throughout history, served both to instill and to maintain the sensibilities essential to the proper discharge of a particular function.

About David Oestreich

David Oestreich lives in northwest Ohio with his wife and three children. He is a maker of poems, photographs, fishing flies, and Saturday afternoon semi-haute cuisine. His poetry has appeared in various venues, both print and online.