The most important rule of camp: use your words.
I am writing this even though you might never read this. Not just because you are four years old and can’t read, but because there is minuscule but very real chance that you’ll never get to.
I realized this as a four-year-old aimed a gun at my forehead.
You see, we are living in a very unpredictable world. I know it’s scary to think about, but sometimes people do bad, bad things and people – even little kids like you, especially little kids like you – can get hurt.
Okay, granted the gun wasn’t real and though I’m sure the child was also aware of this fact, it was still jarring to watch one of my adorable “Chipmunks” lift a giant tree branch off the ground, cock it against a pudgy shoulder and level it at me.
The other camp counselors froze.
“Hey, Jake… what are you doing?” I tried to ask lightheartedly as I approached him.
Jake, in all his delightful toddler glory, shrieked happily and darted behind a bush. Without much probing, I soon learned that Jake, under the influence of six-year-old camper Timmy* had been reenacting a scene out of the video game “Fortnite” Timmy had played.
I know you think we usually have all the answers, Jake, but I don’t have an answer to give you as to why this stuff happens.
After playfully chiding Timmy for playing video games that weren’t appropriate, I tried to redirect the children’s interest in guns.
“So what do your guns shoot?”
“Bullets? Why, that’s lame!” I cried in an exaggerated manner. I then grasped my head as I pretended to have a stroke of genius. “Oh my gosh! You know what would be better?” The kids leaned in. “What if the guns shot out food? What if you were shooting chocolate chips or burgers or…”
For the remainder of the day, I found myself being “sniped” by imaginary fries and marshmallows.
The truth is, life isn’t always fun and games. But you should never let that stop you from enjoying your childhood, Jake. You should never let the fear of getting hurt or failing or dying stop you from living.
Nowhere written in my camp booklet does it tell you how to talk to campers about current events and serious topics like gun violence. Jake did not consciously raise the issue, but after his little stunt in the park, the topic of gun safety was on the minds of all the counselors. As we struggled to find a way to communicate our discomfort with the shooting game, we found ourselves more and more on edge with each “pew pew” we heard from the boys.
And for good reason. Soon all the other preschoolers were playing their own games of “Fortnite.” Every stray object became a “gun” — the building tower blocks, the Legos, the tree branches and twigs. Little boys and girls alike were chasing one another or make-believe assailants throughout the classrooms and outdoor courts as they triumphantly brandished their weapons.
The truth is, there is nothing technically wrong with a four-year-old pretending to play with a gun. But there is something deeply unsettling about it. Though bestowed as a right in our constitution, our ability to wield guns is something I have always struggled with accepting; I don’t like the idea of making people feel unsafe because they feel that their freedoms are being compromised , but I also don’t like the idea of making people feel unsafe because they feel that their lives are being compromised.
In fact, assaults by firearms kill about 13,000 people, or one out of 315 people, in the U.S. each year, according to Business Insider. The chance of dying in such a manner is more than 10 times as high as dying from any force of nature, and about 50 percent more likely than the lifetime risk of dying while riding inside a vehicle.
But you have to be careful, Jake. And you have to understand that sometimes things that appear fun and silly are not really that way at all. You have to be considerate of that, Jake. But I know you will be, right?
I am fortunate to say I have never been directly affected by the consequences of the Second Amendment.
My parents are immigrants and for one reason or another I failed to inherit the reverence for guns that many of my fellow peers and Americans have developed. I was raised in a home where my only contact with guns were through the veil of a TV screen. When your family members have lived through an uprising and bloody war it is not unimaginable that they would seek to put as many barriers between their loved ones and any tools of violence.
And that is what guns have always been to me. Tools. Weapons. Used to protect, but more often than not, to hurt.
Besides the occasional flash I would catch from my screen or black and white headline, I didn’t encounter stories about guns too much.
Until I found myself writing an article about a former professional football player and alumnus whose shooting threat put my school on lockdown last February.
Until I found protesting in front of the White House as millions of students around the country walked out of their classrooms declaring enough is enough.
Until I found myself staying up all night to research statistics about gun shootings and gun violence, the numbers still branded into my brain long after I slammed my computer shut in frustration and despair.
You were born in 2014, Jake. I was in seventh or eighth grade at the time. “Happy” and “Uptown Funk” were the hit songs on the radio and “Frozen” was having its moment. Germany won the World Cup and the whole Sochi Winter Olympics doping scandal went down (but no one would know about that right away).
- It seems so long ago.
In 2014, 270 incidents involving a gun occurred, according to Vox. 265 people were wounded. 1,083 people died.
It seems like yesterday.
I’m a camp counselor. My biggest concerns usually are along the lines of making sure no one forgets their shoes and identifying the weird puddle in the corner as (hopefully) water. Quite simply, I’m expected to keep the campers relatively content and alive.
And though I am incredibly fortunate to say I have no reason to believe my campers will ever be unsafe and that we will all indeed remain alive, that is not a guarantee anymore for others elsewhere in the nation.
Because that’s the world we live in today. A world where these children could find themselves targets of something they used to joke about at camp. Suddenly a four-year-old’s fascination with guns and violent video games doesn’t seem so funny and light-hearted anymore.
But here’s one thing that will never change: your ability to make change. Human beings are far more powerful than we think. And yes, sometimes that is a bad thing, but it’s also a wonderful thing as well. We are incredibly adept at using tools and creating new ones. It is how we use these tools that will determine who we are, and what the world will become.
We can never let ourselves feel removed from the issue of gun safety. We can never let ourselves become desensitized. Not here. Not now. Not ever again.
I remember you were asking me how to spell a word the other day. You were asking me to teach you how to write. Do not ever forget that guns are not the only tools human have to use.
But I remain optimistic. Having faith in the future could, after all, be considered synonymous with believing in the next generation.
Because I know that even though this article will probably not cause any great change, other words might. Words that will strengthen gun regulations and increase safety in our neighborhoods and defend our ability to wield the greatest tool of them all, our words.
Don’t ever forget that, Jake. And though I have no doubt you’d be a fearsome warrior, nurture your curiosity and fascination with writing. You are already have a formidable connection with words. After all, look at what you inspired me to write.
Until next summer,
* Fictional names were used because even though they can’t or won’t read this, my campers and their identities should always stay safe and protected.