It’s not the money, it’s the thought

6 mins read

The National Retail Federation estimates shoppers will spend an average of $998 on gifts this holiday season. So of course, it makes sense one family would spend half of that on a handgun for their 15-year-old son. 

As I write this, James and Jennifer Crumbley are held on $500,000 bonds after being arrested for allegedly attempting to flee the country in the wake of their son, Ethan, being accused in a shooting attack on the high school he attended in Oxford, Mich. 

Authorities believe James Crumbley bought the handgun for his son in a Black Friday sale at Acme Shooting Goods in Oxford. Ethan bragged about his “new beauty” in a social media post, followed the next day by Jennifer saying she and Ethan were testing out “his new Christmas present,” presumably at a local gun range. 

When teachers discovered Ethan at school the following Monday researching types of ammunition, they left a voicemail and email for Jennifer Crumbley, who did not respond to them but texted her son, “Lol. I’m not mad at you. You have to learn not to get caught.” 

On Tuesday, a teacher saw a drawing Ethan made of what appeared to be a shooting scene with the phrases, “The thoughts won’t stop. Help me,” and “My life is useless.” His parents were called to the school, but after hearing educators’ concerns, they declined to take him home. 

Soon after midday, Ethan exited a school bathroom with the handgun his father bought and began firing. He killed four students and injured six others, along with wounding one teacher. Ethan now faces murder and terrorism charges, and his parents are charged with involuntary manslaughter for not doing more to prevent the attack. 

This column isn’t about gun control. Despite public support dropping to the lowest levels since 2014, more than half of Americans still think the country needs stricter gun laws. The gun lobby is so powerful, though, and our politicians are so in thrall to them that gun control is all but a lost cause at the national level. 

What I’m talking about is on a smaller scale. It’s about families and the lessons children take from what they see adults do and the things those adults prioritize. The things to which they assign value. 

Photographer Gabriele Galimberti recently won 2021’s World Press Photo Contest in the Portraits category with “The Ameriguns,” his look at our maddening obsession with stockpiling guns and ammunition. His book and photo essay portray some of the three percent of Americans who own more than half the guns in this country. 

That’s not a typographical error. 

In 2016, Harvard and Northwestern collaborated on a study of gun ownership that revealed a class of super-owners, who with an average 17 guns apiece, collectively owned 133 million of the 265 million guns sold at that time. Six years later, there are more than 390 million guns in our country, more than one per person for every American. 

The super-owners Gamilberti photographed pose with their guns arranged like prized family possessions. Writer Albert Cox Delano marveled at the stashes accumulated by these “ammosexuals,” as he called them. He looked at the photos and speculated as to the weapons’ cost. 

Based on online sales, Delano assigned prices of $350 for handguns, $650 for shotguns and hunting rifles, and $1,250 for assault rifles and submachine guns. His estimates range from $4,500 for an owner covered in suds with her tub lined with weapons to more than $82,000 for a woman displayed sitting in a private gun vault. 

Delano writes, “I cannot stop thinking of the bucketloads [of] money they have spent just on the guns and accessories. … Then, I want you to picture what they could’ve done with the same amount of money. Not just college funds or home improvement. Think travels, investments, etc.” 

He compares “The Ameriguns” to other essays by Galimberti of items people viewed as part of their identities. The guns are no different, Delano writes. These owners aren’t just buying guns for safety’s sake. They are buying them as an extension of who they are and how they see themselves. 

Ethan’s words of worthlessness echo those uttered by others who waged gun warfare on schools. But for a couple days, at least, his parents made him feel he was worth at least the $500 they spent on his deadly new “beauty.” 

The ghosts of that Christmas present should haunt us all. 

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com. 

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