Radio·Enright Essays

Michael Enright grew up idolizing guns but a neighbour's break-in changed his mind

Following school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, former Sunday Edition host recalls his own reckoning with guns.

Following school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, former Sunday Edition host recalls his own reckoning with guns

Michael Enright used to own a gun, but one day, the idea of carrying something that may be used to kill a person 'became unthinkable.' (Shutterstock / Godlikeart)

This is part of a series of columns by Michael Enright, reflecting his more than 50 years as a journalist and CBC broadcaster covering Canadian and global news events.

I grew up surrounded by guns, like many boys brought up in the '50s. Not in my apartment in Toronto, but in the movies, on radio and television. I have no childhood memories that didn't enfold my life in some way with guns. Guns as toys. Cap pistols, BB guns, rubber dart shooters, starters' pistols, model guns, a Cooey .22-calibre rifle or an ancient Lee-Enfield war relic.

My favourite movies were westerns, where the cowboy hero or 7th Cavalry horseman could pick off an enemy at 40 yards with his magical Colt. Much later in life, I would come to own a .38 Smith & Wesson police special.

At Christmas after Christmas, I pleaded with my parents for a Red Ryder levered BB gun, or maybe a pump action. One Christmas when I was about 10, Santa (and my parents) came through. Underneath the tree in all its Red Ryder glory was my first BB gun. (Apparently I was just like Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Does anybody under the age of 30 know what BBs are? Or caps?)

Ralphie Parker in 'A Christmas Story' holding a Red Ryder BB gun. (Warner Bros.)

It is difficult if not impossible to explain the allure to someone who has never owned or fired a gun. The weighty heft of a handgun or the snug smoothness of the butt of a rifle or shotgun against the shoulder have an undeniable sensual quality.

Cops in my growing-up days never showed their weapons. City cops and Mounties kept their firearms firmly holstered, the Mounties' guns tethered by a lanyard around the neck. Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet hardly ever drew his .38, firmly hidden in a belt holster. Marshall Matt Dillon drew and fired his Peacemaker at the opening of Gunsmoke and rarely thereafter.

My mother's brothers were enthusiastic duck hunters. My father never hunted and never owned a firearm. When I was about 12 years old, I aimed my BB gun at a robin, pulled the trigger and hit it. I had killed a living thing. I couldn't get over why it bothered me so much. As the movie said, it's a sin to kill a mockingbird, and that's the way I felt about killing the robin. I wondered if I should include it in my confessional roll call at church on Saturday.

The idea of owning a device to shoot and maybe kill people suddenly became unthinkable.

This week, a man in Toronto carrying a pellet rifle caused four schools to be locked down. He was shot dead by police.

My best memory is that there were no mass murders in my early youth. Or maybe there were and I just didn't know about them.

In fact, my first experience of a shooting massacre came in my early 20s, in 1966 when an ex-marine named Charles Whitman fired on crowds of students from the tower of the University of Texas at Austin. Over the next hour and a half, he killed 14 people. (Austin and Uvalde, Texas, are about 250 kilometres apart.) But I loved Americans and America, and the slaughter slipped from my mind.

One of the victims of Charles Joseph Whitman, the sniper who gunned down victims from a perch in the University of Texas tower on August 1, 1966, is carried across the campus to a waiting ambulance in Austin. (AP Photo/File) (The Associated Press)

As an adult, I didn't pay too much attention to guns until I moved to the U.S. in 1968 as a Washington correspondent for a Canadian newspaper. I rented an apartment on Corcoran Street and 16th, about 10 blocks from the White House. 

Late one night, there was a pounding on my door. My across-the-hall neighbour, a young school teacher, was crying and shaking badly. Her apartment had been broken into. I phoned the police and gave the woman a cup of coffee. She then explained: "He came in over the window and I didn't have a chance to get to my gun in the bureau." 

At that moment, I decided to get rid of my pistol. I haven't owned a gun since and don't intend to. Ever. The idea of owning a device to shoot and maybe kill people suddenly became unthinkable. I was afraid that I might want to keep the pistol as a kind of protection, the kind of protection that could get me killed.

Living and working among the heavily armed is an illuminating but chilling experience. Americans treasure their Second Amendment rights almost to the point of fetishism. Gun shows in small rural communities are fabulously popular. The National Rifle Association, once a leading advocate of gun control, is among the most powerful lobbies in Washington. (It is meeting, by the way, at an annual convention this weekend — in Texas.) Action movies and video games are marinated in pretend gun violence. It's little wonder that some young Americans especially are as caught up in the mysterious attraction of guns as I once was.

A woman holds a Smith & Wesson handgun at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Indianapolis on April 28, 2019. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

When I was in elementary school in the 1950s, we were told by nuns that we had to practise safety measures in case of a nuclear attack. We could protect ourselves by getting down on the floor and putting our heads under the desk. American children in the 21st century practise lockdown drills.

The slaughter of innocents continued in that country this week in what has become a familiar, ritualized choreography. First the deaths, then the shock of parents and teachers, right up to the president, followed by the pro forma calls for thoughts and prayers.

Composite illustration features the 21 victims — including 19 children and two teachers — of a mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24, 2022. (Family handouts/Reuters)

In our cops and robbers games, we shot at each other, reloaded our toy weapons and kept up the firefight, sometimes until dark. Then we went home for supper and homework.

Sadly for today's youngsters, the guns are real, the bullets are real and the deaths, the dozens of deaths, are real.


Michael Enright

Columnist and host

Michael Enright is the former host of The Sunday Edition on CBC Radio One. During his long career as a journalist, he has hosted other CBC Radio flagship shows, including This Country in the Morning, As It Happens, Rewind and This Morning. He is the recipient of three honorary doctorates and the Order of Canada.