From fishing licenses to gun control

My son’s favorite thing to do is fish. I bought him a brand-new Mickey the Mouse fishing pole and a tackle box for his birthday. His favorite spot was on a small inland lake in a state park. On the bank of the lake, we would fish underneath a large cottonwood tree decorated with bobbers and lures that had become snagged in the branches.

The tree was tall and old and had fissured thick bark. We would sit, shaded and cool from the humid late summer air, and catch fish. They were small panfish, the size of your finger, and he could catch them on worms. My son would lip the tiny fish and throw them back in. And we would catch many, and we would only leave when the skin on his thumb started to wrinkle and flake from the lipping.

While we fished, I noticed an old green pick-up truck with rusted-out paneling parked next to my car. The parking lot was deserted, and the truck sat there with the engine idling. As my son reeled in the last fish, I looked over my shoulder and saw a silhouette of a man in the driver’s seat and a flash of bright white light from his face.

I glanced down at my son and the surroundings, and as the sun set and the parking lot started darkening, I realized we were alone with this man. We began to walk back to our car, and when I got closer, I realized the flash was from the reflection of the man’s binoculars, and the mysterious man had been watching us the entire time.

The man opened his door and started to walk quickly towards us. I grabbed my son’s Mickey Mouse push-button fishing pole and prepared myself to bludgeon the man over the head with it. If that didn’t work, I would strangle him with the fishing line. Working in the ER, you become suspicious of everyone and, eventually, become acutely aware of the potential badness in any situation. I was convinced this man was up to no good.

Luckily, I did not have to do either. The man was a fishing marshal.

He asked for my fishing license. I told him I didn’t have one and didn’t need one as my son was fishing, and in Ohio, children under 16 can fish with no license.

“But I watched you reel a fish in for him … I’ll need to take his fishing equipment,” he quipped.

The fishing marshal was a young man who did not look me in the eyes. He had a proud but boyish face.

What I said and what followed, I cannot say here. But there was much yelling and screaming from us both. There is no greater embarrassment than losing your temper in front of your child. I remember yelling so loud that my yells echoed across the parking lot, and I briefly thought it was someone else’s voice. The strangeness of hearing my screams drowns out softly to the cacophony of cicadas, and the sadness in my son’s eyes as he looked at me with terror finally made me stop arguing.

It ended with the marshal confiscating my child’s Mickey Mouse fishing pole and tackle box I had recently bought him for his birthday. I was given a fine.

We drove home, and my son cried the entire way. He asked me tearfully what a license was, why we needed one to fish, and why his birthday presents were taken away. I tried to explain it to him. In a simple and child-like context. But I couldn’t. It made no sense what I was saying.

“I needed a license to marry your mom … no, no, that won’t work, I need a license to practice medicine and a license to drive, those will make sense …” I thought.

I finally settled on the idea that people needed licenses to do dangerous things, so others don’t get hurt.

But that did not work; he did not think fishing was dangerous, and he cried himself to sleep.

A year later, I developed a groundhog problem in my backyard and resorted to shooting them with a pellet gun.

One day, as I was preparing to shoot the largest of the bunch, my son approached me and asked if he could take a shot. He promised me he would not tell Mom. I let him, and to my surprise, he actually hit the furry beast. It limped back to its hole but started to sway and collapsed. He killed it. I was not prepared for this.

We stood on the back porch looking at the dead carcass, and I prepared myself for the life and death discussion. But what he asked me was much worse:

“Do we need a license for that?” he asked, his eyes never leaving the pellet gun.

“For what?”

“For the gun?”

“No,” I said.

“That doesn’t make a lot of sense …” he said sadly.

To my surprise, he had remembered, quite clearly, our conversation about licenses from last summer.

I said nothing, and we went upstairs, and I got him ready for bed, helped him brush his teeth, and change into his pajamas.

I sat on the edge of his bed and told him his favorite bedtime story about a man who farts laughing gas. But he did not laugh and was quiet and still the entire time.

I kissed him good night, and he asked me another question as I left. A question I never truly answered and regret to this day:

“Is that the reason we have to do the shooter-man drills at school?”

“Huh?” I heard what he asked but was caught off guard.

“The bad shooter-men who shoot kids at schools don’t have licenses, do they?” he said, not as a question but as a sad, introspective realization.

“We will talk about this tomorrow. Go to sleep.”

But I never followed up and cannot bring myself to discuss it with him. He knows the world he is living in now. What the rules are, even as a child. I don’t know if that is good or bad.

Nothing surprises me anymore with guns—the cult-like following of some gun owners baptized in gunpowder and steel. Following a gospel they themselves seem not to understand, at the expense of the safety of others.

There is nothing wrong with owning a gun, but there is something wrong with letting people who have no business getting a gun, who cannot even prove mental and social stability, buy a gun. There need to be more rules and more licenses for gun ownership. As I write this, there has been yet another mass shooting, this time in Maine, by a man who had no business owning a gun, just like all the other mass shootings.

If it’s harder to go fishing with my son than it is to buy an assault rifle, something is truly wrong with this country.

Mitch Bruss is an emergency physician.

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