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TKAM (courtesy Rhonda Little for The Truth About Guns)

Rhonda Little writes:

Good Southern literature moves with a perfect rhythm. Like many novels of its type, To Kill a Mockingbird’s languid pace sways like a porch swing on a lazy summer afternoon. Reading Harper Lee’s classic tale of racial prejudice and personal triumph, I find the voice in my head speaking the words in a slow Southern drawl. I experience a nearly clinical compulsion to make a pitcher of fresh lemonade. Lest you think this is some sort of chick-lit review, rest assured we’re not going there. TKAM has plenty of firearms-related action and the author uses it to make important points . . .

A firearm first appears in TKAM when Nathan Radley does a Joe Biden. Radley fires a shotgun blast into the air to chase Scout (the story’s eight-year-old narrator), her big brother Jem and their friend Dill (modeled after Harper’s soulmate and fellow author Truman Capote) off his property. With that explosive action, the mystery of Nathan Radley’s brother Boo begins to deepen.

The next gun shows up at Christmas when Uncle Jack gives Jem and Scout air rifles. The kids learn a lesson about responsibility from their “feeble” (nearly fifty!) father . . .

Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. “Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.

The single father teaches his kids about guns without making them afraid of firearms; guns are dangerous tools to be used, but respected. Calmly and firmly, Atticus places clear boundaries on their use and explains the importance of muzzle discipline. When he sees Scout aiming her air gun at Ms. Maudie’s rear end, he warms her, “Don’t you ever let me catch you pointing that gun at anyone ever again.”

Jem and Scout are certain their father is useless. After all, he has a boring office job in town and never does anything exciting. Until one day in February when a rabid dog named Tim Johnson appears on the street heading towards their house.

Sheriff Heck Tate hands his rifle to Atticus. Tate insists that the lawyer shoot the dog; Attitcus is the better shot. His children are stunned that anyone would ask their father to do anything involving a gun. Atticus takes the sheriff’s rifle reluctantly, secures the area, protects bystanders and makes a careful evaluation of the dog’s location and condition. When the dog’s in range, he fires a single shot and eliminates the threat.

With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’ hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. …’You were a little to the right, Mr. Finch,’ [Mr. Tate] called. ‘Always was,’ answered Atticus. ‘If I had my druthers, I’d take a shotgun.

Atticus doesn’t allow the bystanders, especially his children to approach the aftermath. His near-shame about his talent for marksmanship is telling. Later, Jem says:

…all of a sudden he just relaxed all over an’ it looked like that gun was a part of him…an he did it so quick…I hafta aim for ten minutes ‘fore I can hit somethin …

Neighbor and mother figure Maudie Atkinson tells the kids why Atticus doesn’t speak of his talent and why he doesn’t hunt:

“If your father’s anything, he’s civilized at heart. Marksmanship’s a gift from God, a talent-oh, you have to practice to make it perfect, but shootin’s different from playing the piano or the like. I think maybe he put his gun down when he realized God gave him an unfair advantage over most living things. I guess he decided he wouldn’t shoot unless he had to, and he had to today.”

“Looks like he’d be proud of it.”

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.”

Scout wants to brag about Atticus in school Monday, but Jem says don’t. “If he was proud of it, he’da told us. This is somethin you wouldn’t understand. Atticus is a gentleman. Like me.”

An armed gentleman is a precious and necessary thing in a world full of evil. But Atticus is more than polite, more than humble; he’s empathetic. The key lesson he teaches his children: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Chapter 11 chronicles Jem and Scout’s interaction with Mrs. Dubose, a seemingly monstrous vile woman. She screams hateful things at Jem and Scout about their father. Atticus sees past her bile to find nobility in his neighbor. “I wanted you to see what real courage was,” he tells his children, “instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you even begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

Though extremely talented with a gun (“One-shot Finch-didn’t you know that’s what we used to call him?”) Atticus makes a choice that TTAG readers might find foolish: he never carries a gun. After Tom Robinson’s trial and the threats on Atticus’ life, the attorney wanders around Maycomb unarmed. It’s maddening.  Sheriff Tate vocalizes the awful truth: “Mr. Finch, there’s just some kind of men you have to shoot before you can say hidy to ’em.”

Author Harper Lee disarms Atticus to make an important point: an understanding of and appreciation for our common humanity can be just as powerful as a shotgun. Not to mention an eye for danger . . .

In the book’s climax Bob Ewell attacks Jem and Scout for their father’s defense of a black man. Jem’s situational awareness helps keep Scout safe. In some of the most beautiful Southern prose ever written, Scout sees her town from the Radley porch. The gentle, powerful empathy her father instilled in her throughout the book is finally fully realized.

Today’s world is not that different than 1930’s Maycomb, Alabama. As Harper Lee showed us, responsible gun owners exhibit a combination of honorable qualities. Like Heck Tate, they view the world honestly. Like Atticus Finch, they see people as individual human beings. Like Mr. Underwood, they protect their neighbors come what may.

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  1. If you want good southern literature read Eugene Sledge’s With The Old Breed. Not sure if it is exactly classical literature, but everyone should read it.

    • I’ll third that. Finished it about a month ago and it still resonates.

      Also, it stands as a resounding argument to anyone who claims dropping the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was wrong. It depicts the Japanese will to fight to the death, which would have been multiplied a hundredfold if the Allies had invaded the Japanese continent. I’ve successfully used it as a counterargument in discussions with leftist friends.

      • I haven’t read this book but i’ll add it to my list. I will say I don’t agree that nukes should have been used on cities filled with unarmed women and children who had no say in the decision to bomb pearl harbor. It could have been handled differently without killing a quarter million people, of which, the vast majority were civilians. It is difficult for me to justify this by any means yet presented, and I doubt “Sledgehammer” is going to change my mind. Given the Japanese “will to fight to the death” why invade? Why not invite their leaders to a light show (nuke) over the pacific for a demonstration. The Japanese were basically already defeated before the atomic bombings. Their use appeared mainly for the purpose of “closure” for that fact. I feel such loss of life could have been avoided.

        I often reflect on the fact that the US is the only country in the world to employ the use of nuclear weapons offensively, yet flips out if other countries try to arm themselves with nuclear weapons.

        • Because we’d already bled plenty, and after hopping from island to island, fighting division+-strength (or entire Army strength on Okinawa) forces on nearly every island of that campaign, and we had been taking only a dozen prisoners here, a dozen there. Only on Okinawa did we get significant prisoners, and most of the Japanese forces fought to the death. On Okinawa, we saw what fighting the Japanese civilians population would be like – women handing over their infants, with hand grenades wrapped up with the infant to blow up a Marine or two accepting the child. There were battle hardened Marines who broke at the necessity of having to shoot women and infants because this ploy was used enough to cause Marines to distrust the civilian female population’s intent.

          Now, you think that lighting off one of our nukes and inviting them to the show would have done the trick? You’re simply wrong.

          The Japanese had already witnessed far worse civilian death than a nuke could bring to bear, in the firebombing of Tokyo on 09 March 1945 – with a higher civilian death toll than either Hiroshima or Nagasaki. And yet, they persisted. They then saw Hiroshima – three planes instead of hundreds of B-29’s, and a city burned to the ground. And still the Japanese high command showed no signs of buckling. They had an atomic bomb program of their own. They thought, informed by their atomic research efforts, that we could not possibly have more than one atomic bomb (in fact, we had only three shipped out to the PTO). Then came Nagasaki – and still the Japanese high command was not going to buckle.

          The fact that people with your position completely miss is that it was the Emperor who buckled, not the military command. Upon hearing that the Emperor lost resolve, some among the Japanese high command’s most hard-core militarists were going to take the Emperor prisoner and isolate him so that he could not tell the people to surrender. You should read up on the history of 06 August to 15 August 1945 in Japan. The surrender of the Japanese came down to the actions of a very, very few people, including the manager of Radio Tokyo, hiding the recording of the Emperor from the militarists who were frantically searching for it, trying to make sure the people didn’t hear their Emperor buckle. The militarists staged a coup, trying to head off Hirohito’s surrender speech. They ultimately lost, but the surrender was very nearly headed off. Had the militarists won the day, we would have had to drop the third atomic bomb we had, and then we would have had to start burning one city to the ground after another.

          As to large-scale sacrifice of Japanese civilian lives…

          Did you think we were going to not kill civilians if we didn’t use the atomic bombs? No. Curtis LeMay had a bombing campaign all lined up, ready to immolate the whole of Japan, from the northern end of the main island to the southern end, burning one city to a crisp every two or three days, in raids of hundreds to a thousand+ B-29’s in each attack. LeMay was actually pissed off at the arrival of the atomic bombs, because he’d been working on the logistics of burning Japan to a cinder, one city at a time, and he’d worked a long time in great detail to make this happen.

          The projected civilian death toll for the firebombing campaign was to be 1+ million people. We were planning on killing civilians in numbers that make the death toll from the two atomic bombs look small. After we were done with the firebombing raids, we were then going to put ashore in several locations on the main island. The War Department reckoned that we would lose 100K KIA, with upwards of 500K+ wounded in an invasion of the mainland, and plenty more Japanese civilians and troops (hundreds of thousands) would have to be killed to pacify the main island.

          So: For the price of a bit over 100K+ lives in the atomic bombings, we dispensed with plans for a literal holocaust of the Japanese and 100K+ dead of our own.

        • I’ve seen estimates that if the war had dragged on into 1946, some 5-6 million Japanese would have died due to starvation and malnutrition-related disease alone because of the near-complete destruction of Japan’s merchant navy by 1945. Add that to more military casualties. The A-bomb literally saved millions of Japanese lives. Not to mention possibly my dad’s (he was in training for the invasion of the home islands when Japan surrendered).

        • ..we dispensed with plans for a literal holocaust of the Japanese…

          … then we would have had to start burning one city to the ground after another.

          … No. Curtis LeMay had a bombing campaign all lined up, ready to immolate the whole of Japan…

          This is exactly what I was talking about.

          Again, if we didn’t have the nukes – do you think we would have performed a holocaust? Doesn’t make us any better than Nazi’s right? – is declaring victory so important that everyone must die? Also – the firebombing of Tokyo too was a shameful act. We had the opportunity to take the high road but we did not because why risk a single soldier dying in japan when we can vaporize and conflagrate all the civilian women, children, and a few soldiers without risking a single infantryman.

          The Japanese killed 68 civilians in the attack on pearl harbor. They did not continue to bomb the rest of Hawaii after the US military forces were annihilated. The nukes were shameful, the firebombing of a civilian city (Tokyo) was also shameful, and it most certainly could have been handled differently.

    • It’s a great book. I’m happy that I got to see Sledgehammer a couple of times on TV before he passed. He was a great soldier and seemed to be an even better person.

    • @ Indiana Tom
      Agreed, “With the Old Breed” is an excellent book. I found out about it after watching The Pacific, and picked up Bob Leckie’s “Helmet for My Pillow” as well. But Sledge’s book is definitely my favorite.

  2. I just watched “The Help” about Jackson, mississippi circa 1963. The low wages paid to the black help was either a part of, or helped create, the economic and social divide between the races. Social conventions maintained the separation, despite the intimacy of the association. I think all places at some stage of development, have a degree of bias and social stratification, but the level of casual abuse, murder and legal enforcement, is shocking to any modern eye. I hope we have all made progress, but any view of the nightly news makes this improbable. Until we all share in the alleged prosperity that some enjoy, there will always be poverty and social disruption. If we deny this, we are part of the problem.

    • Huh??? What do we call that kids? COMMUNISM…Let’s all share-like in Baltimore. And why do immigrant black and brown and yellow folks do so well in America. I know! They try!

      • Glad to know I’m not the only one who thought this. I was about to say, the misguided utopian socialist club is down the hall.

        • I’ve never understood how or why financial equality became the supposed standard. Why is equality fair but hard working wealthy and unemployed poor is unfair?

    • I agree martinB, There will always be the poor, Especially when a large portion of that poor class are creating it by putting down those that get a good education as being “like whitey”, put down those that get a good blue collar job as being an “uncle Tom” and give more respect for being a gangster than a law abiding citizen.

      Oh, and then when they get mad at the ghetto they have created ; they loot, riot and burn what few businesses are in their neighborhood leaving no place near by to buy food or get a near by job.

      Yep, in that environment, there will always be those choosing to live in poverty.

      • Some of what you say is true.
        There are slackers here and abroad. For every brown or yellow immigrant that does well there are many at home who wouldn’t travel 6000mi to start over.
        The prosperity we share is that the U.S. has an economic advantage. The most powerful military and when we don’t ship it away, great tech and manufacturing. The thing many people miss is that this economic advantage would not exist without the labor provided by white indentured servants, yellow cheap labor and black free labor. This being the internet do your own research. Don’t believe me.

        So count your blessings. Blame blacks for what they can fix. All of their problems aren’t their fault. Blame whites for what they can fix. All of their problems aren’t their fault.

        There is something here when no mention is made of poor whites. They make the same life style choices, are unwed single mothers, are on food stamps, public assistance, do poorly in school, don’t have marketable English, have raging amounts of drug abuse and the scary ones are as scary as the scary inner city blacks. What did Rockefeller do to the Appalachian whites? Why can’t they as a group just climb out of poverty? Must be something other than just will.

        It’s complex. Simple answers don’t work. Repub or Dem. Cut programs or throw money at another. Simple answers don’t work.

    • “Until we all share in the alleged prosperity that some enjoy, there will always be poverty and social disruption. If we deny this, we are part of the problem.”

      And you concluded this after watching a movie? Or is it that this is something you’ve always believed and, on watching the movie, decided to share your pearl of wisdom with us? Either way, this is the kind of naive twaddle that leads us all down a road to surfdom. There is, in fact, a book by that name: “The Road To Surfdom” by F. A. Hayek. Depending on how wedded you are to collectivism, you might find it an interesting read.

      • Great book! He describes the rise of Hitler as a result of the power given the state by prior “progressive” socialistic/communistic administrations. ( Nazi, The germans peoples slang for the National Socialist party)

        Hayek wrote the book in the early and mid 20th century. He warned if England and the USA went the same socialist route, we would create the same environment for the rise of the totalitarian police state. Prophetic.

        Oh, auto correct, It’s actually spelled “Serfdom”.

  3. Not that she is a fan of the book but before our daughter “gave” us our dog, she named it Atticus.

  4. Atticus could have been soured to guns after they great war, he would have been on the older side for enlistment but not impossible as an early volunteer.

  5. Good revisit. I haven’t read that since high school. Looks like I need to again.

  6. I once had a tomato container garden ruined by –you guessed it– mockingbirds, which hung like bats from the vines and pecked the fruits apart.

  7. You forgot the part about the old lady with a hidden CSA revolver in the folds of her skirt. Concealed carry old school style.

  8. After reading TKAM in school I found atticus’ excuse for not liking guns ridiculous. That he was so good it was unfair to hunt? As a whole though, the book was good.

    • Maybe it’s just an extension of a definition of “Southern gentlemen” that I read once : “They say ‘ ma’am ‘ , they say grace, and they don’t shoot quail on the ground.”

      • I’ve always wondered why shooting a bird on the ground that is generally hunted in flight is called “Arkansas” shooting it. Tends to directly contradict what a southern gentleman would do.

        Side note, I had a friend who shot a pheasant as it was landing, but not yet down, and just to poke fun at him his nickname forever more has been “Arkansas Nate” though he’s never lived outside of Kansas. Probably 5 of us were within sight of the shot and we all knew well that it was a good and legal shot, but that won’t stop a group of guys getting in some cheap shots (figuratively speaking) on a buddy they know can take it in good humor.

        • My dad got onto a buddy for shooting quail on or close to the ground, said he was making “skillet shots”.

  9. Yeah… No! Let’s not do this here. Book club, somewhere else. Read this in high school in MS hated it then, not gonna be swayed now. Where are the gun reviews, not jus another re-branding of another AR?

  10. Thank you for this article Rhonda. It’s been a very long time since I saw the movie and an even longer time since I read the book. You motivated me to pick it up again and share it with my daughter.

  11. Speaking of courage . . . “It’s when you know you’re licked before you even begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what.”

    This is an invocation of a timeless Scots-Irish and southern value. There was a time when this fundamental idea was taught to every southern child. It was more than a simple admonition—although in my case as with many other male children it first appeared in my father’s instructions about how to deal with a school bully—and was in fact a codification on how to lead one’s life. Not backing down, not giving up, has deep roots in Scots-Irish culture. At the seige of Londonderry in 1689 the Protestant Scots-Irish defenders held out against James II’s Catholic army. In defiance, they chanted “no surrender, no retreat” from the walls of the city. In “Born Fighting”, his book on Scots-Irish culture in America, James Webb makes this connection. Although not really a unique value, it helps explain why southern people, red-necks or not, tend to be so stiff-necked and annoyingly stubborn. This lesson, learned so early and not without high costs, has served me well.

  12. It’s a classic of American literature, and as a teacher, I can confirm that (thankfully), it’s still taught to kids. Pro-gun parts, and all.

  13. I like this post, haven’t read TKAM since high school (like most people, I assume) but this makes me want to revisit it.

  14. Nice article. I have read the book many times and just finished listening to the Audio version from or Amazon (great listen). The “shooting the rabid dog scene” is particularly well done in the movie version of TKMB, with the great Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. I love how he discards his annoying eye glasses in order to take proper aim. Like he must momentarily abandon his civilized civil rights lawyer persona in order to carry out the task at hand. Look for his son’s astonished look when the dog instantly crumbles into a dead heap.
    This is a wonderful movie for those that cant be bothered to read the book. Also look for the very young Robert Duvall in his screen debut as Boo Radley.

  15. Today the book would be banned on college campuses because Atticus would be called part of the rape culture, defending a rapist.

  16. Well, it drove me to youtube to look to look at some clips (never read the book). Can’t find my favorite scene, where the maid gives Scout an animated lecture on hospitality. Anyway– making the hero a crack shot is a good message in itself IMO.

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