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.