Awesome Pictures: The Great Depression Era’s Concept of Gun Safety

What is it:

This is my grandfather, Murray Anderson, in 1942 at age 17, pointing his gun directly at the photographer.

Why is it Awesome?

Okay, let’s get a closer look at this. You tell me, what’s interesting about this image? Is it the bit where you can see directly down the barrel of what is almost certainly a loaded firearm? I’ll admit, it makes for an interesting picture –especially once I was assured the photographer is not now dead and quietly buried in a shallow grave somewhere out in the forest– but what is the wider context? What can this photo tell us about the life and times of the generation that grew up during the Great Depression?

Let’s take a step back and remember what we’re talking about here. This is not a couple of teenagers horsing around with firearms. Well, okay, it is teenagers horsing around with firearms, but it’s also one of those things that disconnects the Greatest Generation from my own. Even the Baby Boomers can’t really wrap their head around the idea that in the Great Depression, you fed your family however you could. Everyone had a garden. If you lived near a lake or a river, you fished. If there were wood lots around you, you hunted. You didn’t do it because you were starving. You did it because it was something you could do to make things easier on the family budget. It wasn’t a question of desperation so much as independence.

Clarence, Muray and Henry Anderson about to go fishing on the Detroit River 1942
My grandfather is the youngest of eight children, five boys, three girls. That’s a lot of mouths to feed. Their family was fairly well off, as far as things went: His father was an engineer, and his grandfather was a fishing trawler captain, but that didn’t mean every penny wasn’t pinched. Look at the photo of my grandfather and two of his brothers about to go fishing. Who’s the best dressed? Who’s second? Who’s third? That’s based strictly on age. The eldest brother got the new clothes, because he outgrew his old stuff, which went to the next eldest, and the next, and so on down the line. Every photo I have of my grandfather before he joins the navy, the collars and sleeves of his sweaters are all stretched out and irregular. Hand-me-downs aren’t a completely foreign concept to my generation, but they certainly don’t extend into a boy’s late teens anymore. In his day and age it was viewed as perfectly normal, even for the middle class. It was just one more way of scrimping and saving and relying on your own family’s resources.

So what does this have to do with the Great Depression Generation’s view of gun safety? My grandfather and great uncles were expected to hunt and to fish to supplement the food their father’s salary put on the table. Again, that was absolutely normal, whereas today it would be considered very unusual outside of the most rustic areas. Everyone with access to a rod or reel helped out. Up in Muskoka, over four hundred kilometers away from the Anderson family down in Windsor, My grandmother’s brother Wilfred ‘Pip’ MacDonald was praised for his efforts to always shoot rabbits in the head, so the fur would be of some use after the little guys had been butchered. It was a lifestyle that held sway over vast stretches of North America: Frugality, but also a tangible sense of self-reliance.

My great-grandfather, Elmore Anderson, fishing with his sons, 1942
Today, if I wanted to have a boat like the Anderson brothers had, I’d have to take a course on water safety, write an exam, and get my license. Do you know what those boys did? Their father took them out from the time they were old enough to stand, and when they were old enough to work a struggling pole to haul in a fish worth catching, he trusted them to go out on their own. It was just the same with firearms. There’s no doubt in my mind that my great-grandfather showed his sons how to load a rifle, unload it, work the safety and the sights. It never occurred to him to send them to an actual officiating body where they would learn the cardinal rule, “ALWAYS TREAT A GUN AS IF IT WERE LOADED.” I imagine the frugal Anderson clan’s cardinal rule about firearms was, ‘Don’t lose that gun. It’s expensive!’

My grandfather hasn’t held a rifle in years. I believe he gave it up shortly after almost shooting his wife. Sometime in the 50s (the story is hazy, as it is not often repeated), my grandmother was on her hands and knees, scrubbing the kitchen floor. My grandfather was cleaning his gun at the kitchen table. He neglected to check the breech because he was ‘Sure that it was empty.’ The gun went off, sending a bullet within a foot of my grandmother Serena’s head. There are no pictures of my grandfather holding a gun after that.

I asked him, “Didn’t they teach you gun safety in the Navy?” My own knowledge of firearm handling is largely through my time in the air cadets.

“Sure,” he said. “But I didn’t pay attention. There was a war on, you know!”

My grandmother leapt to her husband’s defense. “Our generation used guns all the time, growing up. Not like your generation. We never used our shotguns to shoot up a school.”

You can’t really overcome an argument like that. Her generation could be trusted with guns without lessons. Ours can’t even be trusted to hold them. That’s how far the zeitgeist has gone when it comes to kids and firearms. When I see that picture of my grandfather pointing his gun directly at the camera, I feel an electric shock run through me. He is only slightly embarrassed about the photo, and that’s because of an accident that would happen almost twenty years later. To my grandfather, the rifle was just a tool he needed to do a job. In many ways his youth was a simpler time, despite being a harder time. Our rules and education have made us safer, but they’ve also taken away some of the freedom of being young and trusted.

Anyway, the picture got me thinking, and as I have over a hundred of these old photos to put up on this blog sooner or later, I thought I’d start off with these ones.


10 thoughts on “Awesome Pictures: The Great Depression Era’s Concept of Gun Safety

  1. David

    I was going to add this to my twitter feed but your blog name along with the obligatory wordpress plus a super long title reached my word count without even the nice quote I was going to include from your writing… “It wasn’t a question of desperation so much as independence.” Next time shorten the title and I’ll advertise your blog.

    1. Quite right. I’m afraid I’m pretty new to this, and that hadn’t occurred to me. WordPress does have a shortlink feature. If you type in instead of the long rambling URL that was automatically generated, it should link to the site just fine. Thanks for the recommendation.

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  3. Taylor

    Why is it “almost certainly loaded”? How do you know that it is loaded? What makes you think that he would point a loaded firearm at the photographer? Also, what makes you think that pointing a loaded firearm at someone is inherently dangerous? A loaded firearm will not fire without the firing pin striking the primer. For that to happen this man would have either had to have pulled the trigger or dropped the gun in such a fashion as to actuate the firing mechanism. I think your primitive understanding of firearms and “firearm safety” has given you a false sense of insecurity.

    1. You can take a deep breath and calm down, friend. I’m not pushing an anti-gun agenda. I am pointing out the yawning gap between my grandfather’s generation and mine when it comes to gun safety. Why do I think it’s probably loaded? Because my grandfather admits he really didn’t know any better. Why do I think it’s dangerous? Because he’s pointing a loaded weapon at someone. I’m perfectly aware how a gun works, and using ‘firing pin’ and ‘primer’ doesn’t really impress me as far as an attempt at technobabble goes. Did you read far enough to hear about how he almost shot my grandmother accidentally? You always treat a gun as if it is loaded, and you don’t point it at someone you do not want to end up shot. This is simple gun safety that today is taught to firearm enthusiasts right along with their mother’s milk. Should I assume from your self-righteous indignation that you do not subscribe to these simple principles?

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