Hook and Barrel Jan Feb 2021 last laugh firearms safety

Story and Illustration by Bruce Cochran

When I was a kid, every time I screwed up and Dad chewed me out I’d shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, experience is the best teacher.” He would always counter with, “And fools will learn in no other school.” Boy was he right. I have made mistakes and learned a lot of lessons since then, but two stick in my memory like a blown shot at a 10-point buck. One was, “When your wife is headed out the door on her way to the beauty shop, never yell, ‘I hope it works.’” But the most important was the time I didn’t “TREAT EVERY GUN AS THOUGH IT IS LOADED.”

Unless you grew up in a really bad neighborhood, you probably didn’t have shotgun pellet holes in your bedroom wall. When I was 16 years old, I bought a bolt-action single shot .20 gauge shotgun from a friend. Who buys bolt action shotguns anyway? I mean besides stupid kids like me. The gun was, to the firearms world, what the Edsel was to the automotive industry.

So…one night I had come home from squirrel hunting, sitting in my bedroom with this ungainly clunker lying across my lap, preparing to clean it. My dog Jigger was sniffing around on the floor trying to find something to eat or roll in. A big, red metal wastebasket sat just inside the bedroom door. Gun cleaning stuff was scattered on the floor around me. My traveling salesman dad was on the road, and Mom was reading in her bedroom across the hall.

When handling firearms, we should never be thinking about something else. Had my mind wandered to the cute little blond across the aisle in English class? Was I thinking about all the rabbits and squirrels I’d shoot with my new shotgun? Whatever…there is no excuse for what happened next. As I was removing the bolt the gun fired. FIRED! Did my finger catch on the trigger as I pulled the bolt out? Why did I have a loaded shotgun in my bedroom? All I knew was that I had screwed up big time and violated the cardinal sin of gun ownership. My squirrel hunting season was over and possibly any further gun ownership as well.

Most of the pattern blew a good-sized hole in the wastebasket, spinning it out into the hall, scattering crumpled homework papers, banana peels, and pieces of the door jamb across the floor. The rest of the pellets hit the wall.

Have you ever heard the sound a load of high-brass fours makes when the center of the pattern hits a metal wastebasket inside a bedroom at four feet, mixed with the sound of a middle-aged woman screaming and a dog howling? It’s louder than three 12 gauge shotguns being fired simultaneously in a closed-in duck blind. I knew my hearing, and poor little Jigger’s too, was permanently damaged.

I sat, stunned, staring down at the gun as though somehow it was at fault but knowing the fault was all mine. What’s that number one rule again? TREAT EVERY GUN AS THOUGH IT IS LOADED!

Mom screamed and ran to my room. She had put up with baby possums running all over the house, six-foot rattlesnake skins thumbtacked to my wall. She had even found my secret stash of pictures from Sunbathing & Health magazine and didn’t burn it (she gave it to Dad). But nothing like this. Not counting the screaming, I can’t remember what she said besides, “Are you all right?” and, “Just wait ‘til your father gets home.”

That was the most important lesson I ever learned; TREAT EVERY GUN AS THOUGH IT IS LOADED! But it could’ve been worse. Door jambs can be repaired, and pellet holes can be spackled over. Thankfully none of the pellets hit Mom, and my hearing did eventually return. And Jigger’s? He wouldn’t come into my room for two months, and he started whining every time he smelled Hoppe’s No.9.

I’ve hunted a variety of game since then, with an arsenal of firearms. I’ve made mistakes, but I’ve never made that one again.
I’ve never bagged another wastebasket either.

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