My Father’s Gun: Coming to Terms With a Controversial Weapon

Danny O’Neil’s thoughts on inheriting his father’s gun

By Danny O’Neil December 8, 2022

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This article originally appeared in the September/October 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Danny O’Neil is a Manhattan resident, but a Northwest native, born in Oregon with the good sense to attend the University of Washington. He covered a basketball team that no longer exists (the Supersonics) for a newspaper that no longer publishes (the “Seattle Post-Intelligencer”) and up until last August, was a sports-radio host at 710 AM. He really misses the Morgan Junction Thriftway and the pancakes at Lola.

I have never fired my father’s shotgun. I don’t remember him firing it, either.

I know he did, though. He hunted like most men do in Klamath Falls, Ore. The first time he took me was a cold and early morning, the sun not yet up. We went after geese with his friend Paul Schultz. They set out the decoys, and I waited, quiet and still, in the back of the increasingly frigid truck, which remained off so as not to frighten away the geese. When I saw Paul at my grandmother’s funeral in 2009, I was flattered he remembered.

“You can’t have thin blood and hunt geese,” Paul said. 

Neither of us could recall if we killed anything that morning. I don’t think we did. Did my father, whom I called Pop, imagine it would be the first of many hunting trips with me?

He was born in Southern California and met my mother at college in Santa Barbara. He transferred to Berkeley and after graduating moved to Oregon to become a logger. Klamath Falls is not the kind of place people seek out, but that’s exactly what my parents did. 

I was the oldest of three children, and the first home my family owned was located two blocks from the back entrance to a sawmill. Our two-story house had no foundation, which meant no bank would finance the purchase. My parents bought it for $15,000 with a personal loan from the seller.

We camped several times a year. We fished. My father hunted with his friends. They went after birds, mostly ducks, geese and chukar, a particularly cunning type of pheasant found in the high desert of Central Oregon. When he brought home a deer, my Mom made jerky from the venison, salty and just a little sweet.

As a boy, Danny O’Neil’s family would go camping several times a year.

Phil Blank

My father bought a new shotgun right about the time I was born. A Browning Citori Over & Under, which means the barrels were stacked vertically, one on top of the other. He was judicious about guns. He kept the receipt for this shotgun as well as a 30-06 Dickson-Howa rifle he sold for $110 and a Remington 870 shotgun he sold for $100 in September 1976.

My father wouldn’t let me have a BB gun, and my Mom made it clear she disliked handguns. I was surprised when I overheard her say that a friend of hers carried a pistol in her purse. This was a lady who often babysat us and directed a handbell choir. It’s funny to imagine her packing.

I don’t remember when my father got sick. I just always knew he wasn’t well. It started in college when he began running an exceptionally high fever every two weeks or so. His joints would swell, becoming painfully sore. No one could figure out what was wrong.

I never remember my father running. It hurt too much. He was forever stiff. He would swim for exercise at the local YMCA until even that became too much. By the time I was 10, we had moved across town to be in a single-story house. The stairs were a problem. He stopped working in the woods and started working out of the office. By 1987, it was impossible for him to travel out of town.

He was diagnosed with Still’s Disease, an adult-onset form of juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. It’s rarely fatal, but in his case, it developed into an autoimmune disorder. He died in September 1988 at the age of 38. He left behind my Mom, Carol Jean, and my younger siblings Robin and Casey. I was 13 when he died. My Mom remarried a little more than a year later, and in June 1990, we left Klamath Falls and moved to Santa Cruz County, just south of San Francisco.

Growing up, Danny O’Neil’s father often hunted with his friends.

Phil Blank

My Pop’s shotgun is one of the few things of his we still have. I’ve always thought it was proof of my backwoods cred. I know how to gut a fish and can split a cord of firewood. I’m more proud than I should be that my wife volunteers me to start the campfire. It feeds into my belief that I understand a more rural way of life even though my hands are city soft.

I never learned to hunt, but I understood why someone would. I never owned a gun myself, but am reluctant to judge someone who does. I went to high school in California and graduated from college in Seattle, but I came from a place where guns were a rite of passage. They were used to hunt, owned for protection and were the kinds of things men accumulated over time.

I haven’t been back to Klamath Falls since 2004, but I knew what it meant to live there. At least I thought I did until 2020.

The summer George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, there was a Black Lives Matter protest in my hometown. A crowd of about 200 gathered at Sugarman’s Corner, which is a couple of blocks away from the Catholic school we attended. The demonstrators were counterbalanced by a sizable contingent of people who showed up to defend the town from Antifa Boogeymen who were rumored supposedly to being bused in. Many of them were armed, and they wore blue ribbons tied to their biceps.

I planned to write about the gap I felt between the life I’m living and the town where I grew up; I reached out to several people I had gone to school with as well as a writer and a filmmaker who live in town. I couldn’t find anything more complicated than a combination of fear and force being wielded against the desire for change.

Guns might mean something different to me had I stayed in Oregon a little longer, but I moved away before I was growing hair under my arms. I never went through the rituals that wed guns to masculinity in this country, but I think there’s more to it than that, too. Guns themselves mean something different than they did 30 years ago. They have become props as much as tools, landmarks that identify exactly where you stand, and while my family has a gun, it’s hidden in the attic of my sister’s garage behind a stack of boxes. Cobwebs cling to the canvas case, and we have no shells. It’s not a legacy so much as a relic: a gun I won’t ever fire, which belongs to a life I did not live.

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