I grew up in middle-class neighborhoods within South Florida's suburban sprawl, where guns had little impact on our lives. My family and friends neither participated in a rural gun culture nor had to deal with the high rates of gun violence so prevalent in urban areas at the time. Like so many boys, I shot BB guns as a kid. I'm sure some of our neighbors kept guns in their homes, and, as a teenager, I had friends and acquaintances who owned guns but they had little relevance in our world. Gun control and gun rights were not bitterly contested, and guns were not celebrated as symbols of freedom or derided as symbols of death. They existed much like a Florida alligator sunning itself by a golf course lake—appearing only occasionally and drawing lukewarm interest when doing so. If guns played virtually no role in my youth, then the political activities of the National Rifle Association probably crossed my mind about as often as those of the American Association of Retired Persons.
Masculinity, however, colors nearly every one of my childhood memories. From the role my athleticism played in making friends and avoiding being ostracized, to the endless rituals of questioning others' masculinity and having my own questioned, to the palpable daily fear of violence at the hands of bigger boys, masculinity mattered. Popularity and pecking orders were established largely based on athleticism and physicality. I earned enough cultural capital from sports and a quick mouth to prevent being a victim of boyhood violence, despite my small size. Even though my personal encounters with violence were as rare as my handling of guns, I almost never thought about guns but regularly feared getting hit by peers, often those whom I considered friendly acquaintances. Guns and masculinity are intricately linked in so many ways, but for my own childhood they only came together on television or in the movies. My friends and I could see the connections between guns and masculinity, but we didn't live these connections.