In the 1970s at the age of 13, Winton, the narrator and author, has a habit of hiding behind the curtain in the front room of his house and aiming a rifle at oblivious passers-by. Though the gun has been battered over the years and painted an unsightly shade of brown by his father, who swapped his fishing rod for it, it enchants Tim.
The description of the gun, and Winton’s attraction to it, suggests that it’s an object of both great power and ugliness. Though the gun isn’t particularly impressive in itself, it represents a mystical force that young Winton can’t resist.
Winton loves taking the gun out to shoot rabbits and foxes. On Sunday afternoons, he’s entrusted with five or six bullets and roams nearby paddocks—a privilege he earned through months of safety training. He knows the dangers of guns back to front, always using the safety catch and never travelling in a vehicle with a round in the breech. Sometimes on his outings, he doesn’t fire a single shot—not just because the rabbits and foxes are hard to aim at, and not because Winton is squeamish about dead things, but mostly because the gun signifies a level of power and responsibility that overwhelms him.
Winton’s meticulous behavior, and his parents’ rules surrounding gun use, imply that he’s aware of the dangers a gun represents and is also respectful of his parents. There’s tension here between the idea of the gun as a useful tool and its threatening power. Winton’s hesitation to use the gun suggests he doubts his ability to resist its power: there’s a fine line between using it to kill pests and being tempted by its potential for greater harm.
The gun Winton uses isn’t a particularly powerful or glamorous one, but he knows it can kill. That capability both horrifies and entices him. The gun is kept at the back of his parents’ wardrobe, and its bolt is stored separately in his father’s bedside table, while the bullets are kept on the dressing table. Tim’s parents are aware that Winton knows where the gun and its parts are, but Winton is forbidden to touch them. Yet even though Winton understands the gun is off limits, when the house is empty, he habitually takes the gun from the wardrobe and aims it at passers-by.
The gun is such a powerful and enticing object for Winton that, despite all his safety training and awareness of danger, and despite the fact that his childhood seems generally happy and secure, he can’t resist holding it and even pointing it at people—something inherently threatening. His habitual behavior is calculated and violates his parents’ rules, which strikes such a direct contrast to his regular reverence toward the gun that it demonstrates the gun’s almost magnetic pull.
Tim’s family’s home, which they’ve recently moved into, is on the top of a hill, which gives him an expansive view. He doesn’t know the people walking by; they haven’t done anything to him. The feeling of looking at them though a gun sight allows him to imagine them “transformed in an instant.” Winton doesn’t plan to put a bullet in the gun, yet he doesn’t succeed in convincing himself of his innocence: he knows that the bullets are close by and that he is a real threat.
Though young Winton assures himself that he’ll never actually use the gun to harm the passers-by, there’s a tension here in the knowledge that, if he wanted to, he could load it within seconds. The gun is a volatile weapon: its easiness and its temptation mean that Winton’s innocence could be ruined in a second, and that danger tantalizes him.
Looking back on his 13-year-old self, Winton knows he didn’t fully understand the implications of his actions. He didn’t know what it would’ve felt like to have a gun pointed at him; nor did he know how much trouble he would’ve been in if he’d been seen—especially in a town in which his father was a police officer. As an adult author, Winton struggles to find the reason why his teenage self indulged in this habit.
Winton’s attraction to danger and violence isn’t an easy thing for him to understand, even decades after his gun habit died out, demonstrating that the turbulence of adolescence mixed with the rich symbol of the gun created a confusing, irrational habit. Further, at the age of 13, Winton wasn’t yet able to understand the true nature of the danger that a gun presented.
Winton describes his behavior as a “compulsion,” fueled by sneakiness and anticipation. The empty house was an exciting setting, and the practice of finding a stranger and locking them in the gun’s sight was calming for him. He realizes that, at that point in his life, he felt “besieged,” under the stress of moving towns, homes, and schools, and bewildered by the effects of puberty. The gun acted like a “religious icon” for him—a point of focus. He notes that only the dollar sign can rival the gun in the strength of the image these days.
By describing the gun as a “religious icon” and his behavior as a “compulsion,” Winton implies that there was something spiritual about the gun as a symbol and his reverence towards it. Much like religion, the gun’s presence helped him to make sense of his life and exercise some control over it.
Nothing happens to 13-year-old Tim, and after a few months his habit dies out. He becomes less dependent on the gun for a sense of calm. It turns out that his parents have no idea about what he’s been doing. He begins to enjoy his new life in the new town, making friends and going surfing. He becomes more confident and regains his ability to communicate with language—a void that the gun, he later presumes, filled for a while.
The death of Winton’s gun habit comes as he learns to express himself in a new setting, which speaks to the powers of language and belonging. When Winton feels he’s a real, valued member of society, and that he can contribute via self-expression rather than the mirage of violence, his dependence on such a violent symbol is no longer necessary.
Reflecting on this period in his life, Winton knows that he might’ve met a worse end if he’d been a boy from a rougher background. He was a mostly happy teenager, but someone in unhappier circumstances could’ve used the gun’s potential to tragic effect. The gun, he suggests, is a short-cut to the kind of power that wealth or intelligence offers. Its proliferation in the media has made people see it as the only way to achieve victory and success or to communicate what they feel has been overlooked. Winton highlights the contrast between the overwhelming number of mass shootings in the U.S. and the lack of household guns in Australia and says it’s a good thing that most Australians will never handle a gun.
The gun, Winton realizes, can compound the tragedy of an already bad situation, and dependence on it correlates directly with its potential for danger. Because he didn’t need it as much, or depend on it as desperately, as those in rougher situations around him, his habit petered out and didn’t end badly. He realizes that its representation in the media has led to people thinking it’s a viable alternative to language-based communication, but just as it lacks the nuances of language, the results of using it are brutal and rough.
Guns continue to fascinate teenage Tim; he joins the cadets for the sole reason that it allows him to “blow stuff up.” He hunts with his father into his twenties, but then he stops shooting completely. After living in the city, where guns aren’t used or seen, he develops an aversion to them and becomes uncomfortable around them when he visits relatives in rural areas. He feels torn between his fascination with firearms and the dread they stir in him.
Winton’s relationship with guns is a microcosmic expression of his relationship with danger. While guns and danger attract him, and he enjoys testing them to their limits—or his own—he’s also repulsed by their potential to change lives in an instant, and his own attraction to them repulses him, too.
As a parent, Winton doesn’t keep any weapons in the home, though his children are still exposed to guns in every piece of media. When his children are still very young, a man uses a gun to murder 35 people and injure 23 more in Tasmania, an island off Australia’s coast. The event causes Australia to immediately reform their gun laws. Days after the attack, a woman accosts Winton at the gates of his children’s school about an aspect of his books, while her son repeatedly acts out firing a toy gun at him. The violence of the encounter disturbs him, especially the small child’s aggression.
Winton’s behavior as a parent is different to his own parents’: while he was trusted with the knowledge of gun use and the location of the gun in his childhood home, he refuses to even allow a gun into his children’s home. This suggests that Winton, having experienced the temptation of the gun, is wary about allowing others to access it—and the child’s behavior might disturb him so acutely partly because he remembers his own childish habits.
When Tim’s children hear a gun fired for the first and only time—on a paddock of Tim’s brother-in-law’s farm—their excitement quickly turns to fear. When Winton takes his turn with the gun, though he’s only firing at clay discs and isn’t a danger to anyone, he faces severe disapproval from the kids. Now, around 20 years later, he’s living in a rural area, and a gun would be a practical help to ward off pests, but he still won’t keep one in the house. To him, it’s a “dark presence” and holds too much power. He worries for his friends who have guns at home, knowing that if they were to go through a rough time, the gun might hold more power than they could control. He knows that his ability to put down the gun as a teenager and find a different form of expression made him happier and safer.
Even when Winton uses the gun in a harmless activity in a partially controlled environment, its sound and presence spark fear in his children, and it’s implied that their fear strengthens his apprehension toward allowing guns in his home. Even if he were only to use a gun to ward off pests—a very real need—its presence holds immense potential for more harm. There’s a fine line between using the weapon for necessity, and reveling in its tricky power in a time of personal turbulence.