A Gun for Christmas

For half a century, a Stevens single-shot was the Christmas rifle for several generations of small boys. In those days, the company stressed safety and parents taught responsibility—and the vast majority grew up to be responsible shooters. The Stevens single-shot is not the only thing that’s gone…

by David E. Petzal

This is not the kind of Christmas story you’re expecting, so count the rest of this sentence as a spoiler alert. 

In 1951, in the era of four black-and-white television channels and nothing else, a show appeared whose impact we are still feeling today. It was called Dragnet, and it starred a movie tough guy named Jack Webb who played Sergeant Joe Friday, a detective who worked for the Los Angeles Police Department. The show was what we today call a “police procedural.” It de-glamorized police work with a vengeance. Friday was the straightest of straight arrows. He spoke in shorthand, did not drink or chase women (just about all the women on the show were housewives who were on the blowsy side) and was dead honest and completely humorless.

Dragnet was an enormous hit from its debut and was in the top 10 shows until 1956. It was canceled in 1958, but re-appeared in the 1960s, and was satirized in a 1987 re-do in which Dan Aykroyd does an uncanny impersonation of Sergeant Friday.

The show was much satirized even at the time. It was an easy target. But when it was on the screen, no one laughed at Dragnet, and this included both my parents, neither of whom owned guns or regarded them as anything but a menace.

This made things difficult for me, because at 10 years old I wanted a gun in the worst way, and launched a relentless campaign to get one.

Then came the Dragnet episode called “A Gun for Christmas,” which aired on December 18, 1952. 

Joe Friday and his partner, Frank Smith, get a call to investigate a nine-year-old boy, one Stanley Johnstone, who has gone missing. They go to Johnstone’s home, and Friday finds a bloodstain and a .22 shell that have been hidden. As the investigation proceeds, it turns out that another youngster, Steven Martin, a friend of Johnstone’s, has also disappeared. A search of the Johnstone home reveals a Christmas present the Johnstones thought had been hidden. It’s  a box that held a .22 bolt action. The box has been opened, and the rifle is missing.

Stanley Johnstone finally turns up. Friday questions him about the gun and the shell and the bloodstain and the whereabouts of his missing friend. Stanley confesses. They were playing cowboys and Indians in the woods behind the Johnstone home, and he tripped while holding the .22. The rifle fired, and the bullet killed Steven. Stanley hid the body and the rifle, and stayed in the woods, praying for Steven to come alive again. 

Much anguish follows, and as Friday and Smith leave the Johnstone home, Smith asks “What’s it mean, Joe?” Joe Friday answers, “Don’t give your kid a gun for Christmas.” 

You could have heard a mouse stirring in the Petzal library. I had the sense not to say anything because there was nothing to say. I knew that whatever chance I had of getting a firearm had vanished for the foreseeable future. 

Finally, I did get a .22, but it was five years later, and not for Christmas. In that time I had competed in the NRA Summer Camp .22 program, and was showing signs of having sense. Probably I should thank the shade of Jack Webb, because considering some of the things I was party to prior to 15, I might not have survived. Or someone else might not have. 

What’s it mean? If you get your kid a gun for Christmas, lock it up so the kid can’t get at it, and the kid’s halfwitted friends can’t get at it. Kids are conditioned by an unending diet of violence in everything they watch, and they are led to believe that when you get your hands on a firearm, you point it at someone and pull the trigger. 

Lock it up, but good. 

And have a Merry Christmas. 

Dave Petzal has collected many a reindeer (a.k.a., caribou) in the course of his hunting career, but has been very careful not to put the crosshairs on one with a red nose.