On Toddlers, Terrorists, and Loaded Guns

Illus. BTB, “Cautionary Tales for Children”


So much has been going on with Trumpism that, in some instances, I’m months behind commenting on the damage that it is doing. Therefore I missed the president’s order to reverse an Obama executive decision designed to keep mentally handicapped persons from acquiring firearms. I make up for that today, in part because it gives me the opportunity to share a darkly comic poem by Hilaire Belloc.

According to USA Today, Obama’s original order

would have applied to about 75,000 people who were “adjudicated as a mental defective” and who had applied for Social Security benefits, and had a mechanism to notify those affected so they could appeal. But congressional Republicans said the rule could ensnare people who had mental health issues but otherwise were competent to own a gun.

The GOP has regularly proved itself to be a fully owned subsidiary of the National Rifle Association. But perhaps opponents of Trump’s reversal can find comfort in him signing the bill without a public ceremony. Apparently he didn’t want people outside the NRA to notice.

Conservatives’ casual acceptance of guns continues to scandalize many inside and outside the country. Statistics show that more people in America are shot by toddlers than terrorists, yet guess what gets all the attention.  Which provides a nice segue into our poem for the day.

I came across it while leafing through Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children last week in search of a poem about telling lies. To appreciate its humor, one must contrast it with the other poems in collection, most of which are gruesome. There is Matilda, “who told lies and was burned to death”: Jim, “who ran away from his nurse and was eaten by a lion”; Henry King, “who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies”; and Rebecca, “who slammed doors for fun and perished miserably.” As you can tell by the titles, they are blackly comic parodies of Victorian instructional verse.

A different fate is in store for “Algernon, Who played with a Loaded Gun, and, on missing his Sister, was reprimanded by his Father”:

Young Algernon, the Doctor’s Son,
Was playing with a Loaded Gun.

He pointed it towards his sister,

Aimed very carefully, but Missed her!

His Father, who was standing near,
The Loud Explosion chanced to Hear,

And reprimanded Algernon
For playing with a Loaded Gun.

If Belloc’s other cautionary poems describe consequences that are disproportionate to the “crime,” this one does as well, only in the other direction. Although knowing the NRA, it would probably criticize Algernon, Sr. for overreacting.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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