Eli Saslow / The Washington Post

MOUNT AIRY, Md. — Chanse Mullinix arrived home from fourth grade on the school bus, carrying a Cherry Coke and a plastic bag of his classmates’ handmade valentines. He shouted goodbye to the bus driver — “See ya!” — and ran down the sidewalk, because a youth football coach had recommended once that he run everywhere. He climbed the steps to a two-story townhouse — the only home he had ever known, and the place he sometimes referred to as a “great gun museum.”

He dropped his camouflage coat into a pile of hunting gear at the entryway and fired an imaginary bullet with his finger at a buck mounted on the living room wall. “Bang!” he said. There were replica guns on the floor, video-game guns on TV, Nerf guns in the basement and five generations of family guns locked upstairs in a closet-size safe. On display in the kitchen were dozens of framed photos of the seminal moments in Chanse’s nine years of life.

First hunting trip, age 4. “It was cold and I was a little scared,” he said.

First gun, age 6. “Santa gave me a .22. I get in good with Santa by leaving cookies for him and carrots for the reindeer. You can’t forget the reindeer.”

First buck, age 8. “A clean hit, and then we were following the blood trail.”

A family tradition

Since the Mullinix family settled here 150 years ago, this is how generations of children have grown up — a certain kind of American boyhood meant to form a certain kind of American man. There is a family rabbit hunt on Thanksgiving and a youth turkey hunt on the Fourth of July. One generation passes its guns on to the next, along with lessons about self-sufficiency and self-protection, life and death. Even as the family’s land dwindled over the decades — from farms that covered half of the county, to 16 acres of hunting woods, to a townhouse in the Washington exurbs — their traditions survived inside the safe at the top of the stairs. “I’m still country,” Chanse said.

It is a lifestyle his family fears is at risk in the escalating argument over gun control. Since 26 people were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in December, parents and teachers at Chanse’s elementary school have been debating the basic role of guns in America. Do they encourage responsibility or recklessness? Do they foster relationships or endanger them? Are they part of our culture or an outdated relic from our past?

What are the results of America’s long relationship with guns? One result is Chanse.

He is 4-foot-1 and 82 pounds, with a patch of freckles around his nose, a small gap between his upper front teeth and a disheveled head of brown hair that a family friend cuts in their kitchen. He lives alone with his father, a swimming pool builder named Scott Mullinix, whom he adores and calls “Sir.”

He is one of the smallest boys in his grade, but his father’s highest praise — the compliment Chanse seeks out and repeats — is that he carries himself like a “grown-ass man.”

A grown man opens the door for women and does his homework as soon as he walks into the house. A grown man rides an XR70 dirt bike just like his dad and drives four-wheelers at a friend’s ranch. A grown man raises a 250-pound hog, loves him like a pet and names him Rudy, brushes his wiry hair every week for a year, and then sells that hog at a 4-H auction. He delivers that hog to the meat locker himself, choking back tears as he says goodbye and pushes him out of the crate one last time, and then thanks the butcher when handed a fact sheet describing what Rudy will become, a one-page diagram labeled “Pork Cuts.”

A grown man understands what it means to live and to die — knows that, as Chanse says, “life is a cycle, and it’s not always going to be fair like when everybody who plays gets a trophy.” A grown man knows how to sight his target through a rifle’s scope and how to manage the simultaneous surges of fear and excitement, counting out his breaths and slowing his heartbeat. A grown man pulls the trigger.

‘Gun show and tell’

Late one afternoon, Chanse urged his dad upstairs to the gun safe. It is too dark outside to shoot, but he wanted to see their arsenal anyway. Scott covered Chanse’s eyes with one hand while unlocking the safe with his other. “Time for gun show and tell,” he said.

Inside are two dozen unloaded guns, including four that belong to Chanse. Scott reached into the safe and handed them one at a time to his son, so he can feel each gun’s weight and learn its history.

Out came a German Luger, still in its holster. “A gift from my great-uncle,” Scott said. Out came Chanse’s great-grandfather’s 12-gauge shotgun and his grandfather’s 20-gauge. Out came a small .22 single-shot rifle, in a black case labeled “My First Gun,” the Christmas gift Chanse received in 2009.

But the gun he wanted to see most wasn’t in the safe. “Where’s the Kimber?” he asked.

“You don’t need to know where that one is,” Scott said.

“Why not?”

“Because that’s not a hunting gun, son. That’s for protection.”

Scott had spent a mortgage payment on the Kimber a few years earlier, a silver .45-caliber handgun with a red laser sight. The gun had become like “a pacifier” to him, he said, always in reach while he slept, offering a sense of control over his house and his family even when so much else about America seemed unstable to him. Lately, as the Mount Airy economy continued to stutter and President Barack Obama urged new limits on gun ownership, Scott had been craving even more control, so he had been test-shooting an AK-47.

“Can I please see the Kimber?” Chanse said again. “I just want to look at it.”

Scott took a drag of his cigarette. “One day you’ll have your own family to protect,” he said. “You’ll have your own gun for protection, and you can look at it whenever you want. Until then, I’m the sheriff.”

Target practice

The next afternoon they drove away from the townhouse in Scott’s truck after loading a rifle case into the back and ammo into the glove box. They traveled beyond the subdivisions and to a friend’s 200-acre farm. They parked the truck on a frozen field and stepped out into blowing snow. Geese flew overhead. Trees lined the nearby ridge. It was empty and quiet except for the wind. Scott handed Chanse his great-grandfather’s .22. “This gun is timeless,” Scott said.

They shook up four plastic bottles of Coke and placed them in the field as targets, 25 yards away. Chanse held the rifle up to his shoulder as Scott knelt behind him, repeating the advice he had been giving for years. “Stay steady. Breathe. Relax,” he said. Chanse loaded a bullet into the chamber, shut his left eye and stared at the target through his right. He set his finger on the trigger.

“Get ‘er done,” Scott said.

Beyond the ridgeline, in the rest of America, the complicated debate over gun control continued. “We need to do a better job protecting our children,” Obama was saying that day.

“We need to protect our rights,” an NRA spokesman was saying in response.

Guns were either problems or solutions; weapons or tools; a core piece of America’s identity or a threat to its future.

But here on the farm, a 9-year-old squeezed the trigger of an old rifle and experienced a reaction more basic and instinctual. The butt of the rifle jerked into his shoulder. A hot shell ejected onto the ground. A crack echoed off the ridgeline as Coke and plastic exploded into the air.

“Awesome,” Chanse said. “Let’s shoot another.”

Gun debate this week

After a delay, the Senate Judiciary Committee will likely return this week to the gun control legislation being written. The panel is considering Democratic-sponsored bills that would ban assault weapons, strengthen federal laws against illegal gun trafficking, provide money for school safety improvements and expand the requirement for background checks for gun purchasers.

— The Associated Press