I say this as someone who has had a handgun, and even a concealed carry permit: when it comes to guns, what doesn’t kill you will make you stupid.
Back when I was working in TV news, I got myself a stalker. In that business, it’s really not a question of if, but when. It’s a thing that comes with the job, like AP Style Guides and teeth whiteners. It started with notes left on my desk in the newsroom: face up on plain notebook paper, welcoming me to the workday with hand-scrawled juvenile sexual fantasies that sounded like outtakes from an Adam Sandler comedy. Over the next weeks, the notes escalated into a darker and more menacing form of perversion. Then one night after finishing the 11:00 newscast, I arrived home to find the place lit up like Christmas. Every light on. TV and stereo at full volume. The wall thermostats in every room turned to high. Garage door open. Front and back doors open. My confused neighbors were huddled in my driveway wondering what to do, and my two indoor cats wandered warily around the front yard.
Shit had gotten real. I was scared – sleepless-for-weeks scared. Oh: and I was pissed. So I did what Americans are raised to do when we’re scared and pissed. I bought a gun: a tiny, pearl-handled darling. Someone at the police department suggested a concealed weapon permit and said it’d get quick approval under the circumstances. I took lessons at an indoor shooting range and rarely left home without my pistol tucked into the waistband of my pleated Nordstrom skirts.
I hated guns. I did then and do now. Even so, it seemed the responsible thing to do. I needed this dangerous thing in my house and on my body so I could be safer. We all learn that, of course: we and our loved ones are safer with the dangerous thing than without.
I had cut my teeth on the American gun fetish, and not simply in the abstract of words about citizen freedom and personal safety and the ever-present threat of government tyranny. It was lived experience, as visceral as anything the fates can throw at humans. It began on the Fourth of July weekend when I was seven. My eleven-year-old cousin died in a handgun accident in her house, killed instantly, shot through the heart, while searching her father’s dresser for tennis socks. I watched adults crumble. They vomited and wailed. They screamed and sat catatonic. They shouted accusations at each other and consoled each other. They dressed in dignified black, listened to comforting eulogies, put the diminutive coffin in the ground, and then those closest to the loss retreated to an alcohol haze for the next decade or more.
None gave up their guns. Most of those crumbled adults – the parents, aunts, uncles, neighbors – would get divorced. They gave up each other, but they kept their guns. At that age, I still hadn’t ever seen a gun. We were urban and suburban families, people who kept guns but rarely took them out or talked about them. I knew a gun had killed my cousin, but then nobody really talked about that, either. They talked about the funeral a few times – how nice it was, and how my cousin would have loved it, being the sweet girl she was. They played One Tin Soldier at her funeral, because it had been her favorite song, the 70s folk ballad about the ravages of violence and hatred.
Three years later, my mother remarried and moved us to a rustic hilltop house flanked by a rock quarry and an abandoned Christmas tree farm. In rural life, guns were as common as tire irons or vacuum cleaners. They were everywhere, and ever threatening. Playing hide and seek in the tree farm one day, I looked up to see the end of a deer hunter’s rifle, and a man I’d never seen before or since, with his face registering the reality that he’d almost pulled the trigger at the shuffling figure in the brush. Late one night, my stepfather nearly shot an intruder before realizing it was his teenage son who’d found the front door locked when he came home from band practice. On weekends, we’d line up on the deck and shoot old cans set out in the pasture, and once while trying to shift the rifle barrel from one deck rail to another, I swung it sideways and found it accidentally pointing at my mother and younger brother. The flash of panic in my mother’s eyes would replay in my head for the next week of sleepless nights. I was eleven. I was supposed to be learning to handle guns, and I had almost tragically failed.
So, in the perverse logic we’re all taught about guns, I had no doubt how dangerous they were, yet it made sense to carry one under my little tailored jackets for months. There was a boogeyman somewhere and to my hyper-adrenalized brain he was around every corner, responsible for everything that went bump in the night. I was in the process of leaving that job and moving out of the state when I learned the stalker was a coworker. He’s the kind of guy nobody would ever suspect but should: the only child of an elderly couple, he still lived at home and his mother delivered his lunch every day and sat with him in the break room while he ate.
The legend of the scary bad guy is another bit of perverse American mythology. We somehow think there will be a moment when the bad guy confronts us in an alley or steps out of a dark corner and announces that he’s the bad guy and he intends to do us harm. There’s no ambiguity in it; the fantasy sequence allows us an almost holy opportunity to blow a bullet through evil and score a point for the good guys. We willfully ignore the reality, even though life insists on rubbing our noses in it again and again and again. Life is full of ambiguity and things that go bump in the night, and Americans like to point guns at things that scare them.
The tiny pearl-handled darling did get pointed at a human target once, but not at the socially stunted man child who had created months of terror. It was nearly two years later, when I woke to my boyfriend standing over my bed, screaming about needing to beat something into my head. We’d argued the night before. He’d been out all night, brooding and apparently drugging. I jumped out of bed in the kind of adrenaline rush that makes the entire body vibrate. He mostly sat on the couch and ranted, in his sunglasses, in a dark room, on a rainy morning when the sun hadn’t even yet risen. His verbal threats were scary, but he never threw a punch. Even still, because I was a gun owner, I grabbed my weapon. It was cocked and ready in my bathrobe pocket, A dysfunctional relationship had brought me to a life-or-death decision because of the pearl-embossed metal in my pocket. I knew two things that morning: I needed to kick the boyfriend and the gun out of my house. I did. Since then, I’ve relied on wits instead of weapons to get me out of scary situations, and nobody has gotten hurt.
My relatives tolerate my anti-gun politics with gritted teeth and forced smiles. They remain committed to their guns. Nobody talks about the eleven-year-old they buried, which is more easily understandable now that several decades have passed. But next week will mark two years since they buried a 16-year-old. My brother’s step-daughter had just earned her GED, gotten her driver’s license, and enrolled in a community college pre-nursing program. Getting her life so much on track, she decided to dump the 24-year-old mama’s boy she’d defiantly dated to piss off her parents and grandparents. She had a weakness for redneck guys and big trucks, so when her ex-suitor invited her for one last ride in his pickup with the rifle rack in the rear window and the pavement-rumbling off-road tires, she got in. He took her to a remote coastal highway, shot her multiple times, and left her body in the brush. He drove several hours down the Pacific coastline before shooting himself in the head.
His parents refused to claim his body. Her parents had camouflage-clad friends deliver her white coffin to its hillside cemetery in the back of a roaring redneck truck. I witnessed the next-generation shattering and crumbling of human beings that I’d watched as a seven year old. The vomiting and wailing, accusing and consoling, eulogizing and picking out favorite songs. In the months that followed, the dead girl’s parents finalized their divorce. They gave up each other. They still have their guns.
Having opted out of the gun fetish, I now watch from the sidelines as this circular American tragedy plays on continuous loop. My family is not unusual. Make no mistake: we’ve buried two children, which is undoubtedly higher than the statistical likelihood of such a tragedy striking twice, even if a few decades apart. But what’s very typical is our family’s response, almost as if it’s our patriotic duty to bury children so we can all have guns to keep our families safe. It’s happening this week in Idaho, where a two-year-old accidentally fired his mother’s concealed handgun from the baby seat of a Walmart shopping cart. The dead 29-year-old mother isn’t even in the ground yet, but the family’s angry patriarch is railing against people who use her case to illustrate how deadly our collective gun fetish is. It’s unpatriotic to criticize the woman for bringing three children and a loaded gun into a crowded store. After all, as this lawyer and ethicist rightly points out, Americans have less tolerance for a mother who leaves a child in a hot car than for one who leaves a loaded and unlocked handgun next to a toddler. She carried the gun because she loved guns, and also because it kept her family safe.
The circular logic employed again and again to protect this so-called American freedom has turned to freedumb. Husbands and wives buy handguns to protect each other against boogeymen but use them instead to kill each other. Bullets spray through schoolyards and shopping malls. Stray bullets fly through children’s backyards and families’ apartment walls. But it seems only the most snarky and satirical are brave enough to point out the absurdity, the sheer stupidity, of Americans who can’t seem to imagine a way out of the crossfire.
Few things are more menacing than a pro-gun American defending his gun rights, so much so that it seems no one even as powerful as the President or Congress or the Supreme Court will make the slightest gesture in the direction of the citizen arsenal. Even over the bodies of gun victims, gun lovers will remind us that they are prepared to kill to protect their gun rights (case in point, this t-shirt whose makers tout as a humorous way to “protect the 2nd Amendment.”). Without their guns, of course, their families would be vulnerable. We certainly wouldn’t want to put our families at risk, right?