My grandfather taught me to shoot, and how to use a gun. He owned an array of guns: rifles, handguns, shotguns. He also kept a bow and arrow, and knives. He wasn’t a hunter, as in it was something he did, but he hunted sometimes. He lived in a rural area, Napa Valley before it was famous, and there were rattlesnakes. He also built a cabin in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and during summers there my grandfather took my brother and I to a flat spot in the woods where, against a stump, he set up a couple empty Coke cans and we took target practice.
My grandfather knew what he was doing: he was extremely careful with the weapons and made sure that neither I or my brother ever held a gun without his full supervision. He taught us how to load the guns, how the safety worked, how to aim, how to eject spent cartridges, how to clean the guns. Our grandfather taught us that, when we were firing, to always make sure that everyone else stood behind us, so no one was in danger of being hit.
I was also a Boy Scout, and at summer camp we went to the rifle range, where we learned to shoot from an arsenal of firearms: 16 gauge shotguns, 30/06 hunting rifles, .45 caliber semi-automatic handguns. The instructors at my Boy Scout camp’s rifle range were as strict about gun safety as my grandfather.
Despite this, my father never liked guns. We did not own them in my immediate family, though we, too, lived in a rural community. My dad had been an officer in the U.S. Army during Vietnam. He had certainly been trained to use guns, and to jump out of airplanes, and to open fire against other humans. But what my dad mostly did during the war was he trained kids younger than him to do the things he had been trained to do, and this is why I think my dad does not like guns. Far too many of the boys my dad trained in Okinawa never returned stateside from Vietnam’s jungles still breathing, gunned down by enemy and, sometimes, friendly fire.
Once, when I was a kid, my brother and our next door neighbor and I were playing with the neighbor’s toy gun and we got into an argument as to who’s turn it was to have the gun and we kept bickering until my father grabbed the plastic toy gun out of my hands dropped it on the ground, stomped it to tiny plastic bits, and said, “Now no one gets it.” I was more shocked than anything; I mean, the toy wasn’t even ours. I said so to my dad, who was normally a very calm and collected man. I said that he’d broken the neighbor’s toy (the boy had run home, crying and screaming for his own father). My dad said, “I don’t care; I don’t like guns, and I don’t like you playing with them, whether they’re yours or not.”
It wasn’t until years later that I understood why my father didn’t like guns, until I gained the wisdom to understand why I don’t like them.
I had all these teachers who taught me how to safely use firearms, and I had my dad who simply didn’t like them at all, and neither of those things could’ve stopped me from being an idiot with my best friend when I was a freshman in high school. I’m not going to claim this as an excuse, because I don’t believe that, but it was 1990-1991, and we were into N.W.A. and the Geto Boys and Too $hort, and we thought that guns were pretty cool. We wanted to keep it gangsta and all that. My friend’s dad had a 16 gauge shotgun and ammunition, and my friend would unscrew the gun’s barrel and take off the stock, then load that up with a box of shells into a duffel bag and walk to my house, where the one-acre-plus worth of woods my house sat adjacent to provided ample opportunities for shooting blue jays and quail and crows and robins. It wasn’t long before my yard and the woods around it became a bird-free zone. And I lived in an oak forest. Everywhere my friend and I went we’d hear the chirps and squeals of birds calling, but not around my house. My buddy and I had hunted them away.
But we didn’t stop there. My friend was house/pet sitting for his neighbor and (here I’ll insert a warning to anyone who employs teenagers for this reason: they’re going to do this and it can’t be helped, so if you don’t want them snooping don’t hire them to watch your house) of course he snooped. And in his neighbor’s armoire he found a .32 caliber semi-automatic handgun and shells to go with it. Being the geniuses we were, we took this handgun to my house, where, in the strawberry fields beyond the oak forest we set up terra cotta planting pots for target practice. And this is when it happened.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil things for you and let you know that nothing happened — no one got shot, no one got hurt, no one got into trouble. But that’s not the point; the point is what could’ve happened because I was so stupid, despite everything that my grandfather, and the Boy Scouts, and my father had taught me about the dangers of guns.
We’d set up those terra cotta pots and my friend took aim and fired and missed. He passed the handgun to me and I took aim, fired, and also missed. I held the gun, still smoking after it had been fired, and I brought it down, looking at it, admiring the kick of power it’d forced on me when I pulled the trigger. It was a foggy day, as it usually was on California’s central coast, where we lived, so I remember the outline of my friend’s body against the gray sky as he moved up next to me, then in front of me, as he was going to adjust our target. I’d pulled the gun in towards my body, the barrel pointed out to my left, away from my body, my hand still on the grip, my finger still on the trigger. I didn’t see it, but the barrel aimed directly at my friend as he was stepping up next to, then in front of me, and that’s when I inadvertently squeezed the trigger again. The handgun popped off, kicking in my hand.
I was utterly surprised. I had not intended to fire the gun, but the trigger was so sensitive. And everything I’d been taught I’d ignored: my friend had sidled up next to me and was walking in front of me while I still held a loaded gun. I had not reset the safety after the shot I’d popped off. Since it was a semiautomatic the pistol had immediately chambered another round and was ready to fire. I didn’t angle the gun away from either of us. It was pure stupidity and forgetfulness — human error.
Fortunately, the bullet passed in front of my friend’s torso. He said he felt it pass by, the air it pushed. That’s how close I got to killing my best friend, or at least to having a serious medical emergency, and some serious questions to answer about the pilfered gun and why we had it and why we were firing it. But not having to suffer these consequences was just dumb luck.
My buddy snatched the pistol from my grip. Surprisingly, the gun did not go off again when he did so. He hissed, “Give me that!” And I understand his anger. But seeing that now from the safe perspective of 22 years later, it wasn’t just my fault. It was our fault.
I cannot lay any blame on the violent society in which we lived, but I will say that our violent society is pretty fucked up. We had our gangsta rap, and concurrently we watched nightvision video footage of shells pounding during the first Iraq war. And not long after this moment a bunch of LA cops would beat up a man and those cops’ acquittal would precipitate the riots. Kurt Cobain would blow his brains out with a shotgun. A couple teens would massacre their classmates at a Colorado high school.
But none of those things are to blame for what we were doing that day and they aren’t the reason why I don’t like guns. My buddy and I had no business finding, taking, holding, or firing either his father’s shotgun or his neighbor’s .32 because guns are fucking dangerous no matter how much you know about them or how to handle them or what safety precautions you might take. You might as well have a built-in self-destruct button. You know it’s there, and you’re awfully careful about it, because you don’t want to screw up and accidentally press it when you’re not ready. But, like the bumper sticker says, “Shit happens.” I don’t feel like relying on my humanness to save me from “shit happens.” I’m taking out the self-destruct button.
By the time I met and dated and proposed to the woman who would be my wife, the sea change of my perspectives on things was whole. Among those many things was how I felt about guns.
It wasn’t that immediate moment when I nearly shot my best friend that changed me. After high school I went off to college in the desert in Nevada, and there I had ample opportunities to fire guns at targets and bunnies and deer and antelope and elk, and I did all those things and killed many a critter. I’ve fired many firearms, and automatics too: TAC-9s and UZIs and M16s. The only purpose such firearms serve is to shred any trace of target to less than ragged cob web.
But when I met my wife I realized I had so much more to live for. Suddenly I had someone whom I cared for deeply and without whom I could not imagine a life. The equation was simple: remove things that could potentially kill me. To that end I had already quit smoking, I stopped doing drugs like cocaine and heroin, and I stopped drinking a twelve pack and a fifth of whiskey per day. And I decided that I had no use for owning an operational firearm. There was no way I would bring that level of risk into my life with my wife.
And now my wife and I have a little girl, this sweet 1.5-year-old who remains completely unaware of the dangers around her. To her the world is this mystical, magical place of Elmo and Cookie Monster joy. It will take everything in me to try and maintain that lovely innocence. But I know that because we live in this world I will have to teach my daughter how to attempt to avoid enemy fire. It seems appropriate: I had to learn how to stop, drop, and tuck under a desk at school in case of imminent Soviet nuclear attack. So why shouldn’t my little girl learn how to be aware and protect herself against her own fellow citizens?
But I guess there’s something in me that feels that that should not be our world. I should not have to teach my daughter to crawl commando-style towards the nearest exit.
I don’t know if stricter gun legislation is the answer here, or if it’s media sensationalism, or overpopulation, or a inadequate healthcare (and especially mental healthcare) system. The only thing I know is that I don’t like guns and I won’t have them in or around my home because I know what they can do, no matter who it is who wields the weapon. Something tells me that, statistically, we stand a far better chance of survival by removing ourselves from the danger of firearms than by engaging in their use, in any form.
In those wedding vows I had to say “functional” because I knew I was to inherit an antique blunderbuss from the very grandfather who taught me how to use the weapons I now decry. But unlike my grandpa, I’ll never own working firearms myself, and that doesn’t bother me because I’m armed with knowledge. Everyone knows the old cliche about the pen being mightier than the firearm anyway.