I'll just say it right up front, before I tell a story, even though I know I'm on the fringe and this will never happen in my lifetime*: I'm a different kind of "gun nut"--I would like to see guns essentially abolished from the United States, the manufacture and sale, all imports blocked, all guns retrieved and melted, other than those needed by armed forces and official game hunters... Okay, I admit that's where it gets a little tricky to figure this plan out entirely. Anyway, this is not about my dream. It's about why I feel this way.
(The President has meanwhile laid out a plan that even Presidents Reagan and Bush the 1st supported, that all but the most die-hard gun supporters should acknowledge is a fairly rational plan; it’s far away from my dream of gun abolishment/2nd Amendment re-writing, but it’s something, a good start.)
thinking about this a lot; when the Newtown massacre happened, it brought it
back again. Let me go back in time.
It's 1979. I'm young. I live in a condo in Southern California. It's a duplex so there's an identical condo attached and mirroring it. In that place next door live a divorced single mother--the one thing she has in common with my mom--with three sons. The oldest, Robert, was about 20 and a CHP trainee. The younger boys closer to my age, one slightly older, Jerry, and a bit of a bully although also somewhat my friend. The youngest brother, Brandon, a couple of years younger. I have both played with these boys and tried to avoid them. They are a bundle of tangled, loose wires, full of electric charge, having a sense of fun and play--we played hide and seek, cops and robbers, taking turns on those roles, spy movie with another friend, games of simplicity and imagination, until they turned darker and I would sometimes bow out--they were just as often "trouble," as my prophetic sister pointed out. That year I had a month-long bout of mononucleosis and strep throat (a double-whammy) that left me unable to go to school, because i was both too weak and too contagious, so I became housebound, a combination of home-schooled (kids from my class would bring homework to me, usually dropping it off at the front door as I opened it, quickly waving hello and dashing off) and babysat by the TV. I entertained myself by doodling cartoons, writing stories, watching Get Smart reruns and occasionally living in a half-dream state of a clarity that opens one's imagination while also slightly cutting it off from the world around. It was toward the tail end of this sickness that The Thing happened.
The Thing went like this, and I don't know all the details because I did not want to hear all of them and those who knew did not want to tell me them anyway: Late in the day, my mom came home from work a bit early, and even odder, she was followed by a Sheriff, who had an assistant cop with him. They mumbled some things to my mom, who just kept shaking her head. Then she took me aside, with the Sheriff, who first asked me if I'd heard anything that day.
"Anything? ...That sounded like gun shots?" I shook my head. What's this all about? "Are you sure?" Pretty sure, I said. I said I'd been still a bit sick and my hearing wasn't back to normal. He nodded in understanding. I looked at my mom. I knew I was about to be told something terrible. My mom took me aside, away from the cops. I sat on the fireplace bench. She put a hand on my shoulder. She said, your neighbor, Brandon? He was shot to death…his brother. By Jerry. I think she kept talking a bit longer but I had the sensation--one that I've since had only one other time in life, when someone I knew and loved had died--of floating out and above my body, like my soul was an attached balloon, bobbing in the different currents in the higher part of the room. This living room has very high ceilings, I thought, the wood planks are dark and thick and it angles high to the point at the top where it meets the identical condo next door. Then I started to worry I would not be able to return to my body at all and scrambled back down below just as my mom was trying to get me to say anything. She gave me a hug. The two cops muttered to each other, one said something to my mom while the other listened to and then spoke into his walkie-talkie. They were wrapping it up here. There was nothing else I could do to help but I felt helpless. Wish I could've stopped it but glad I didn't see it. My sister is in the picture here, too, and I just remember that she was very, very angry as much as she was sad. Before the cop in charge, the sheriff, left, he said, if you remember anything else, just call, okay? and I nodded.
Here's what I would learn about what happened, again, not getting all the information. The oldest brother, Robert, kept a gun in the house, he was very proud of this gun--I'd only been in their place once before, they almost never invited anyone in and I'd also heard that the brothers had a Three Stooges-like relationship of hand-me-down violence, mostly a lot of shoulder-punching, and their poor mother had trouble controlling it.
This gun was in a cabinet--it's really not an unusual story, you know where this is going--that he kept locked, except sometimes he didn't, and sometimes he liked to show this gun to his brothers to show them what kind of power he had and how safe they were in case of intruders, and yet how in danger they were if they crossed him--and on this day, the cabinet was either left unlocked or perhaps it was very easy to pick (the middle child, Jerry, was pretty smart in the ways of minor delinquency) and on this day Jerry found the gun available and he convinced his youngest bro they should pick it up, emulate Older Brother, fondle it, play with it, don't worry, I won't pull the trigger, I'm sure it's not loaded--and then BANG BANG YOU'RE DEAD. Little Brandon was shot in the head and killed almost instantly.
have been on the other side of the condo because surely I would've heard it
otherwise. How could I not hear it? In a rare moment of levity during those few
days my mom asked me if I'd been watching some cop show with the TV turned up
loud because how the hell could I not have heard it. But cop shows in those
days weren't as loud as they are now and our TV was pretty crummy and small;
more likely it was my congested head, my sleepiness, my dream imagination, and
that a middle brother shot the youngest brother on the other side of the house.
On the other shot of the house. Our condos were symmetrical, one roof slanted down to the left, the other down to the right. They were almost identical, ours was infested with moths, ours had more female energy, ours had no gun in the house.
I was a sensitive child, to be sure, things like this lingered maybe longer than it would with every other kid, just as the divorce probably had. For the most part, the areas I lived in, suburb of Santa Barbara and then later that city itself, were pretty safe, and it wasn't until much later in life that I had any other kind of connection with gun incidents--whether just knowing people robbed at gunpoint, knowing someone killed in battle in Iraq, knowing about gun fights in nearby San Francisco urban neighborhoods, nothing different than any other person's experience, really, but over the years every gun massacre, whether "small" in number of victims or larger, whether "just" one child murdered or shot by accident that makes the news, every single one of these that has reached my eyes or ears, has put me back into the time I nearly left my body from fright.
Not having all the facts, I've never fully understood what happened that day other than the aftermath: my mom moving us to a house a mile away 6 months later, our neighbors wrecked by the tragedy retreating into a silence of both embarrassment and grief, until the oldest brother left for good and the middle child ended up in both counseling and within a few years, juvy hall. The few times I saw him out on our street, on our cul-de-sac, I could barely exchange words with him--not sure what to say other than that I was sorry and I was angry, both, but I could say nothing, just a nod at him, somewhat sympathetically. And then we were gone and they were gone.
And this is what I tell people (usually far, far shorter than this) when they ask me what I mean when I say fringe things like "fuck the 2nd Amendment."
[At right, a picture of me at our condo complex, the year before The Thing happened.]
-- Craig Phillips (@craigary on Twitter)
Updated note: A few days after I wrote and posted this, there was this horribly sad, tragic incident that happened in New Mexico, which left me speechless all over again.