Three days after the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history, I fired a handgun for the first time.
Because I am alive in the 21st century, the subject of guns is frequently on my mind. Specific details stick in the mind and retain their capacity to shock—the crowd being mowed down through broken windows in the Las Vegas hotel, the killer in the Texas church shooting babies at point-blank range, the man who crawled across the floor at Pulse nightclub to stuff his bandanna in another man's gunshot wound while the shooter continued to fire, the six little kids hiding in the closet at Sandy Hook who decided to make a run for it only to be slaughtered moments after they opened the door. But as a phenomenon, gun murders are becoming distressingly familiar.
According to a running tally maintained by the New York Times, 555 incidents have qualified as mass shootings in the 511 days that elapsed between Orlando (June 12, 2016) and Sutherland Springs (November 5, 2017). The last time I looked at the Gun Violence Archive, 13,581 people had been killed and 27,700 wounded in gun-related violence in the United States so far this year, but those numbers will be higher by the time you read this.
People generally opposed to increased gun-control legislation will point out that only 317 (less than 1 percent) of the gun- violence incidents this year could be called a "mass shooting" (defined as four or more victims, not counting the shooter), and thus, the effort to restrict access to firearms popularly known as "assault rifles" is a hysterical liberal overreaction that infringes on basic principles of freedom guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
People in favor of increased gun-control legislation will counter that 317 mass shootings is 317 too many, and that easy access to the kind of weapons used in them is too high a price to pay, no matter how many non-psychotic firearm enthusiasts there are in the world.
Both sides have a point.
Both cases are founded on coherent legal and moral principles.
Neither side shows any sign of being persuaded by the other.
That's the larger reason guns are on my mind. They're a literal, physical manifestation of the great divide between America and America. It has never been more culturally acceptable to choose whatever facts or non-facts you allow into your subjective reality.
But unlike so many clear-cut, bafflingly contentious subjects in American life—racial equality, health-care affordability, abortion rights, climate change, LGBTQ rights—the issue of guns actually is somewhat complicated.
That complication has been obscured by voices on both sides. The loudest obviously belongs to the National Rifle Association and its 40-year blitzkrieg of political bullying and duplicitous social engineering. Founded in 1871 to promote marksmanship and gun safety, it has spent the past few decades manipulating its loyal, credulous membership into viewing a legitimate public-health issue as a burlesque conflict between tyranny and liberty.
Ad hominem attacks on gun owners also contribute to the cacophony, drowning out valid arguments for increased gun regulation with emotional calls to ban all guns or repeal the Second Amendment altogether—tall orders when Congress couldn't even be bothered to pass the Manchin-Toomey amendment (to expand background checks) four months after Sandy Hook.
The only two significant pieces of federal gun-control legislation passed in the past 50 years—the Gun Control Act in 1968 and the Brady Bill in 1993—were enacted when Democrats controlled the White House, House, and Senate, as the gun blogger Mike Weisser points out. The Brady Bill's passage was a major contributing factor in the so-called Republican revolution in the 1994 midterm election.
Of course, as with all ideological disputes in this country, both sides relish the opportunity to call each other rednecks, snowflakes, psychos, elites, and far worse. And so, the actual point of contention—guns (access to, violence caused by)—is obscured by the dust cloud kicked up by two groups of people hating each other.
I'm not saying I'm above the vilification game; I've been an ardent participant in it for years, in print and in person, feeling personally affronted and attacked by certain election results, and personally vindicated by others. And while I don't have much time for the whole idea of trying to "understand where Trump voters are coming from," I'm also increasingly uneasy with the spirit of wishful isolationism and refusal that animates both the left and the right.
I know where I stand on gun control: I'm for it. Background checks, licenses, and other restrictions designed to limit the ease with which deadly weapons are bought and sold seem like obvious, essential tools for mitigating not only the high-profile crisis of mass shootings, but the flagrant handgun violence that constitutes a far greater percentage of annual homicides and suicides. According to a report this year from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly half of all murdered American women are killed by husbands, boyfriends, or exes, and 54 percent of those are gun deaths.
The idea that gun regulations should be regarded as a threat to constitutional freedom is a treacherous hoax. And yet, it's patently unfair to paint all gun owners (roughly one-third of Americans) as crazy rubes tooling up for the day the revenuers show up to raid their compound.
Some people just like guns, and it doesn't make them crazy and it doesn't make them dangerous. It makes them gun enthusiasts, the same way some people like cars or guitars or cats.
That may be obvious to you. It wasn't to me. I've lived in cities my entire life, including a few (LA, NY, DC) with notorious criminal reputations, and I currently reside in the downtown Seattle neighborhood Pioneer Square, where I hear gunfire out my bedroom window on a regular basis. And still I found I had no idea what would motivate a rational civilian in a city like Seattle to want to own, and carry, a weapon designed to intimidate and kill other humans.
So I decided to buy one and find out.
Right on Target
My project was simple: Buy a handgun and carry it, loaded, on my person, for some period of time. My goal was even simpler: See how it felt. Prior to this experiment, I had never even held a handgun. The only one I ever saw up close belonged to my father, a Walther PPK; he showed it to me once when I was 18. I didn't pick it up because I was worried it might go off.
I didn't know the difference between one brand and another, I didn't understand that "caliber" referred to size of ammunition, and until I actually thought about it, I didn't realize why some guns were called pistols and others revolvers. I was a neophyte, verging on phobic. I thought of guns as dark magic, unpredictable talismans, better left alone.
I had no illusion that learning to hold, shoot, own, care for, and carry one would make me an expert in anything, only that it would bring me one step closer to being able to participate in the gun-control debate without having to say, "I mean, I've never even held a gun before, but..."
The first step was to apply for a concealed carry permit.
I walked two blocks from my apartment to the county courthouse, went through the metal detector, turned left, and entered the small, plain King County Sheriff's Office. There was one other person waiting. The clerk asked how he could help me. Making an effort neither to wince nor apologize, I said, "I'd like to apply for a concealed carry permit?"
I expected heads to turn, brows to furrow, needles to scratch off records. Instead, he handed me a clipboard with the application on it and a pen and gestured to an empty counter where I could fill it out. I filled it out.
The questions: 14 fairly standard-looking yes/no items about whether or not you have arrest warrants or convictions, or have ever been "adjudicated mentally defective" or committed to a mental institution. Only question five gave me pause: "Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to marijuana, or any depressant, stimulant, or narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?" I mean, no, as it happens, but still, they're more worried about weed than a desire to commit murder, or the ability to demonstrate competency?
I finished and paid the $48 fee. A woman in uniform ushered me into the back, where she scanned my fingerprints into the FBI database. While she ran my fingers over the glass screen, we chatted about traffic in Southern California, where she'd just moved from and where I grew up. She told me she couldn't afford to live in Seattle proper, so she commuted every morning from Burien. It took an hour each way.
When I was all finished, I submitted my application and receipt to the clerk at the front. He had me write my address on a sheriff's office envelope and told me that processing would take about 30 days. Eager to begin my experiment, I asked if there was any way the process could be expedited. He bent his head down, looked me in the eye, and said, with textbook civil-servant mirthlessness, "Sometimes it takes 60."
I got the message and left—elapsed time, less than 15 minutes. The permit arrived in my mailbox exactly 30 days later, and I began planning step two: a handgun safety class. I settled on Right on Target at the West Coast Armory, also known as the Bellevue Gun Club. Three hours of entry-level instruction for $90, which also included the use of guns and ammunition.
I scheduled an appointment for the night of Wednesday, October 4. Three nights before the class, Stephen Paddock shot more than 600 people and killed 58 of them from the window of his hotel room at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I wondered if it would be addressed in the class. It wasn't.
Firing for the First Time
Right on Target was taught by two NRA-certified US Marines, who conveyed a breathtakingly comprehensive knowledge of firearms—their history, their variety, their mechanical operation, and the laws that govern them. I was particularly struck by Brett Bass, a tall, affable guy who communicated his command of the subject matter with the wit and warmth of a born teacher.
Later, after the class, I asked if he'd be willing to talk to me for this story. I learned more in our four-hour conversation over pancakes and coffee than I have from any number of impassioned pro- and anti-gun editorials. Internet shouting is no match for face-to-face communication, particularly with someone who knows more than you do. Thinking of guns strictly as an us-and-them, pro-or-con binary is a recipe for stalemate. Bass's friendly eloquence in and out of class provided an essential reminder that you can't deal with this issue without getting real about its moral, legal, ethical, and human dimensions, and without being prepared to surrender your assumptions about the people who disagree with you.
Partly because the defense of gun rights is a major part of his professional and personal life, and partly because we shared a belief that a civil dialogue between two people who broadly disagree is necessary and important, I felt like I could ask him anything. So I asked: Why do you need a license to drive a car but not to own a device designed to kill people? His answer, though not surprising, was undeniably true. The right to drive isn't enshrined in the Bill of Rights, but gun ownership is. We can debate the definitions of "well regulated" and "militia" and "arms," but in 2008, the US Supreme Court confirmed: "The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm." End of debate.
Bass said, "I know it's not a compelling argument for somebody who looks at it through the lens of the possible harm that could be inflicted with these things—which is a completely reasonable thing to be concerned about, I don't even slightly disagree. But in the legal framework of it, they're completely different."
As for the class: We were shown several variations of revolvers and pistols, and given briefings on safety, utility, grip, stance, and fundamentals of marksmanship. Then it was time to shoot. We moved from the classroom to the range, donned ear and eye protection, and divided into three groups of four. We took turns moving to the tables set up three yards from the targets, selecting one of the several available guns, loading its magazine or chamber with three rounds of ammunition, and firing.
When my turn came, I chose the 1911 model Ruger single action .45 caliber pistol ("doing good work for over a century"), loaded the magazine, picked the gun up with my right hand, careful to keep it pointed forward at all times, held my index finger along the side of the barrel while fitting the magazine into the heel with my left hand, fumbled to perfect the two-hand grip style, right thumb over left to protect against slide burn, cocked the hammer, assumed the recommended stance—feet slightly wider than shoulder width, right foot a half step back, knees bent, body leaning slightly forward (nose over toes), gun straight out from chest, elbows bent slightly—and took aim at the little paper bull's-eye.
My hands trembled terribly. My heart pounded. My body felt unnatural and absurd. I fired the three rounds, felt the kick, smelled the smoke, and went to the back of the room to await my next turn. My aim was pretty lousy in terms of accuracy, but relatively consistent. The whole thing was both exhilarating and anticlimactic. During the next two rounds I shot a .38 caliber revolver and a 9 mm Glock model 17, the world's most popular (and ugliest) handgun brand.
I realized on the drive home that the underlying premise of the class—beyond the expert instruction on how to safely use a gun—was that carrying a concealed weapon on your person at all times (unless you're in a bar or a federal building or a post office) is a normal, practical, responsible thing to do.
I will confess to naïveté, or maybe cognitive dissonance, on this score. I knew concealed carry was legal in Washington and that more than 450,000 residents of the state have concealed carry permits (CCPs). I also knew that the concealed carry movement was one of the NRA's most conspicuous triumphs over the past three decades. In 2016, more than 14.5 million CCPs were issued in the United States (the number grew 215 percent during the Obama administration, which is not a coincidence). I now had one, too.
But somehow, I hadn't quite put it together that people were actually using them like it was no big deal. The instructors even pointed out that the right to concealed carry is not negated—as many people assume it is—when a business has a sign on its window that says "No Guns Allowed." That sign, the instructors said, is a property owner's request, not a legal requirement.
There's no way to know how many people are out there, on the bus, at the cafe, at the grocery store, secretly armed, just in case, just because. But I was about to become one of them.
One of Those People
I decided to buy a Glock, partly because it was the most popular (61 percent of US police carry one), but also because it was the one that had felt the best in my hands when I fired it. The criticism that they are ugly, boxy, and unstylish is hard to deny, but then, the idea that a gun could be a thing of beauty is totally alien to me. It's a gun. It's a tool. It's for killing people. How can that be beautiful?
I feel the same way about cars, by the way. They may have fine qualities if you need to get somewhere, but their function precludes beauty. I remember boys bringing car magazines to school starting in fifth grade, comparing this or that Ferrari or Lamborghini, and realizing that there were certain aspects of masculine bonding that would never be available to me.
These two aesthetic aversions then came together, because if you live in Seattle and want to buy a handgun, you're going to have to do some driving. On January 1, 2016, the city imposed the Firearms and Ammunition Tax—$25 per gun and 5 cents per round of ammunition above .22 caliber, 2 cents per round .22 and below. The result: Nearly every gun retailer in the city limits has either gone out of business or moved to Lynnwood.
The tax has raised less money than the $300,000 to $500,000 city council member Tim Burgess predicted it would when he proposed it—reaping less than $200,000 in its first year. That money is meant to defray the cost of treating gunshot victims at Harborview, but it has been tied up pending the resolution of a lawsuit brought against the city by the NRA, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and two local gun retailers. One can't help thinking that the consequence of having fewer gun retailers in Seattle proper may have been the underlying goal to begin with, which is exactly what the plaintiffs in the suit claim, according to the Seattle Times. The state supreme court ruled in August to uphold the tax.
The biggest gun retailer that remains in the city, Outdoor Emporium, is located just a few blocks from where I live. But it is a plaintiff in that anti-tax lawsuit, which made me think twice about wanting to patronize it. So, after a bit of scouting around, I went back to the West Coast Armory gun shop, determined to walk out armed.
I spent a long time walking around that small store, pretending I had any idea what I was looking at or for. When the sales staff asked if I needed help, I said no, no, thanks, just looking. The truth was that I was scared to state my business, lest it be made clear how little I knew about what I was there to buy.
But by my third circuit around the accessories, I was afraid of coming off like a deranged person, so I finally caved and asked about the difference between the Glock series 19 Gen 4, retailing at $550, and the Gen 5, which went for $599. The salesman listed a bunch of features that I forgot at the precise instant I heard them, but I said, "I'll take it."
Next came a predictable barrage of accessory upselling: a holster, a case, a cleaning kit, ammunition, etc. I pretty much acquiesced to everything he recommended, but I drew the line at a gun safe, reasoning that there are no children anywhere near my life, and my dogs were unlikely to go snooping around the locking hard-shell briefcase in which I was planning to store the weapon.
I had to show my ID and concealed carry permit, and fill out a form very similar to the one I'd filled out at the sheriff's office. Then he entered me into the background check database. People always lament how easy it is to buy a gun, suggesting that the background check process is too lenient, so the moment he pressed send, for journalistic purposes, I started the timer on my phone. He apologized that it seemed to be running a little slow. Then he said, "Okay, you're good to go!" and began to ring me up. Elapsed time: four minutes, 58 seconds. It had taken me longer to pick out a holster. Total cost: $892.05.
Gun, Gun, Gun, Gun, Gun, Gun, Gun
When I got the gun home, I stared at it, held it, pondered it, and tried hard to think of it as mine. There it was, undeniably owned by me, in all its clunky, boxy, Glocky glory.
Sitting there on my kitchen table, unloaded but next to a box of bullets, it was almost as though the gun was pulsating. The center of gravity in the room changed unmistakably. It was now a room with a gun in it.
As I loaded the magazine with bullets (a bit of a squeeze, PS), I literally flinched as I imagined misfiring. What if one of these little brass and lead numbers went out the window and hit someone waiting for the bus across the street, or went through the wall and hit one of my neighbors, or went across the room and hit one of my dogs? How many lives could be ended, and how many more ruined, all because of this ugly L-shaped tool?
The design genius of a firearm is that everything about it bends toward functionality. You have to work to keep your finger off that trigger. Once the bullets are in the magazine, and the magazine is in the gun, a tense coil stands poised to push the first bullet into the chamber, and once it's there, the potential energy waiting behind it is massive. Once triggered, that energy has started wars, destroyed families, cut short the lives of artists, leaders, and ordinary people who did nothing to deserve it. It's a lot of destructive capability to be holding in your hand or wearing on your hip.
You could almost say that a gun wants to be shot. I know that sounds like a magic busload of hippie nonsense, and I have no doubt that experienced gun collectors would scoff at the idea, but I swear I felt it. Not like it was calling out to me or anything, but as soon as it was in the room, it was the main thing about that room, a temperature raiser, an undeniable source of power.
That became true everywhere I took it for the next several weeks, even though I almost never disclosed its presence to the people I was with. I took it off when I got to work and when I went places where they serve alcohol, but I wore it pretty much everywhere else, in a Eidolon graphite holster inside the waistband of my pants (the holster model I bought was designed as an "appendix carry"). Though the Glock is easy to shoot, it is extraordinarily impractical to carry if you don't want anyone to know you're carrying it.
It's also physically uncomfortable. Sitting down involves a good deal of futzing to keep it from pushing up into your kidneys. And wherever you go, there's a bunch of plastic and metal digging into your stomach, pelvis, and thigh. But you can get used to it if you're determined to.
The thing I found harder to get used to was this feeling: I'm carrying a gun. Holy shit. There's a gun in my pants. I wonder if anyone can see it poking through my shirt. Why would anyone be looking at my shirt? Because there's a gun underneath it! Because, as previously mentioned, I have a gun. Gun, gun, gun, gun, gun, gun, gun, gun, gun. (The inside of my head was starting to sound like the bumper on Law and Order: GUN-GUN!) The sensation of gun at the center of everything, the existence of which was known only to me, never subsided.
I could imagine how some people might feel emboldened or vindicated by the existence of this secret power. But to me, it never felt like that. I never felt glamorous, like a secret agent in a movie. I just felt furtive and untrustworthy, afraid of being found out. The few times I went out without carrying, having forgotten or just chosen not to bother, I didn't feel unsafe. I felt unburdened.
I wouldn't say I went out looking for dangerous situations, but I was curious about whether the gun might serve as a divining rod for them. It didn't. I went through my life as before, working, walking my dogs, buying groceries, making music—only now with a gun. I showed the gun to some friends at a recording session, and I was shocked as one of them, a guy I've known for 15 years, expertly broke it down into pieces within seconds of my handing it to him, examining each component in its turn and telling me I needed to clean it. I had no idea he knew how to do that.
I solicited stories from friends about how they felt about guns. About half of them expressed utter contempt for even the word "guns." Several others, however, told me they had grown up around guns, and had a certain respect and even fondness for them, but that the only ones they owned were heirlooms that they kept, if they kept them at all, broken down and locked away in a closet. Two of them admitted to keeping handguns. One admitted to concealed carrying on occasion. Almost every single person from this second group said two things: (1) They favor gun control, and (2) please don't use their name.
One day, I went to the gun range with my father. I brought my Glock and he brought his Walther. We laughed because it was such a cliché olde American father and son ritual, precisely the kind of thing we have never once done in any other form. I shot 60 rounds. (The NRA recommends shooting at least 50 per month to maintain your technique.)
My aim remained poor no matter what distance I shot from, always dragging low and to the right. His wasn't much better. When it was over, we washed the lead dust off our hands and talked about the Second Amendment, which I was surprised to learn he's a bit of an absolutist about. To him, owning a gun is about the right more than the gun itself.
Guns being fired carry an enormous amount of kinetic energy, my father observed. Most of it is released with the bullet, of course, but much of it kicks back into the hands of the person doing the shooting. I retained that energy, along with the smell of powder on my shirt. I couldn't sleep that whole night.
I believe the NRA's rhetoric about "good guys with guns" is largely bullshit, the same as all marketing that tells you one thing in order to sell you another. Nonetheless, I thought that if my experiment was going to be fair, I should try a little harder to put myself in situations where I might have reason to feel, if not actually imperiled, then at least uneasy. Fortunately, I live right around the corner from what KIRO once called "the most dangerous block in Seattle."
The stretch of Third Avenue between Yesler and James has a vastly higher incidence of reported violent crime—including drive-by shootings, robberies, and homicides—than any other comparable block in the city. Though KIRO's reporting on the street was predictably hysterical, there's no denying the air of desperation and illness that pervades the area. I have walked down it countless times coming to or from home. It is, in fact, where I went to apply for my concealed carry permit. I now made a point of walking down the block, at several times of day, while exercising the right granted me by that permit. It felt ghoulish, like I was looking for trouble where trouble already abounds.
There is not one problem on Third Avenue that can be solved with a gun. The street is a tableau vivant of the greatest hits of American governmental failure since Ronald Reagan—the first candidate ever endorsed by the NRA—took office. Defunding of education, deprioritization of mental health care and social programs in theory and in practice, a selectively enforced "war on drugs" that disproportionally targets the black population, a related agenda of mass incarceration that does the same, and the pervasive sense that poverty is necessarily the fault of the poor.
In that same period, the number of guns owned by Americans has skyrocketed—to an estimated 300 million, according to the Congressional Research Service—based on the premise that "crime" is on a rampage. In fact, as has been widely reported, violent crimes have decreased sharply over the past 30 years, a statistic complicated by the fact that gun ownership and concealed carry permits have flourished during the same period.
Whether or not there's a causal link between those two seemingly contradictory facts is impossible to establish. Nonetheless, it's worth keeping in mind for people on either side of the gun-control debate. More noteworthy to me is the often unspoken truth that if you're going to carry a concealed gun on your person, and you really believe you're doing it as a form of self-defense, you must be prepared to take someone's life. Not in theory, like if you had a time machine, or some far-flung nightmare scenario, but right now, right here, everywhere you ever go.
It's one thing for an active-duty soldier to live in a state of being mentally prepared to kill at any time. It's something else for an accountant, or a programmer, or a bus driver. I believe living in a state of constant readiness for disaster invites disaster. I believe the presence of a gun invites problems for which a gun seems like a solution.
I knew there was an element of this experiment that was playing with fire. I knew I was carrying around the power to kill anyone I saw.
But I also knew the truth of the matter is that there's only one person I've ever wanted to kill.
Uh, Trigger Warning
The first time I was hospitalized for acting on suicidal ideation, I was 15 years old. It wasn't a serious attempt—but it was a serious harbinger of the nearly 30 years that have followed. During that time, my feelings on the subject have ranged vastly, from no danger at all to dialing the first two digits of 911. I have envisioned killing myself in styles baroque and anonymous. I have written extensive suicide notes, including personalized messages to everyone I care about. I have pushed the edge of a razor blade until the tip punctured my wrist, and then stopped. But the realistic, recurring fantasy has always involved a gun.
I don't feel suicidal all, or even most, of the time. I take medication to help. But I've only been taking it for about 10 years, so the memory of thralldom to the feeling—that any effort of any kind in any direction was total futility—is never far from the surface. It's like an ongoing dialogue with a voice in your mind, which is also you, telling you that your imminent death is both necessary and beneficial, that nothing else will do. Sometimes it's a whisper, sometimes a scream. When the medication is working, it's just a rat scratching in a walled-off room, like a madwoman in a gothic English novel.
For many years, I'd developed a ritual. It's not rational, and in some ways it doesn't even feel totally conscious. When things got bad, I would drive by gun stores. When things got very bad, I would park outside the gun store. And when things got very, very bad, I would go into the gun store and compare prices for shotguns and handguns. I was always surprised by how cheap they were. But I never had the nerve to talk to one of the clerks, for fear I'd be found out.
In researching this article, I was surprised to discover that more than 60 percent of gun-related deaths nationwide are suicides. The figure is 75 percent in Washington State, according to King County Public Health. I learned this after I'd bought my gun, and after I'd been carrying it for a while. It obviously reframed the terms of the experiment to a huge extent. But it also made me realize that the feeling I described earlier, of feeling uncomfortable for carrying around this terrible secret, preceded the gun by a long time.
Though I hadn't admitted this to myself earlier, it was perhaps inevitable that the very first thing I did when I brought the gun home and was alone with it was to put it in my mouth. Unloaded at first, then loaded (which may account for my difficulty loading the magazine). I danced around this ritual for a long time, several hours in fact, but I knew I had to get up close to it. This was the step beyond the drive-by, beyond the parking, beyond the browsing. This was brinkmanship with the part of myself that insists my existence has no value, that things will never improve.
Things weren't especially bad at that moment, but they weren't especially great either. They were life. I had no intention of pulling that trigger. I kept my index finger rigidly along the barrel, in the position taught to me at the West Coast Armory. But from a strictly ergonomic perspective, a gun most definitely does want to be shot. Your finger wants to go there. The trigger is begging to be squeezed. I put my finger on the trigger, aware that 5.5 pounds of pressure was all it took to pull it, vowing absolutely that I would not pull it. But I held it there, for a while. I'd love to tell you that it was the sound of my dog scratching at the door or a call from my mother or some other love intervention that slapped the sense into me, but it wasn't.
The slider of the Glock is a big, long rectangle with rounded edges, and the business end is about four inches around, with a sight on top. It is, in short, extremely uncomfortable to have in your mouth, even turned sideways. I don't know what it's like for other people who suffer from this problem, but for me, the most disturbing element of envisioning your own death is the version of events where you mess up and miss, maiming yourself like that poor Judas Priest kid, or causing brain damage, paralysis, or some other horrible affliction that makes life even more unbearable and makes you even more of a burden and an affront than you were to begin with.
In this moment, with a big mouthful of that Glock, not intending suicide but, indeed, contemplating it, I thought of the recoil I'd felt during the shooting portion of gun class, and started picturing how that kick would splinter my teeth, send the shards flying across the room. If I survived, I'd have to face the further indignity of a mouthful of stumps. Someone would have to collect the pieces. However absurd this sounds, it did the essential work of taking the ideation out of the realm of abstraction, where the unconscious mind is really in command, and forcing it to be literal, to deal with the facts. And to put the gun down.
Guns Do Kill People
I was in London when I heard the news about the guy in the church in Texas going aisle by aisle, shooting crying babies at point-blank range. I was, again, as ever, shocked—and unsurprised.
Five thousand miles away from the carnage, I also felt chastened. You don't need to have guns on the brain to be struck by the absence of them from the everyday landscape of the UK; all it takes is seeing a couple of unarmed police officers in a tube station. There are between 50 and 60 gun homicides each year in Great Britain, though the numbers are growing. That's how many people died in the Las Vegas shooting alone.
Of course, mass shootings are not only about homicide; they tend to involve domestic-violence perpetrators with suicidal, or at least fatalistic, urges that have metastasized to include a desire to kill as many others as possible.
For years, the NRA has denied a causal relationship between the availability of guns and the incidence of homicide and suicide, because, naturally, it's notoriously difficult for statistics to prove cause. Just as you can't prove that a profit motive invalidates the likelihood of a noble purpose.
Earlier this year, however, the NRA backed the Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes Act here in Washington State, which requires prevention training and messaging in gun stores and pharmacies, and altered the laws governing firearm transfer in the event of a mental-health crisis. Brett Bass—my gun instructor—serves on the task force in charge of the effort. It's a good example of cooperation between the gun industry, the gun lobby, Democrats, health-care advocates, and private citizens.
But it doesn't make guns less available to anyone.
People would still kill themselves and others if guns didn't exist, but the fact remains that they use guns more often than any other tool to accomplish both of those dreadful tasks. It may not be enough to make everyone agree to regulate them, but it's enough to make the tools themselves feel tainted by association.
The shooting in Texas was a clear signal that my experiment was over. My month of gun ownership had been bookended neatly, if desolately, by two massacres carried out by white men with frightening access to firearms. Even the one who wasn't supposed to have access, the Texas shooter with the domestic-violence conviction, had it, which should tell you all you need to know about how stringently the existing laws are being enforced.
On the way to Heathrow Airport, the day after the Sutherland Springs massacre, my very chatty cab driver, a man who'd moved to England from Jamaica in 1966, heard my accent and asked me, unprompted, "Why you all so crazy with your guns?"
I said I had no idea, though I had a few. I didn't mention my own gun, which I had of course left at home, cleared, unloaded, and locked away in an empty apartment. We talked briefly about the constitutional issue, the cultural divide, and other facets of the debate, but he scoffed at the idea that it was complex. To him, the reason to have a gun was to kill someone.
I found I couldn't disagree. And before we reached the terminal, I'd decided that the best way to exercise my Second Amendment right was to waive it, and get rid of my gun as soon as I got home.