In a college dorm, in a prison, in a marriage
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I was raised on granola, home-grown zucchini, and Peter, Paul and Mary albums. The only thing in our house that could have been considered a weapon was the kitchen knife, and if my pacifist parents had thought of it as such, they would have thrown it out.
Five years ago I bought a three-acre farm in Hawaii. My partner and I acquired some goats and chickens and a piglet named Maggie. Then my partner brought home a male baby boar. The two pigs began to breed, and before long we had more pigs than goats.
We heard stories about armed men poaching livestock from local farms. The police in our area were notorious for ignoring emergency calls, so my partner became convinced we needed a gun to protect ourselves and our animals. I bought a semiautomatic .223 rifle. I’d never even held a gun before. The first time I shot it, I thought I’d blown out my eardrums.
In the meantime the pigs continued to multiply, and I continued to buy pork chops, bacon, and pork roast for my partner, rather than slaughter one of his beloved pigs. When the pig population reached eighty-seven and I was spending $250 a week on feed, I begged my partner to do something about the animals. But he refused to harm them or sell them as food. I stopped buying meat and told him we were hypocrites if we would eat chops packaged up from a factory farm but not eat livestock we’d raised. He finally agreed to start butchering them.
So we did it: we shot a pig. One bullet between the eyes dropped the animal. We quickly cut its throat and plunged the knife into its heart to release the blood. Then we dragged the several-hundred-pound carcass closer to the house to wash, skin, and gut it. My partner threw up, I cried, and we both called each other terrible names.
Over time, we killed twenty pigs. I tried to rationalize it — I feed them; they feed me — but it never got any easier. My partner blamed me for “forcing” him to kill the pigs; I blamed him for breeding them. Finally we separated. He went on a three-month drunk, and I gave away forty-seven pigs.
Though I got a restraining order against my ex, he still sneaks onto the property to see the remaining pigs. I’m out here in the country all by myself, with an angry, drunk former partner lurking about. I don’t know what to do with the rifle. Whenever I pick it up, my whole body shakes. I don’t want to be a pig farmer. I never want to eat meat again. I just want to eat granola and listen to Peter, Paul and Mary.
On August 17, 1969, five days after my ninth birthday, I became one of the last casualties of World War I.
Here’s how it happened: My father and I were out for a Sunday-morning bicycle ride around the neighborhood. A block from home, we saw our elderly neighbor Mr. Olsen working in his yard. He hailed us, and I followed Dad into Mr. Olsen’s driveway for what I hoped would be a brief exchange.
Mr. Olsen was cantankerous and railed against everything from stray dogs to dirty hippies. He wanted all “long-haired peaceniks” rounded up and shipped to a remote island. “Give them all guns and leave them there,” he said.
I was about to tell my father I’d ride home without him when Mr. Olsen said he had something to show me. He disappeared into the house and returned carrying a small French pistol, a souvenir from the Great War, of which he was a veteran.
I don’t remember hearing a sound when Mr. Olsen’s finger inexplicably squeezed the trigger. I do remember seeing a bright orange flash from the muzzle. When the bullet entered my chest, I wrapped my arms around myself and said, “Dad, what happened?”
My father shouted for Mr. Olsen to call an ambulance. Then, not content to wait for help to arrive, he lifted me in his arms and started running home, yelling, “My son’s been shot!”
In our driveway, my father screamed for my mother to call the hospital and tell them we were coming. Then he lifted my shirt to find out where I’d been hit. When he saw the bloody hole at the base of my sternum, he assumed the worst.
Lying in the back seat of the Ford as my father sped off, I reached around to feel my back, searching for an exit wound. I didn’t find a hole, but I did feel a lump, two inches to the right of my spine: the slug lodged underneath my skin.
From the back of the speeding car, I cried over and over, “Dad, I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die!”
My father kept saying, “Hang on, son! You’re not going to die!”
The bullet had missed my heart by an inch. The only organ the slug had hit was my liver, piercing a neat little hole. Five days later I was discharged from the hospital, and within a few weeks I was riding my bicycle again as though nothing had happened.
Dad told me that all the traffic lights on the way to the hospital had been green, but he subsequently admitted that the lights had been red, and he had run them all without slowing down.
My father owned a gun but kept it in a locked closet. I never even saw it until I was cleaning out the house after both my parents had died.
I’m glad my father’s gun was locked away. My parents’ violent arguments kept our family constantly off balance when I was a child. My father often chased my mother around the house, threatening to kill her if he caught her. My younger siblings and I stayed out of the “racetrack,” as we dubbed the trail they followed through the clutter in our home. We never doubted that my father — barrel-chested with strong biceps from stocking grocery-store shelves — could make good on his threat. My mother, by contrast, was whippet thin, worn down by menopause, agoraphobia, and a three-pot-a-day coffee habit.
Most of the time my father eventually lost interest and stomped upstairs to sulk, but every so often he’d catch her, and then I would intervene. The eldest daughter, I was my mother’s defender. I’d jump in front of my father, stand tall, look into his enraged eyes, and scream, “Stop!” Then I’d belittle his manhood, or scream profanities, or dare him to hit me: anything to give my mother time to escape. My father always backed off. I was proud of the way I’d protected my mother. A warrior maiden by age ten, I’d found that the safest place to be was in the heart of danger. Even today, when I feel threatened, I prefer to stand toe-to-toe with what’s threatening me.
So when my husband became interested in trap shooting, I decided to join him. Guns made me nervous, but I’d be damned if I was going to sit at home and fret.
The first day, I shot a hundred rounds and hit only a single clay target. I also discovered that I loved to shoot. I hadn’t known such elation since my youngest son’s birth more than a decade earlier.
My reaction confused me: how could I enjoy handling an instrument of destruction, especially after the violence that I’d witnessed as a child? My friends were horrified. None of them had firearms in their homes, and they were alarmed to learn that we did, even though our guns were always disassembled, cleaned, and locked away after every outing.
I’ve tried to figure out what I like best about trap shooting: the weight of the heavy steel on my forearms, the warm haze that rises off the barrel, the lazy timelessness of waiting for my turn to shoot. No, what I love best is the complete focus it requires, the sense of being in the moment — something I otherwise find impossible to achieve. (I’m a compulsive multitasker.)
Right before I shoot, I clear my thoughts, lift the shotgun, and let my body take over. After I fire comes a moment of perfect emptiness, as the Heart Sutra describes: “No cognition — no attainment. Nirvana.”
Now this warrior maiden carries a twelve-gauge.
Anne Newkirk Niven
Point Arena, California
Growing up in a working-class family, I learned all about guns. My father spent his leisure time hunting. For my twelfth birthday, he gave me, his daughter, a BB gun. (I am his oldest child, and I’ve always suspected that he wished I’d been a boy.)
My mother expressly forbade me to shoot at animals. She needn’t have worried; as a lover of all vulnerable creatures, I’d never shoot an animal. Instead, when I took my new gun hunting, I shot the windows of our car.
I spent my junior year of college studying abroad in a Middle Eastern country that was at war. Every day guns went off. Bombs blew up a bus an hour after I’d been on it. The university dorm was guarded by soldiers carrying submachine guns. My roommate, an army-intelligence officer, woke me up at night with her screaming. She dreamed of bombs falling and bullets flying.
By the time I returned home for my senior year, the exposure to war had me feeling traumatized and depressed. I struggled to reconcile my recent life in a war zone with life on a U.S. campus, where “disaster” referred to a poor grade or failing relationship.
My roommate, a brilliant musician with a chilly personality, made matters more difficult. That spring she became obsessed with a game called Assassin, then popular on college campuses. The objective was to “kill” all the other players with water guns. The last survivor won the game, which could go on for weeks, even months. Contestants could be “killed” almost anytime, anywhere, creating an atmosphere of paranoia.
While I fell deeper into despair, my roommate excelled at Assassin. She was among five remaining players — out of a field of sixty — and was determined to win, no matter what it took. As the tension built, she began screaming in her sleep, “You’re dead! You’re dead!” Sometimes she’d sit bolt upright and shoot repeatedly at my chest with her fingers in the shape of a gun.
My depression worsened, and I ended up on a deserted mountaintop, holding a loaded Smith and Wesson I’d just bought at a gun shop. Convinced that everyone would be better off without me, I prepared to end my life. I’m not sure what weakened my resolve, but I came back down alive. Back on campus, I unloaded the gun, put it into my desk drawer, and wondered what to do next.
Minutes later, my roommate entered, puffy eyed and deflated. “I’m dead,” she sobbed. “They killed me. It’s over.” I’d missed her assassination.
Melody and I had no business being friends. I was just in seventh grade, and she was already in high school. She dated older men, knew how to get alcohol, and often snuck out of her parents’ house at night. I’d never been drunk, never been grounded, never even been kissed.
Our friendship lasted exactly one summer. We listened to records in each other’s rooms and swam every day at the lake. Melody’s friends also hung out there, but they rarely spoke to me. They were busy smoking cigarettes, groping each other, and scrawling heavy-metal-band logos on their ripped jeans. Sometimes I’d catch them staring at me, in my brightly colored shirts and pastel eye shadow, probably wondering how I’d gotten a seat at their picnic table. My favorite bands were Led Zeppelin and Guns N’ Roses, but it wasn’t enough to like the right music; you had to live it. I was like the uncool little sibling they were forced to drag along.
Melody’s little brother Jason, on the other hand, fit right in. He and I were in the same grade, and he hated me. At the lake, he publicly listed my crimes: wears trendy clothes, gets good grades, doesn’t smoke or drink, hasn’t got Megadeth’s latest album. The older kids laughed, but Melody would come to my defense, punching him in the arm and saying, “You’re such a little asshole!”
One afternoon I was at Melody’s house. We were sitting on the floor of her bedroom, engrossed in a magazine. The door was open, and Jason walked in. In a calm, inviting tone, he said, “Look up.”
I found myself staring into the barrel of a handgun. I’d never seen a gun outside of the movies. I certainly had never had one pointed at me. I fixated on the black opening at the end of the barrel, out of which my death might come rushing at any second.
With a sound like an ambulance siren, I screamed and curled into a ball, hands over my head.
I heard Melody yell, “Get out of my room, asshole, and put that away! Dad will be so pissed if he finds out you touched it.”
I felt grateful to her for defending me. Then I realized that Melody wasn’t as angry about the weapon as she was about the intrusion.
I finally understood: I did not belong in this place. I walked home, where my dog and my mom and my dinner were waiting.
I was a pretty little hippie girl living in a houseboat community known as the “Waterfront,” where everyone seemed opposed to weapons, war, and violence of any kind. Confused and insecure, I was looking to change the world, have a good time, and find a man to call my own.
I found Gene, a ruggedly handsome waterfront cowboy who played in a rock-and-roll band and worked on tugboats. He was a real charmer, but he was also an alcoholic who kept a bottle with him all day long. I soon discovered that Gene had a violent temper and liked to turn it on women. But I was sure that if I could learn to be a better girlfriend, he would change back into the dashing man I’d fallen for.
I worked as a waitress and paid for our car, the dock fee for our boat, the groceries, and Gene’s vodka. But I balked when he asked me to buy him a powerful, large-caliber handgun. He regaled me with tales of his marksmanship in the army and told me every cowboy needed a pistol. I finally compromised and bought him a small-caliber rifle, which couldn’t be concealed.
I was horrified to come home from work one day and find him taking “target practice” on the graceful sea gulls. “Obnoxious, messy, bad-tempered scavengers,” he called them. I said nothing.
Not content with killing gulls, Gene began shooting holes in my personal possessions: my sewing machine, my paintings, the TV. He even shot the dishes off the table when he didn’t like the dinner I’d cooked. Scared for my life, I began telling anyone who’d listen about the drinking and abuse. But Gene was a beloved local character. Everyone dismissed my pleas with a shrug, sure that I was exaggerating. So I kept my fears to myself and began drinking to quell the anxiety.
One July afternoon I came home from the restaurant to find Gene sprawled out drunk with a friend. The ugly glint in Gene’s eye set off an alarm in my head. I knew I had to get out of there. Remaining outwardly calm, I asked if they were hungry and offered to run to the store to buy food. Gene just squinted at me and grinned viciously. I managed to walk out the door and get in my car.
Turning out of the drive onto the street, I heard Gene shout, “Fucking cunt!” and felt something hit me hard in the head. The windshield cracked into a million spider webs. I heard a whistling sound and a crack, and my head was hit again, as if by a hot rock. When I reached up to touch it, I felt warm liquid oozing through my hair. The whistling, cracking noises continued. My hand yanked the door handle, and I threw myself from the moving car.
I must have knocked the gearshift into reverse as I jumped, because the car rolled backward. Thirteen more shots went into the driver’s seat as I tumbled over the pavement, leaving a trail of blood. My anger was all that kept me from losing consciousness: That son of a bitch tried to kill me!
A young man who’d been a medic in Vietnam kept me alive until the ambulance got there. As I felt myself being lifted onto a gurney, I debated whether to sink blissfully into oblivion or fight like mad to stay conscious. My anger kept me from passing out.
Of the seventeen shots fired, four of them had hit me, three in the head. Gene was arrested, but the attempted-murder charge was reduced to “reckless use of a firearm in a public place.” He served ten months. Years later he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Today I thank God I made it. I thank God for that fast-acting medic. And I thank God I didn’t give in to Gene’s pleas for a larger-caliber gun.
I grew up in a home without guns but married a man from a family of hunters. In 1965 I visited my future in-laws at the start of the Texas dove season. When they went hunting, I came along for the ride, having no idea what to expect. I was undone by the loud banging and the tiny birds falling from the sky. The hunters twisted the birds’ necks to finish them off. I couldn’t take it and had to leave. (This was gross hypocrisy on my part: I ate meat and didn’t cry at the sight of Safeway’s butcher counter.)
After we married, my husband lost interest in hunting. He placed the unloaded rifle deep in a closet and tucked the pistol and bullets in a bureau drawer. In case of an emergency, he showed me how to load, aim, and fire the pistol. I wasn’t an enthusiastic student.
The pistol stayed in the drawer almost eight years. Then, one November night when my husband was out of town, I heard a strange banging noise around eleven o’clock. I had just crawled into bed, but I put on my robe and walked around the house, turning on lights and checking all the doors and windows. The noise had stopped. I looked in on our two-year-old daughter, who was sound asleep. Then I went back to bed.
After a few minutes, I heard the scraping, banging noise again. I got out of bed and this time left the lights off and looked out an open upstairs window at the backyard, where the noise had originated. I saw nothing, but heard footsteps across the dry leaves.
I raced to the phone and called the neighborhood security patrol. The dispatcher said someone would be there soon. I knew that could be twenty minutes or more, so I went to the dresser drawer, got the gun, and loaded it. Then I sat at the head of the stairs and practiced aiming at the spot where a man’s chest would be if he rounded the corner at the bottom of the staircase. I imagined how loud the shot would be and reminded myself not to jump too much, because I might need to shoot again. I imagined the smell of gunpowder and the blood that would fly all over the white walls. It would be hell to clean up. We would need to repaint.
When the security guard arrived, he walked around the yard and saw nothing unusual. Relieved and a little embarrassed, I thanked him, unloaded the pistol, put it away, and went to bed.
The next morning, when my daughter and I went outside, I saw the screen door in back was torn half out of the frame. The banging I’d heard had been the sound of it being pulled and twisted. Later that day, a stolen car was found parked across the street. The would-be intruder had probably sat there and watched me, waiting for me to go to bed.
I have not touched a gun since that night, but I know I am capable of using one. I did not panic while waiting for the intruder. I was not upset. He would not touch my baby.
San Francisco, California
Growing up in Queens, New York, I hung out with a group of guys whose ambition was to join up with one of the neighborhood’s five crime families.
There were certain essentials you needed before you could become a wise guy. First you had to get a religious tattoo, though you didn’t go to church. Next you needed chrome rims (usually stolen) that were worth more than your car. Finally you had to get a gun.
Word spread whenever somebody’s cousin or uncle arrived from Florida with a trunkful of .25 calibers, or some dirty cop was looking to sell a snub-nosed .38 he’d taken off a stickup artist from Brooklyn. The day finally came when I got my hands on a fully loaded revolver made of cold black steel. I’d arrived. It made me feel safe.
That was twenty years ago. I never used the gun. I moved away from the neighborhood, and my life took a different direction.
About a year ago I received a subpoena while I was at work. The FBI wanted to know about someone from my past, someone who might very well have used his gun. I panicked. What was I about to get dragged into? What if the feds had already been to my house and found my gun? Why had I even kept it? I raced home, looking back nervously to see if anyone was following me.
It took me a while to find the gun, which I’d hidden in the insulation of my basement ceiling. I beat it with a three-pound hammer until it broke into pieces. Then I dropped the bullets into a garbage can at the local 7-Eleven, tossed the barrel into a dumpster, and finally threw the handle and remaining pieces into a canal several towns over.
Back home, I took a shower to cleanse myself symbolically. The gun had once made me feel safe; now I felt safe because it was gone.
Long Island, New York
I decided to join the reserve force of my local police department because I thought the experience would further my career as a park ranger. I also had another motive: I wanted to knock down barriers for women. I was already the only woman ranger at my park, and the only woman in the local volunteer fire department.
Aside from some dispatchers in training, I was the only woman at the police academy, too. Despite being only five-foot-three, I was one of the fastest runners and never missed the six-foot wall jump. But I had trouble socializing with the other recruits, many of whom were sexist. One believed that husbands must physically discipline their wives to keep them in line. Another said that women who had rape fantasies — which he thought included most women — actually wanted to be raped.
And then it came time to learn to use a gun. I’d never touched one, but I needed a revolver to be on the reserve force, so I purchased the recommended Smith and Wesson .357. I took it home still in the box and put it on a high shelf in the closet. I didn’t even know if it had bullets in it.
One day we had to bring in our guns for inspection. I brought my unopened box to the station and put it on my desk, expecting to be laughed at. Most recruits had their guns out and handled them with ease, but, to my surprise, several men also left their guns in the boxes. I smiled at one, and he smiled back nervously, looking just as uncomfortable as I was. Suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.
Corn Creek, Nevada
Our first son, Levi, is four and a half and has had little exposure to violent children’s media. Even so, he likes to spar and fight. I don’t want to stifle his boundless energy, but I try to channel it away from violence.
Last month I had a second son. When I went to use the breast pump I’d bought when Levi was a baby, I discovered a crack in it, so I let Levi have the pump as a toy. He immediately reconfigured it into a gun. I was relieved that he pretended the gun only froze people, but still I wondered why it had to be a weapon.
A few days later I woke with a breast so engorged it was spraying milk. I showed Levi and then, to his delight, squeezed the breast and shot him in the face.
Helen Davidson Tapper
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
© Jon Hughes
One spring day, my wife and I took some peyote extract we’d been given as a wedding present and lay down on a blanket in our rural backyard to await the fireworks and revelations. We’d just begun feeling the effects when we heard gunshots. It turned out our new neighbor was shooting from his deck at a target on a tree. We went indoors to ride out the drug’s effects in peace.
Afterward I introduced myself to the neighbor and explained that we’d moved to the country for the quiet surroundings. I asked if he wouldn’t mind moving his target practice up the hill. He seemed noncommittal. As time went on, he continued to shoot from his deck regularly, and I complained regularly.
On Christmas day, we heard an unbelievable new noise. Our neighbor was testing out his Christmas present: a Chinese SKS automatic rifle and fifty thousand rounds of ammo. When I confronted him, he said he’d moved to the country to shoot his guns and went on a rant about teaching his kids gun safety and being an NRA member. It hit me then that there were two versions of the pastoral dream: one a vision of peace and quiet, the other a chance to live out cowboy fantasies.
I called the sheriff. When he arrived, he asked what I’d done to provoke my neighbor. But he also told me it was illegal to shoot weapons within five hundred yards of a dwelling. He spoke to the gunslinger.
After that, the neighbor flipped me off from his deck at every opportunity.
Here’s the twist: A few years later we had an onslaught of rattlesnakes in our yard. The second time I almost stepped on one, I called the neighbor and asked him to shoot it. That day we achieved a bit of a rapprochement.
A highlight of my boyhood was getting my first shotgun for Christmas when I was thirteen. Participating in the pheasant hunt that year was my initiation into the world of men.
As an adult I wanted to pass on that experience to my son: the gun-safety lessons, the early-morning breakfasts with the men, the shared time in the car. But Steven never took to hunting. One of the few times he went with me, he shot and wounded a partridge. As he approached the fluttering bird, I yelled for him to wring its neck. Instead he turned his shotgun around and stabbed at the bird with the rifle butt — the barrel aiming straight toward Steven’s head.
Terrified, I hollered at him to stop and ordered him back to the car. After dispatching the bird, I drove home slowly, hands shaking, unable to speak. Steven probably thought I was just angry; he didn’t understand the danger, the horrific image that had flashed through my mind of the gun discharging.
I continue to bird-hunt with my friends. Steven and his wife now rescue abused and abandoned dogs and cats.
R. Steven Heaps
Spokane Valley, Washington
I was nineteen years old and afraid to come out as a lesbian. When a young man at work asked me on a date, I didn’t know how to say no.
He arrived at my apartment the following Saturday to take me to an amusement park. His hand was under his coat, and I thought he had brought me a gift. Instead he showed me a large pistol. He quickly checked behind the door and throughout my apartment to make sure I was alone. I didn’t know what to do. If I ran, would he shoot me in the back? Feeling like a hostage, I climbed into his van. He set the gun on the floor under his seat. People were out to get him, he explained as he drove. I worried these people might also have guns.
At the amusement park, we didn’t go on many rides. Instead we spent a couple of hours at the beer garden and then stopped at several bars on the way home.
I went out with that man a few more times because, as he’d pointed out, he “knew how to find me.” He always had the gun with him during our “dates.” I said little and drank a lot.
The dates ended when a co-worker cornered me and asked why I was going out with a married man.
My toddler son quickly lost interest in toy cars and trains. He wanted to wear camouflage clothing and lined up little army men in every room. His favorite activity was to run around the house or yard with a plastic gun. There was always a mission to complete, a target to hit.
I kept buying toy cars and trucks and drawing and building materials. But my son’s fascination with guns continued. He even turned a piece of wooden train track into a rifle.
Now ten, my son is tenderhearted, doesn’t fight at school, and would never think of hunting animals. But he still loves camouflage clothing. Star Wars movies are his favorites. And he always builds weapons out of Lego sets. My biggest worry is that he’ll join the military as soon as he is able.
Glen Burnie, Maryland
In the early 1920s my grandfather moved his family to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he hauled freight with a mule team and a wagon. One day a young mule skinner with whom he worked was going into town to have some fun. Fearing his gun might get him into trouble, he gave it to Granddad. The man never returned. Granddad held on to the gun for forty years until he died and left it to my father.
When I was a small boy, Dad showed me the gun: an old Hopkins and Allen Range Model five-shot revolver with decorative engraving and a walnut grip. He would talk about the bad ways that gun might have been used had it fallen into less-responsible hands. Dad kept the gun in the bottom of a dresser drawer. When no one was around I used to get it out and play with it. It wasn’t loaded, and one day I was dry-firing it and broke the hammer. I quietly put it back, and no one seemed to notice.
When my father moved into a retirement village, he gave the gun to me. I often wonder why he and my granddad kept it. They were pacifist Mennonites, opposed to all violence. They could have tossed it in the river or dropped it in a posthole. Furthermore, keeping a pistol must have been discouraged by their faith, if not forbidden.
Perhaps the old pistol represented a kind of masculine energy my father and grandfather coveted but could never openly embody. Perhaps I keep it for the same reason.
When I was nineteen, I studied as an exchange student at a university in Ecuador. One afternoon I left my apartment to walk across the street for lunch. The armed guard who was usually stationed outside our building wasn’t at his post. (In Ecuador all apartment complexes had guards with rifles. Guns were such a common part of life there, I no longer noticed them.)
As I stepped onto the sidewalk, four young men blocked my path. Several American students had been mugged recently, but I tried not to panic. The men did not say a word, nor did I. Then the one in the middle drew a gun and pointed it at my face. Still no one spoke. He pulled the trigger.
Instead of a deafening explosion, I heard a tiny click. I wondered if they were playing a prank on me. My fear turned to anger, and I gave them my fiercest look. The four men smiled and continued on. I walked away shaking.
Neither my boyfriend nor my roommates were very sympathetic when I told them about the incident. We never considered reporting it to the authorities or to the director of our exchange program. I’d already been sexually assaulted in Ecuador, and I was using drugs. Something was wrong with me, I thought, because I actually felt proud that I hadn’t shown any weakness to those men.
That night, like most nights, I went to a nightclub. But this time I didn’t need to get high to enjoy myself. As I danced to the throbbing techno music, I chanted in my head, I’m alive, I’m alive, I’m alive!
My husband and I had been heroin addicts for many years when we moved from San Francisco to a cabin in the mountains, hoping to kick our habit there. We’d tried several programs but had always returned to the streets. This time we’d be surrounded by beautiful redwoods and the sounds of nature.
The cabin was cold, and neither of us had the strength to keep the wood stove going. After five days of intolerable sickness and no sleep, I knew I wasn’t going to make it off the drug this time either. My husband had passed out on sleeping pills. I looked at the gun he always kept on the nightstand. I pictured the two of us driving back to the city, shaking and shitting ourselves, to score one more bag. Then I picked up the gun, which I knew was fully loaded, held it to my temple, and pulled the trigger.
I took the “misfire” as a sign I wasn’t meant to kill myself.
The next day, my husband and I went back to the streets for another fix. Later he told me he always kept the first chamber empty, as a safety measure.
I’ve been off heroin since 1993 and now live in a peaceful forest. My ex is in San Quentin doing twenty-five-to-life on a third-strike parole violation: possession of a handgun.
When I was a child I wanted to be a cowgirl. I’d sleep in my cowgirl outfit with my toy six-shooter at my side, ready for any danger.
As an adult, I met Louie, a city kid who’d wanted to be a cowboy since he was five. One day he invited me to go shooting with him at his gun club. Every Sunday he and a group of gun enthusiasts shot antique, black-powder, muzzle-loading rifles for two hours. They invited me to join the group.
It was fun being around these grown-up cowboys. Louie let me shoot his prized rifle and taught me the Zen of shooting: breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out, breathe in and hold it, then squeeze the trigger with slow, easy pressure. I remember the controlled explosion, the smoke, and the wonderful smell of gunpowder on my hands afterward. Shooting was an act of love for Louie. I was honored to be his partner on the range.
After Louie died suddenly, the gun club met at our usual time that week. We all loaded our guns, adding a little of Louie’s ashes to the powder. Then we took aim and fired, a twenty-gun salute to our friend.
I stopped attending the club meetings after that. It wasn’t the same without Louie.
Then one day a friend invited me to shoot. It had been a while, and my aim was rusty, so I called on Louie to guide me. I hit six bull’s-eyes out of eight shots.
I moved to a lesbian-separatist commune because I’d been abused by men and believed that living with only women might spare me further trauma. Instead I ended up dating a woman who almost killed me. She was what’s known as a “rapid cycler”: she’d go from yelling and kicking me to weeping apologies in a matter of minutes. Then she’d repeat.
One night, as the threats, blows, and tears escalated, she wailed that she was going to kill herself. She grabbed a rifle and a box of shells in her trembling hands.
I’d dealt with her suicide threats before. A week earlier, I’d gotten her to sign a contract promising not to harm herself. Now, realizing she’d never keep her promise, never stop hurting me, I gave up.
“I’m really young,” I said, grabbing my coat. “I think watching you kill yourself would permanently scar me. So I’m just going to step outside for a few moments.”
When I looked up, I was staring down the barrel of her rifle.
“Neither one of us is going to leave here alive!” she yelled.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that night. I do remember waking at dawn, clutching a fistful of bullets. I must have convinced her to give them up before I’d finally passed out from exhaustion. The unloaded rifle was beneath the futon mattress.
My lover drove me home that morning, alternately yelling at me and begging me to stay. When she dropped me off, I didn’t look back.
Twelve years later I teach women’s self-defense. Most students’ greatest fear is of being attacked by someone with a gun. To show them how unlikely this scenario is, I’ll ask how many people in the class have faced an armed assailant. I’m almost always the only one.
Santa Cruz, California
A police officer and former soldier, I volunteered to go to Iraq in 2004 and help train the new Iraqi police force. I wore body armor and carried a gun. My fellow trainers and I worked in dangerous parts of the country and sometimes came under fire. Once, I shot and killed a man.
Does it matter that he was trying to kill me? That we were at war, and he was my enemy? That my best friend had been killed in an ambush? The man and I did not know each other. We did not speak the same language, or practice the same religion, or eat the same foods, or share the same dreams. We met by chance, greeting each other not with a handshake, but with the only language we shared: violence. I believed in my cause, as he believed in his.
When people meet me, they probably think, Nice guy, gentle, kind. What do I tell them? Or my daughter? Or my friends? Or my lover? How do I explain what happened that day?
In my office I have a picture of myself in Iraq. I’m smiling, giving out candy to little Iraqi kids. In one hand I have jelly beans; in the other, an assault rifle.
People say, “It must have been terrible.”
“Some days were worse than others,” I tell them.
Peter C. Tragni