Saturday, July 17, 2004


Guns Without Butter

Most of my writings have been in a humorous vein. Not today. Gun violence has been on my mind this week. I'm told that the majority of people never know anyone who's been the victim of gun violence. Somehow, I've known way more than my share. I was never in the armed forces, and though I had a low lottery number in the last days of people going to Vietnam, somehow I was never drafted, and therefore never saw the war firsthand. Still, I've seen two shootings on the street in my lifetime, and people that I know have been touched by the carnage of the dark side of American life.
Whenever I see a report in the news about someone who went on a murder/suicide rampage I always say that they did the shootings in the wrong order. I have never owned a gun, probably because I know myself well enough to know that I probably should not own one. In my younger days I had quite a temper. I grew up around some pretty abusive people, and that has given me somewhat of an attitude. I'm happy to say that I've mellowed considerably. From August of 1992 to October of 1993 I had a losing streak of biblical proportions, things that would have driven almost anyone totally insane. I did not react well. I'm sorry to admit that I could have easily become one of those disgruntled ex-employees that pop up in the news all too often. In that time I ended my first marriage, got dumped by a woman that I was totally in love with, and lost my home. My father-in-law, who I loved like he was my own father, had heart surgery that went wrong and he died within 24 hours of the operation, and I had to take my newly estranged wife on a 500 mile drive to Duluth help arrange the funeral, staying in the house of my in-laws, Jan's mourning family including her six hockey playing brothers treating me like I was a treasonous bastard for leaving their sister. Upon returning to Chicago I found out that my college roommate, someone who was like a brother to me, was dying of inoperable cancer. And that was just the first three-and-a-half weeks of that fourteen month period. Things did not improve. I didn't take it well. Even though I was bouncing back and forth between deep depression and rage, I still never bought a gun. When I lost my job because I was so impossible to be around, I took this out on my former bosses and convinced them that I could indeed kill them at any minute and mentally terrorized them. I am not proud of that, but I am proud that I never fully crumbled. I am past it, married again, have built a new life, and am very happy.
I met Bryn Hartman about six months before she shot her gifted actor husband Phil in his sleep and subsequently turned the gun on herself. I met her at a barbecue in the home of a mutual friend, had a very pleasant conversation with her, and had no idea that there was anything amiss.
Jan, my first wife, had a niece ( I guess you could call her my niece as well, for that matter) who was murdered by a deeply mentally troubled ex-boyfriend when she went to visit him on New Year's Day a few years ago to tell him she had taken a job in another state. Even though he had a record of mental imbalance he was still able to buy a gun because the state of Minnesota sealed his medical records, and the gun shop had no way of knowing that he should not be in possession of a firearm. She was a beautiful, sweet, smart young woman in her twenties at the time of her death. This was not the only person associated with my first wife who met such an end. One of her best friends from high school in Duluth became a deeply religious Christian, married someone from her church, and had children. She and Jan hadn't seen each other in many years, probably because they had gone their separate ways once she joined her church (Jan not being a church type). One year, on Thanksgiving, the woman's teenage son killed everyone in the family except the father (Jan's old friend's husband), who was late coming home. Apparently the son turned the gun on himself when he got tired of waiting for the father to come home for dinner. This happened in the late 1980s, as I recall. Nobody who knew the family had any inkling that anything was wrong. They were active in their church and seemed happy.
This has been on my mind all week since hearing the news of a cousin of mine. I barely knew her. My mother's side of the family has always been pretty close. Growing up I spent many a weekend and holiday with aunts, uncles and cousins close and distant. We had annual picnics with dozens of extended family members. I know all of my mother's first cousins reasonably well, and have met their children. One of these cousins was, for a time, my optometrist. He had two daughters, fairly close to me in age. My sister called me last week to inform me that my cousin's daughter had broken up with her husband and had been living in my cousin's house with her children, my cousin's grandchildren. Apparently this divorce was going very badly. The husband showed up for his scheduled visitation. They had a fight in the driveway in front of my cousin's home. She went inside, got a gun, came back out and shot her husband three times in the driveway, went back inside the house into a bedroom and shot herself. This was with my cousin and the grandchildren in the house. Neighbors all said that they knew that the couple had been arguing, but it had never gone beyond shouting to anyone's knowledge.
Although many Americans seem to fear the strangers, report after report and study after study tell us that we have much more to fear from those we know. Co-workers and relatives who are with us all the time can hurt us much worse emotionally than strangers, and the depth of that hurt can bring on these flashes of rage. We have nothing at stake with strangers. Most people have more of a chance to be hit by lightening or win the lottery than to be killed by random violence.
I understand that people like jewelry salesmen probably have the need to own a gun. Just yesterday there was a million dollar heist of such a person here in New York, well planned and executed by a team. There is no evidence, however, that this person would have been able to stop the robbery, and if armed would likely have been killed himself.

It is important to remember that most police officers have found that guns in the hands of those who are not fully trained, when at the time of crisis, were often stripped of those guns which were then turned on the lawful owner by the assailant. Anyone can be gotten to by someone who is determined enough. Remember Ronald Reagan. To put it into pop culture terms, on an episode of "The West Wing" there was a shooting where the president was wounded, and someone brought up the issue of gun ownership by the general public. It was pointed out that the president, a man who has an army of bodyguards better armed and trained than anyone in the history of the world was still shot by a lone nut. The more guns that are on the street, the more are used, which means that more innocent lives are lost or permanently altered by physical maiming or mental damage.

I have no easy answer to this issue. There is none. The genie is out of the bottle. We will never get all the guns off the street. I believe that it should be very difficult to buy new guns, but then again, I don't own stock in Wal-Mart or K-Mart, or for that matter Smith and Wesson, Colt, or any other arms manufacturer. I heard a comic once say in his act (I can't remember who it was, or I'd credit him) that guns could be as cheap as dirt, but bullets should be $10,000 each. THEN people would think twice before shooting. But then again, maybe not.

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