In the time it took him to close the three yards of separation between us, a well-dressed young man with a Saints ballcap pulled down low was holding a Glock 19 semi-automatic to my head. I’d been hypervigilant for three weeks after a New Orleans tarot card reader at the Golden Leaves Bookstore divined bad juju all around me. Misreading the bleeps on my psychic radar, by the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.
A scant ten minutes earlier, I’d been in a meeting and now was pretending to listen to a Vietnam Vet turned lawyer who fancied himself a lady’s man. Instead I was assessing each pedestrian on Napoleon Avenue. It was a self-soothing technique used when on high alert. Each person was quickly categorized as to safe or unsafe mostly based on their dress and posture. This inner detection system had been honed on the New Orleans streets for over fifteen years and had never failed; but that was before I understood how easy it is for some to disguise evil as good.
As I assured myself all was well, I felt a vibration much like the distortion in the audio when a speaker’s volume is turned up too high. In the nanosecond it took for me to register consciously what was happening, the dapper dressed demon had already closed the space between us loaded and locked and was now shifting his gun from my head to the Vet/Lawyer’s face. I knew they were both talking because their lips were moving but the information was lost in translation.
That’s when I panicked. Clutching my purse close to my chest, I started running away from the lighted street into the darkness of the poorer neighborhoods that exist behind all the old-world charm of uptown avenues. Hiding behind a parked car, I watched and waited for him to come and find me. When he did, he put me on my knees with the gun to my forehead so that I was looking up into dark blank eyes. Smiling, he growled through clenched teeth, “give me your purse, you stupid bitch.”
Two weeks later he killed a tourist who refused him his wallet. Two weeks after that he was caught and later tried and convicted for murder and armed robbery. I’ll never know why he killed the man and not me. What I do understand is that in the time it would have taken to retrieve a gun from my purse, he would have shot me. This was the catalyst for the slow and painful process of opening my heart and then changing my mind regarding gun ownership and gun control.
I suffer no illusions about using guns. My early life was wild and chaotic, filled with mean and nasty characters much like the ones found in any of Flannery O’Connor’s gothic depictions of the antebellum South. As a Gulf Coast Navy brat born to poor circumstances, guns were the norm. The maintenance of the big anti-aircraft guns mounted on the aircraft carriers used in WWII was my father’s responsibility. Along with the 1950s baby sitter, the television set, those images shape shifted my baby boomer imagination. My first heroes were President Eisenhower, the Lone Ranger and Roy Rogers – the good guys with guns. Mounted firmly on my stick pony firing my toy guns, I passed days of creative play fighting the Russians and other bad guys.
On my first hunting trip, we came across a mama raccoon and her babies hanging out on a limb. Encouraged by the taunts of my teenage friends, I took aim and fired again and again and again. Eight times. Suddenly, I could hear the high-pitched squeal of a not quite dead rabbit as my grandfather slid a knife beneath its skin. This Silence of the Bunnies memory mixed with my slaughter made death real and tangible leaving a metal taste in my mouth. I never hunted again.
As an adult, working my way through undergraduate school tending bar and waiting tables in 1970s New Orleans, I often found myself in the French Quarter after midnight mixing and mingling with the nightcrawlers and the tourists. An uncle with mob connections had given me my first handgun, a hammerless, double-action derringer. His only instructions were if you pull it, you better be ready to use it.
A New Orleans cop gave me a better idea. One evening as I stood outside the same Howard Johnson’s where just three years earlier Mark Essex, a dishonorably discharged Navy man had shot and killed seven people, two men approached trying to coax me to their car. Hey there Baby, need a ride? With my muff pistol safely hidden in a cheap purse with finger on the trigger, I pointed it toward the two men and firmly said GO AWAY! As they slithered back into the dark night, they looked back at me saying, Hey now pretty girl. We just wanted to party.
At twenty-six, I already knew killing someone would drive me over the edge. The lingering guilt of having left that derringer loaded and unattended had been enough to make me rethink my fake bravado. To be the cause of the fear in my son’s eyes as I watched his seven-year-old friend point it at him, shames me to this day. As it should. Just as ignorance is no defense under the law, neither is it with me when taking my own actions into account.
My progun opinions didn’t change then nor when my cousin used a handgun to shoot herself in the heart after chain smoking crack cocaine for a week. My uncle had given her a gun too. I can still hear the hum and hollow whooshing sound of the ventilator in her ICU suite. In real life, gunshot victims don’t look like they do in the movies. There is no make-up, no weak smiles, no last confessions; just a physical body doing its best to stay alive with medical assistance.
There were tubes coming in and out of every orifice plus one for feeding. Barely conscious with the intubation tube pushing air into her lungs, she stared out of tear-filled slits for eyes. Looking like she was about to crack wide open like a split tomato left on the vine too long, her body clung to life long enough to recover. That’s how biological life is – it goes on pitted against death whether the consciousness inhabiting the form is up to the task or not.
Several years later, I sold my last gun in 1995 after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. I still don’t know why this terrorist act got my attention when a Glock 19 held to my head failed to do so. What I do know is that for me the differences between owning a handgun, a rifle or a military weapon like an AR-15 are painfully obvious:
One is for protection.
One is for hunting.
One is for killing as many people as possible in the shortest amount of time.