My father was always my guide in matters of ethics. His watchwords were “Tell the truth!” “Support the underdog,” “Take responsibility,” and “Take care of your mother for me.” Born in 1900, he volunteered for World War I but only got as far as Paris before peace was declared. When World War II broke out, he volunteered again but was rejected—due to a bout of TB in his 30s, he only had one working lung. He was an excellent shot and put a lot of meat on my mother’s family’s table during the war. Meat was rationed in Britain until 1954.
I’ve been punched out by a stranger, and had mace sprayed in my face by another one—both times for being gay. It was a long time ago—the 1970s and early 80s.
The first time I was gay-bashed, it was for rebuffing some guy’s advances, at first laughingly, then politely then…too firmly? He punched me in the face, missing my nose but giving me a cut just above it. I couldn’t see him after that because of the blood filling my eyes. He ran away. It was on 5th Avenue in New York, late at night, and the cops were busy rousting hippies out of the park. It was a fleeing hippy who came to my rescue, offering his bandana to quench the blood.
The second time, my friends and I were getting some snacks at a 7/11 on our way back from Fire Island. Some random young man started chatting to us—I was with three male friends. The guy went out to the parking lot and, by the time we got back into our car, came over for what we expected was a joking goodbye but instead he sprayed us with mace through the car’s open windows. My friend who was driving acted quickly. He hit the gas and we sped away with much of the poisonous vapor blowing out into the hot summer night. The friend sitting next to me in the back got a nasty burn; I got a milder version—a stinging rash that only lasted a day or so. We were shocked. The guy had seemed pleasantly sociable and all we had done was discuss something like the price of milk, but he did ask us why we were out so late and one friend answered that we had just come back from a disco. I guess that was the big clue. We realized that we had not been sufficiently cautious and somewhat blamed ourselves for the whole incident.
It wasn’t unusual, and I can’t say I’ve carried these stories around as traumatic, or that they filled me with fear. There certainly was gun violence against gays back then, but not much. Arson and bombings took a bigger toll, and it wasn’t terrorism—it was a hate crime.
Omar Mateen’s massacre in Orlando crossed the line between hate and terror. Being a Muslim has placed him on a different list, rightly or not. It used to be the “nut-job” list, because we do have all-American, completely Caucasian mass murderers. The Unabomber, for example, was not the “Una-gunner.” Crazed and obsessed as he was, he bought all that fertilizer, loaded a truck, made a timing device…this took planning. He did not get up in anger one morning, drive to a store and walk out with an assault rifle.
Apart from everything else, gun violence is too casual and now it’s way too much—too lethal, too easy. It’s been too much for a while. Whether it’s a disturbed teen killing children, or a disturbed young man killing gay people, or high school or college students wanting to kill because they hate school and feel dissed by someone, or whether it’s because guns have been glamorized by movies or the NRA, we need to limit the gunmen’s powers in one of the simple ways we know how. We can’t stop people like the Unabomber or the Boston bombers from researching how to build an explosive, but we can stop those who are less committed, less creative, or less enquiring from purchasing the ideal weapon for a couple of hundred dollars. We could at least cut back on the more casual kinds of hot-headed violence.
Let me just say that, no, I don’t believe in the Second Amendment. I don’t see the point, but then I spent the first twenty years of my life living in a country where owning a gun was almost out of the question for anyone who was not a licensed hunter. I don’t think it’s a great idea to have a pistol in your home. By the time you get it out of the child-proof safe and find the ammunition you’ve stored someplace else just as properly, you have simply supplied criminals with yet another weapon while you and your family are likely dead. I’m saying this so you don’t think I’m reasonable—but I am not laboring to take anyone’s rights away. For now, my beliefs are pretty much just that. Some concur. Others do not. It’s the price of living in a free country.
But there’s already a ban on machine guns. Even owning an antique one that doesn’t have all its parts requires working your way through a lot of red tape. Owning an operational model is a whole other deal. Why? Because that was pretty easy to legislate. They are cumbersome. They are expensive. They are not easily portable and they are not useful on a robbery or a threat.
The assault rifle is made for assault. Hunters don’t “assault” their prey, they kill it. Most pride themselves on a “clean” kill—one perfectly placed bullet, two at most. Amateur or inexperienced hunters are despised for their clumsiness, wounding animals who lurch away to die out of sight. Neither of these types of hunters uses an assault rifle, no matter what their prowess, because it would just blast their prey to inedible, un-trophy-like pieces.
In civilian life, “assault” is amateur by definition. Police get accused of many things these days but it is seldom defined as “assault.” Assault in a civilian context is pretty much limited to individuals acting alone. It’s a term ubiquitous to the crime drama: “assault with a deadly weapon.” But the assault rifle is not a knife or a pistol, it’s a rapid-fire firearm made for warfare and now favored by deranged civilians against an age group, ethnic group, or sexuality-group that the shooter personally does not like. The resulting deaths are those of ordinary people, going about their business, whatever that may be.
When I was a child, my family lived in an apartment in London. One day I came across my father taking things down from a high shelf in the hall closet. “What are those?” I asked. My father clearly had not wanted me to catch him doing this but, as always, he braced himself to explain a difficult subject truthfully in child-friendly terms. They were his guns, he explained, a shotgun, two rifles and two pistols. He told me he had not felt he needed them since the War ended. He had stopped going hunting and he was no longer concerned that the Nazis or anyone else were going to invade England. We were safe. The government was concerned that people’s guns might fall into the hands of criminals, so they were asking everyone to turn them in. He thought they were right.
I remember being very quiet. Somewhere, even at this age, I knew that my father had expected to be fighting on the streets of London, like cowboys on television only for real. It’s a recognition that still haunts me, especially when I see documentaries in which cities are destroyed by war, half-buildings standing open to the wind, with paintings askew, sofas covered in debris, a dishtowel still hanging by a sink. There were plenty of scenes like that in World War II London as there have been since in places like Bosnia and Beirut. Middle-class lives, gutted. My father, my funny, clever Dad, had anticipated fighting hand-to-hand on the street where I walked to school, among the flowers of Kensington Gardens, on the steps of our block of flats. The seriousness of his cool sense of danger still leaves me aghast.
So keeping the guns now, my father explained, would just give bad guys fatal weapons to use if they broke into the apartment to steal things. My father had no illusions about his ability to use them to protect his family from random violence. They were hidden, hard to reach. They would be useless for anything less than a war in the streets.
When I lived in Kentucky for eight years (ending just two years ago), it had the most guns per capita of any state in the Union, including Texas. You didn’t have to be a Republican to own one—plenty of Democrats and Liberals had them too. It was not astounding for me to have lunch with a group of older women and find out that more than one of them had a gun in her purse and the concealed-carry permit to go with it. These were not people who lived in dangerous neighborhoods but middle-class to affluent women. I worried about their ultimate safety.
As a friend undertaking a dangerous journey was once advised, don’t buy a gun unless you plan to use it. Learn how to use it and then don’t fire unless you shoot to kill. Why? Because in your moment of hesitation or your struggle to wrest in from your purse it will be seized from your hands and you will be on the wrong end of it.
I know you would protect me from harm if you could, and we were both in the right place at the right time, but I’d rather you were a hippy offering me a bandana after I was mildly injured than we were both looking at the corpse of a man who’d had too much to drink.
I know you didn’t buy your assault weapon to do anyone any harm—you’ve often told me it was just to see how one felt in your hand and that it gives you a thrill to fire it. You jokingly acknowledge it a macho thing, and I understand that when men get together, being macho can be part of the fun.
I know, as my friend and a father, you don’t believe everyone should be armed and that would solve the problem. We’re both smarter than that. I am sure that if any bar were full of young people dancing and drinking into the wee hours that you would not want them all armed. Neither of us want to see simple fisticuffs to end with guns. In all the times we’ve all spent dancing in bars, we saw people do some pretty stupid things when they were drunk. But not everyone was drunk and I know that if Mr. Mateen had only been able to use a knife or a pistol, he would have been quickly overpowered.
So, keep the Second Amendment if you must. We can agree to disagree on that, but please help me fight for a ban on assault rifles. Sacrifice a bit of macho fun for the future safety of people like the children of Sandy Hook, the young dancers in Orlando, the office workers in San Bernardino, the students in Roseburg, and all the others. Let’s agree that we want no more of this, going forward. This is not the America any of us recognize and certainly not the one we want.
And when you give up your assault rifle, tell your kids. Explain that you are doing your bit to end domestic terrorism. You’d like to keep it because it’s fun sometimes but you made a tough ethical decision, like your friend’s dad did, long ago. Giving up the assault rifle is a way to keep everyone really safe and it has to be one gun at a time.