My father didn’t keep a gun in his bedside table but he did have a cannon in his closet. It wasn’t battlefield-sized. It was a Civil War era antique, a model used by manufacturing companies. At least that’s the story I remember. The model my father had was smaller than a toaster oven and probably weighed 50 pounds. I guess cannon makers displayed their wares to competing armies for business. I don’t think I’m making that up. I do know that my father liked cannons, and guns, and anything else that, combined with black powder, made a loud noise and had the potential to reduce an object into microscopic parts. He kept the cannon and black powder in his closet, except for special occasions like July 4th, New Year’s, or birthdays, when he’d set up a firing range in our city backyard.
I’m not sure if he kept the cannon in his closet because owning it, even a model, was illegal. Maybe it was the black powder. Still, if you can own an assault weapon like a Glock 19 pistol with high-capacity 33-round magazines, a cannon and a canister of black powder seems like child’s play. Whether it was legal or not, because it was in the closet it had a dangerous aura. Closets are for things you want to hide.
The cannon and its accouterments were the closest I’ve come to living with a firearm, if a cannon is a firearm. It’s designed to do bodily harm but as a means of protection, it lacks portability and the element of surprise. Still, however, if someone was breaking into our house a blast from the cannon would stop them in their tracks.
I don’t have much experience with guns. I did shoot a gun once. It was at my Uncle Frank’s house. He wasn’t a biological uncle. He was my father’s best friend from childhood. The two of them ran with a gang of poor Greek and Italian immigrant teenagers in southwest Washington during the 1930s. Uncle Frank and my father seemed to know their way around guns.
I do have another kind of experience with guns, however. It’s the kind of experience where you’re at the other end of the gun. At least that’s what the message said. Actually, it was more than one message.
On New Year’s Day 1993 I published an opinion piece in my local newspaper. I had a regular spot in the paper where twice a month I wrote about national or local events. The thesis of my New Year’s essay was that guns were hazardous to our health and I recommend that as a nation we needed a resolution to pass stricter gun laws. “We’ve taken the right to bear arms to mean the right to use weapons to solve our problems, prove our worth, and administer our own personal justice,” I said.
I wrote the piece because just weeks before a college student named Wayne Lo killed two people on a college campus with a modified version of an AK-47 rifle. It got me thinking about guns and a friend of mine who a couple of years earlier had been killed while hiking on the Appalachian Trail. She was there with her lover, another woman. The man who murdered her said by way of defense that he was enraged because the two women were lesbians.
As my husband, two small children, and I came into the house from a day out, the phone was ringing and the answering machine full. My editorial had so enraged some people they looked up my phone number and told me what they thought. The general consensus was that I should be shot. Dead. Two messages suggested I arm myself because they were coming after me and my family. My family!
The police department was unsympathetic. Until we were actually shot at, they couldn’t do anything. And besides, what did I expect saying that gun laws should be stricter? We lived in rural south Georgia where guns are as much a part of daily life as gnats.
I should have known better, and like a whipped dog with its tail between its legs, I took my naïveté and hid. We lived on a cul-de-sac. Any unfamiliar car became a potential hit man. We kept the children close and everyone stayed away from the windows.
I’ve been vilified before for my opinions. As a writer, it comes with the territory. But the messages and phone calls that New Year’s Day went beyond anything I had experienced. The gun threats and vituperative remarks were one thing; that we lived in a town of less than 20,000 (county population around 50,000 at the time) meant that I could very well have been chatting the day before – and the day after -- in the grocery store, post office, or doctor’s waiting room with the person(s) spewing hate and wishing me bodily harm.
I didn’t think I could live in a community where I didn’t feel safe voicing my opinions. But economics being what they are, we stayed. I even continued writing for the newspaper for about another year until my children began public school. I thought, and I believe rightly so, that my opinions would affect my children’s lives in the wider community. And that wasn’t something I was willing to do.
I’d like to say that I soon realized that I had never been in any danger, that there are people everywhere who over-react and shout and threaten but are really harmless. It’s human nature. Few people actually step over the line of civil behavior.
That’s not what happened. I’ve never forgotten what it feels like to be so hated for my opinion that someone wanted to hurt me. No. Not just hurt. That implies something else. The people who called me wanted to silence me. They wanted to put me in the cross-hairs of a gun sight.
I’m not saying that I’ve been scarred by this experience. It’s just a memory, an experience. But I am reminded of it sometimes, like when my political yard signs are vandalized or a bumper sticker torn from my car.
Or when something like the shooting in Tucson occurs.
Of course, we don’t know why the killer in Tucson acted, if he was answering a call only he could hear or if he was so enraged by the opinion of others he felt compelled to silence the messenger. Or both.
My father gave my son, who was just six years old at the time, one of his model cannons. It didn’t strike me as a kid-friendly toy and my son didn’t seem terribly interested. I put it in the attic where it remained. But for some reason I took it out the other day. I think I wanted to see if its weight, its potential power, moved me in any way. Without an explosive it’s just a decorative antique and that’s how I tried to see it.
But still it made me uneasy. It was meant – at least in its full-sized version – to kill, as all weapons, ultimately, are designed to do, and it wasn’t something I wanted to be reminded of.
I know, of course, what I’m supposed to think: guns don’t kill people; people kill people. Yes, I think I understand: People kill. With guns and cannons and bombs. And with the best intensions.