On October 2nd, 10 Democratic presidential candidates championed their strategies to combat gun violence in a live from Las Vegas. Presented on the second anniversary of the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, their visions eclipsed NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre’s baseless defense: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
I’m a good guy who used a gun in self-defense. There was nothing good about the encounter.
At age 26, I rented a home in East Palo Alto, CA. Insanely low rent suited my musician lifestyle despite the crime-infested neighborhood. By 1992, it had one of the highest murder rates per capita in the country.
My rental sat adjacent to a 76 Gas Station that closed at midnight then morphed into a bustling adult drive-through. Dealers and prostitutes conducted business at the phone bank between my driveway and the station, selling Johns powdered courage for a quick high before their carnal romps. It was a thriving case study of trickle-down economics. The uptown elite drove downtown, snorted, cavorted, and drove home.
“Isolated incident” was what I told my father when the 76 Station made the evening news. A report sensationalized a murder that took place outside my bedroom window. A rival gang had settled a financial misunderstanding by shooting a dealer over 40 times. They then drove over him before commuting five blocks across the 101 freeway to the really bad part of town.
My father, a former Second World War Navy Lieutenant, argued it was idiocy to voluntarily live in a war zone. He took no solace when I mentioned the landlord kept a massive 10-gauge shotgun and a box of shells in the pantry, a canon compared with what we had shot skeet with a few years back.
“I thought you didn’t believe in guns,” he said.
I assured him I would never need to use it.
The next weekend, after a late gig, I unlocked one of two dead-bolts on the downstairs door. The alarm’s warning tone sounded. I entered the security code and walked up the back steps. At 2am, I didn’t bother to turn on the lights. In the living room, I saw the TV set face down on the floor. Across the room, someone crouched in the corner.
“RUN!” should have been the overriding imperative. GUN, however, was what jumped into my head. I raced to the pantry and loaded it. Barrels leveled at the shadow, I hunkered behind the door frame of the kitchen. I dialed the police from the old rotary phone hardwired to the wall. For seven digits, I put my finger in the dialer, spun it to the right, and waited for it to click back. In the time it took to dial “0,” you could learn a foreign language.
“POLICE ARE COMING,” I shouted, my voice cracking like a prepubescent teenager. “If you come near me, I will freaking shoot you.” I was terrified. “I HAVE A GUN,” I added, which in hindsight might have been the better sentence to lead with.
Complicating our standoff was the lack of exits. The thief needed a key to exit the front door. The bay window in the living room didn’t open. The 10-gauge and I blocked the back stairs. Hearing approaching sirens, the intruder wordlessly stepped out of the corner and shattered the bay window with the table lamp. The explosion of glass made me jump, nearly causing me to pull the trigger. He leapt to the street.
I stood trembling in my nook, aiming at the gaping hole until I saw the police cars. Thinking it would be best not to greet them with a raised shotgun, I lowered my weapon toward the floor. When I did, both shells slid down the barrels and landed at my feet. They were the wrong size. Had I pulled the trigger, nothing would have happened. If he had had a gun, I would have been dead.
The next day, I bought the correct ammo. For weeks, I slept side-by-side with the loaded gun. The possibility of rolling over in my sleep and shooting off one of my legs seemed preferable to being caught unarmed. After my fear subsided, I still kept it under the bed.
I used the gun twice after that, increasingly emboldened by its siren song of power. One night I chased someone off my porch who tried to jimmy a window. Gun raised, I confronted him, shouting, “Gotcha!: He screamed and leapt into the next-door yard, where he bounced off the fence and was attacked by my neighbor’s Dobermans.
Another time, I opened my upstairs window and pointed the gun at a reveler who stepped out of his car and was urinating on the side of my house. When he looked up and saw the shotgun, he backed into the open door of his car, still peeing, repeating, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
As he drove off, I stood in my boxers cradling the gun when a regular at the pay-phone smiled up at me and waved. I hoped the guy I had chased off didn’t have armed friends. I closed the window and slipped the gun under the bed, as sheepish as the Johns that scurried away from behind the garage.
“We have to stop seeing each other,” I thought, staring down at the butt of the gun.
I shipped the 10-gauge to the landlord and became a quick draw with the phone. I realized the gun had distorted the arbitrary delineations between good and bad. I placed the ammo on the pantry shelf, an indelible reminder of the absurdity of LaPierre’s argument and a testament to the fact that a “good guy with a gun” is ultimately more likely to get killed.
Though still a good guy, I haven’t owned a firearm since.