The mass shootings that occur among us almost daily and the high rate of gun violence in the US leave me not only frustrated but embarrassed. Yes, it horrifies me that ours is the most violent nation in the West. Yes, I can hardly bear to watch as lawmakers argue against gun reform, and as the Supreme Court makes carrying a gun even more easy to do in my home state of New York. What troubles me most, though, is that I have my late father’s pistol squirreled away among my possessions.
No one in my family ever hunted or fished. My father and I could not understand how anyone could enjoy killing anything. Although he carried a weapon during the Second World War, he served as a medic and never shot anyone. He left the gun behind.
Decades later, he bought the Smith and Wesson revolver only because a member of organized crime had threatened to harm my mother. My father was the chief witness in the government’s case against a criminal organization. When someone called the house and threatened to kill my mother if he testified, he purchased the gun. The FBI tapped the phone, stationed sharpshooters behind the house, and assigned plainclothes agents to follow my mother in an unmarked car every time she left the house. They trailed her around our tiny town to the hair salon, the grocery store, and choir practice. They could hardly have been more obvious if they had been driving a fire engine with the siren blaring.
An FBI agent called me, six hundred miles away in graduate school, and warned me not to open the door to anyone, to go everywhere in groups, and to report any suspicious persons. Until my father testified, everyone looked suspicious. The situation frightened me more than anything else ever had, even though the FBI said the criminals probably didn’t belong to the Mafia. “They don’t bother to warn you first,” an agent said. For the first time, I understood why someone would own a gun.
While clearing out my parents’ home after they died, I found the weapon high on a closet shelf. I had never seen a gun up close before. When I lifted it, it felt much heavier than I expected. I remembered television police officers warning novices about the kickback they would feel when they fired a gun. That seemed likely; this was a serious weapon.
The list of reasons not to own a gun rolled through my head, but most of them didn’t apply to me. I lived alone and had neither siblings nor children, and a gun hidden on a high shelf or locked in a safe would be secure from any visitors. I found the bullets in a filing cabinet and left them, so that eliminated any safety hazard.
I would never carry the gun anywhere or shoot anyone unless they attacked me or someone else. Neither would I tell anyone about the gun, so thieves would have no motive to break into my house to steal my gun.
No precaution I could take would eliminate the greatest dangers, though: first, that I would try to keep the gun loaded and nearby to thwart any home invasion. Numerous studies show that in the majority of cases, the gun increases the likelihood that its owner will be killed. However, might I assume I could beat the odds because I am intelligent and highly educated? I could see myself falling into that trap. I expect a lot of gun-owners do.
Second, and more likely, I might turn my gun on myself. My bipolar disorder causes long periods of depression no drug can entirely eliminate. Once, I attempted suicide; on several other occasions, only a watchful partner prevented me from doing so again. With a convenient gun, I might do the deed before anyone could stop me.
In the end, I could think of only one reason to keep a gun: so that I could use it to end my life if I suffered from a painful and incurable disease. Yet logic told me I would probably be unable to lift and operate the gun in that condition. Also, I would have other options.
So why did I keep the gun? Not for nostalgia, my usual reason for holding on to unnecessary things. I believe I kept it because the gun functioned as part of a fantasy, an image of myself as a strong, liberated woman who could take care of herself. I thought about films like “Thelma and Louise” (only without the cliff scene), and about the female detectives on the television series I guiltily binge-watched during periods of depression, sleeplessness, or, most recently, the Covid pandemic. They are all gorgeous and usually more powerful than the men around them. They change the world for good. Like all pretend heroes, they act like chocolate, making us feel better for a while.
I wanted to emulate those women. I wanted to be self-assured, beautiful, and strong, not insecure, ordinary-looking, and in need of a gym membership. I wanted to live in a world where good always triumphs.
But if I turned the channel to news stations, I saw not fantasy but reality. Instead of actors firing blanks at fake criminals, the screens showed real dead bodies of innocent victims and the crosses that marked their violent deaths. I saw the anguished faces of families and friends crying over not only those who died in mass shootings but in domestic arguments, drug deals gone wrong, drive-by shootings, and a host of other crimes and accidents.
The severe limitations on gun ownership that I supported would have prevented me from owning anything but a hunting rifle; keeping the revolver made me a hypocrite. I could have sold it for $1,000 or more, but that defied my principles. Even donating it was risky. Only destroying the gun could ensure it would never hurt any living thing.
Doing that proved difficult. Few places destroy guns, while those that sell them abound. I finally found a site and made plans to go there. Still, I hesitated one last time. What if I died one day because I had no gun to defend myself? I thought not of fictional heroes then, but of real ones: the people in our military who “made the ultimate sacrifice,” words we hear so often we become inured to them. These soldiers did not give their lives to save only the good people. They were patriots who died to protect all of us and our inalienable right to life.
I wanted to demonstrate the same kind of heroism, to be brave enough to risk my own life to protect others from gun violence. I finally decided to do what I think every owner of a handgun or assault rifle should: watch it melt. Apparently, I could do that myself with an acetylene torch, but I don’t have one. Places with the facilities to melt down a gun are very hard to find, so I continue on my search. For now, the guns sits where it’s always been, and I have to live with its existence.