I was prepared.
In 1992, when I was 24 years old, I could take apart, reassemble and do a function check on a Colt M1911A1 .45 caliber pistol in less than 45 seconds.
I was prepared.
I had qualified as an Expert shot every time I went to the range with the Army, even knocking down my targets while wearing a gas mask. When I pointed a pistol at targets they went down.
I was prepared.
I knew how to take apart, reassemble, test and fire so many other weapons: the M240 7.62mm machine gun. The M85 .50 caliber machine gun. The M3 .45 caliber machine gun (aka “The Grease Gun”).
I was prepared.
I’d spent 5 years in the Army Reserve as a crew member on an M60A3 Main Battle Tank. The last 2 years I was a gunner, engaging targets over a mile away with a 105mm cannon. I’d just spent 3 weeks cross-training to learn how to be a tank gunner on the M1 tank. My crew and I did well on our qualification test, destroying our targets with one shot almost every single time on the tank range.
We were prepared to rain steel and deliver thunder for our country.
I was prepared.
I had a large revolver in an end table by the door at home.
I’d borrowed it from a friend. I’d come home late one night a few months earlier and, as I walked up the sidewalk to my apartment, I’d passed a man kneeling by the tire of a car. I said “hello” to him and he said “hi” back, but after I took a few more steps I heard a metallic sound. At first, I thought it was a socket wrench, but after I took another couple of steps I realized it was the sound of the slide riding forward on a pistol. I kept walking, quite aware that someone behind me had a gun, but he hadn’t moved, and I didn’t have the sense that he was coming after me. I walked up to my apartment and called the police. Just a few minutes later a police helicopter was lighting up the parking lot with its searchlight. Officers on the ground caught the person I had walked past and another person at the other end of the building. They were waiting for my neighbor, who apparently had cheated them on a drug deal, to come home. Being a young, naïve boy from the Phoenix suburbs, I had no idea my neighbor was involved in anything like drugs – he just seemed like a friendly guy to me that had more visitors than average.
I was prepared.
I borrowed that revolver for a month or two until my first wife and I could move to a newer, safer neighborhood. If there was going to be a gunfight in my old complex I wasn’t going to be the only one unarmed. I was a damn good shot with a pistol and felt confident I could hold my own if necessary.
I wasn’t prepared.
I came home from the 3-week Army training for the M1A1 tank and was informed by my first wife that she’d had an affair with the person who’d loaned me the revolver. She was leaving and moving in with him.
A bomb went off in my life and I wasn’t prepared.
I was sitting on the couch an hour or two after she’d told me this news when the “friend” walked in. He must have thought I’d left, but I was sitting on the couch and the revolver was sitting on the coffee table in front of me. I’d taken it out at some point, although I don’t really remember why this many years later.
His eyes got really wide and he asked me “are you going to shoot me?”.
I told him I was thinking about it.
He said that he should probably leave, and I agreed that that was probably an excellent idea. He left and drove away.
I left not long afterwards, but I kept the gun with me.
I wasn’t prepared.
I had countless hours of training on various weapons. Before the Army I’d fired guns countless times – with Boy Scouts on a range, with friends up in the woods, at pistol ranges, at cans set up on logs out in the desert outside of Phoenix. I was no stranger to guns. I didn’t own any myself, but I had lots of friends and family that did. They were all around me and readily accessible. I knew how to use all of them.
I wasn’t prepared for the unexpected blow of betrayal.
I wasn’t prepared to cope with the sadness and anger and hurt and frustration of having a marriage that was just getting started end so abruptly.
I wasn’t prepared to cope with having someone I thought was a friend be the person to cause this to happen.
And I found myself in the first few days after receiving the news ricocheting between anger, sadness, hurt, depression and fury.
And I had a gun.
And then I had another gun.
I knew someone with a Ruger Mini-14, which is the same thing as the AR-15 that keeps making the news but with wood stocks, so it’s not as scary-looking. It doesn’t look like an assault rifle, but it has the same mechanism and does the same thing.
I drove around for a few days with both. Angry. Sad. Hurt. Frustrated. Jealous. Depressed. Furious… and highly skilled on how to use both weapons.
In a blink of an eye I went from being a “good guy with a gun” to a guy who came terribly close to doing something impulsive and horrible.
Obviously, I never used them, since I’m writing this message 26 years later from a computer in my house and not from a prison cell. But from moment to moment for 4 or 5 days I wasn’t sure if I would use them – on others or myself. I finally broke down one day in front of my former father-in-law and told him what I had and gave them to him. But for most of a week I was armed and terribly close to making some really bad decisions.
I have a fantastic life now. An excellent job. A wonderful wife. 2 awesome sons who I love more than anything in the world. I served another year in the Reserves and then 5 more on Active Duty in a rich, rewarding career. I’m surrounded by loving, caring, committed people. Life really couldn’t be much better.
But for 4 or 5 days in 1992 this future was very much in jeopardy because a hurt and angry young man had guns easily accessible at the worst possible moment.
So why am I writing all this?
Because I can’t stand to watch another school shooting. I can’t stand to hear about another murder-suicide. I can’t stand to watch all the same posturing, over and over and over after another shooting. I’m sick of the disinformation, the memes, the cynicism and the fear-mongering.
I want to see something change and the only way we’re going to bring about a change is to have open, difficult, vulnerable and honest conversations.
And they’re not going to be easy.
None of the solutions I’ve seen offered after this last shooting in Florida would have done a damn thing to prevent me from being a shooter back in 1992.
Raising the age limit wouldn’t have helped – I was 24 already.
Banning assault weapons wouldn’t have helped – the rifle I was able to get my hands on wouldn’t have been categorized as such.
A longer waiting period wouldn’t have helped – I had a pistol because it had been loaned to me, not purchased. The rifle was somewhere I could easily retrieve it.
Increasing spending on mental health wouldn’t have helped – I wasn’t mentally ill. I was hurt and angry, justifiably so under the circumstances, but recovered quickly with the help of prayer, family and friends and went on to serve the military and my community and lead a productive, happy life.
Candlelight vigils and walk-outs and walk-ups and wouldn’t have helped – I was already surrounded by a large network of caring friends and family. I wasn’t the “loner” guy – I had a broad network of deep relationships. I was active in a church and had a fairly developed sense of faith and purpose.
I understand that it feels so important to do something, anything, after these tragedies and that vigils, marches and rallies are important tools for dealing with the shock and the anguish and the grief, but I worry that after they are over we’ll check off a box in our heads and say “yep, I did something”.
Banning guns outright won’t work. There’s far too many of them already circulating out there to make a ban even remotely feasible, logistically or legally. And we could sit here and argue about the interpretation of the 2nd Amendment until the earth falls into the sun and get absolutely nowhere, so I’m not even going to bother with starting down the path of proposing that it should be repealed or reinforced or revered. To me it’s an extremely poorly written amendment, full of ambiguity and easily interpreted to fit whatever view one chooses.
So why am I bothering to write anything at all? It’s certainly not because I enjoy telling the story I just told you. That’s the most unpleasant moment of my life and I’d much rather focus on all the joy that I get to experience now.
I’m writing because the conversation needs to change if we’re going to get anywhere at all.
If we’re serious about preventing another shooting, we must be able to talk to each other about this topic.
We must be prepared.
We must be prepared as a culture of gun owners to accept that we have a responsibility to keep weapons out of the hands of those who might use them illegally. Yes, it’s our constitutional right to own a weapon, but that right comes with a responsibility to ensure they are used safely and appropriately. No law can make us do that, so the responsibility lies on us.
One of the first things taught in any weapons training is to be aware of the immediate surroundings – what’s next to the range, what’s behind the deer being shot at, who else is in the area, etc. The same thing should apply off the range or out of the woods: where are my weapons stored and who has access? What’s going on in the lives of the people I know who have access? Do I know anyone who’s struggling who has access? The need for situational awareness does not go away when the rifle gets put back in a case or the pistol gets cleaned and put on the shelf.
We must be prepared to accept that those who own guns have a constitutional right to do so. We can’t have the hard conversations with them if they feel that we’re only going to label them as “right-wingers” or “gun nuts” or “a-holes that don’t care when a school gets shot up”. I know it’s easy to be angry after a shooting, but I know many people that own guns that feel the exact same despair and frustration and hurt that comes with the news of another shooting. They are far from being heartless individuals and it’s a disservice to label them that way.
We must be prepared to help young men, and I say men because shooters are almost always male, navigate the rocky years between adolescence and adulthood. Young men don’t automatically become rational, reasonable adults at 18 years old – one only has to look at auto insurance rates to see that. I would argue that us males don’t really become true adults until we’re around 25. We aren’t encouraged, socially, to discuss our feelings and to be vulnerable, so it’s critically important in these years to help young men find appropriate ways to acknowledge and handle their emotions. Teaching young men to stuff their feelings and “man up” isn’t helpful. Similar suggestions to “shake it off”, “cowboy up” or “keep a stiff upper lip” are equally unhelpful. Calling someone a “snowflake” for being sensitive to the needs and feelings of others isn’t helpful.
Recognizing that males, and young males, especially, often need help navigating their expectations and environment and giving them the tools and a safe space to grow emotionally – that’s helpful.
We must be prepared to step out of the trenches and be willing to let additional information influence our opinions. That means deliberately seeking out multiple viewpoints and not surrounding ourselves only with people that already agree with us, which is really hard, but vitally important.
We must be prepared to accept that not everything is “black or white”, “liberal or conservative”, “left or right” or “pro-gun or anti-gun”. Hardly any conversation can exist in a pure “either-or” dichotomy and when we charge out to the ends of the spectrum we miss the opportunity to find the common ground in the middle somewhere.
We must be prepared to acknowledge that people with different views are still loving, capable people that are also interested in life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness and give them the space to live that life.
We must be prepared to recognize that organizations we support may take extreme positions and that we don’t have to support them 100%. I, for one, think the NRA does an excellent job of providing high-quality instruction on range safety and safety around firearms, but I don’t agree with the fear tactics they use with their lobbying efforts.
We must be prepared to set down our arms and open our arms.
I’m dedicating this to a friend of mine who passed away recently. Her license plate on her car read “DONTW8” and I, for one, don’t want to wait one more moment to do anything at all that I can to help us all prevent another shooting.
I don’t want to wait another moment to find ways to bridge the polarization that seems to be tearing our country up.
I don’t want to wait another moment to reach out to someone who is struggling.
I don’t want to wait one more minute to equip my sons and the sons of my community with the skills to navigate the rocky path of adolescence and early adulthood.
I don’t want to wait another moment to hear your story and hear your views, even if they are different than mine.
I don’t want to wait another moment to embrace any opportunity to heal, to help and to love.
Let’s not waste one more minute.