Gimme Shelter: A Mom Confesses Her Gun Obsession

Modern children playing in their locked schoolyard. (Photo: Adrianna Dufay/ TueNight)

“Dear Families, Today we had a soft lockdown in the building at approximately 12:40 p.m.…” is how the message from my daughter’s school principal started.

I had been mindlessly thumbing through emails on my phone as I climbed the steps from the subway, but now I froze. I sucked in my breath and looked at the ground.

The problem with trying to be a rational parent in today’s America is that screens and images everywhere deliver improbable, terrible, often true stories directly to your fear center.

I told myself that nothing bad had happened. I knew my daughter had to be okay. Parents aren’t notified of school shootings by email. But until the pounding in my ears stopped, I couldn’t take my eyes from the cement steps and bring them back up to the device in my hand.

This is the first year our school has instituted “lockdown procedures,” and we parents got a brief rundown of the process last September. When the alarm sounds, my daughter’s teacher locks the door, turns off the lights, and the children hide in the closet. They must remain absolutely silent. Sometimes they hold hands. They practice this twice a year.

Our lockdown, however, was not a drill. It lasted 15 minutes, while an unidentified adult was found and determined to be a harmless kitchen repairman. I imagined my daughter’s teacher — a mother of two herself — in what was surely a very long 15 minutes. She would have been thinking about her own children, safely somewhere else, as she stood in front of my daughter and 20 other classmates, her mind racing to weigh unthinkable scenarios. She teaches first grade, just like the Sandy Hook teacher Lauren Rousseau, who was murdered next to the 15 children she tried in vain to hide in their classroom bathroom.

I feel surrounded by guns and the threat of gun violence.

While I wait for my daily subway, I usually see several aggro movie posters; today’s selection happened to be Tom Cruise and his weirdo weapon-arms, aimed at me and my fellow passengers. I turn on the TV and there’s the news, reporting on a school murder/suicide — this one, improbably, a 45-minute drive from my own high school back home in Oregon. Thank god I don’t live in Texas or Atlanta, where Open Carry protests lead to real-life sightings of guns in Starbucks and other public spaces or in South Carolina, where someone left — for fucks sake — a loaded weapon in the Target toy aisle.

I know this feeling of mine is emotional, not based in reality. Statistically, my life is quite safe; I have a much higher chance of dying from heart disease than a shootout. But the problem with trying to be a rational person — particularly a parent — in today’s America is that screens and images everywhere deliver improbable, terrible, often true stories directly to your fear center. Random lunatic with a gun in an intersection? That could have been me. Heartbreaking home-based gun accident? Could have been my daughter.

You’d think I’d be more accepting of guns, since I was raised in a culture with a lot of them. Growing up, I had friends with bb guns that they shot in the woods for fun. Half my high school class would disappear when hunting season started. I would eat venison sent over from family. Heck, I got my husband a day at a target range for Christmas several years ago; he wanted to shoot a gun and his cousin volunteered to take him. And now, even my Dad owns guns.

Dad lives in rural Oregon and has been a member of the NRA. Based on that, you might suppose he’s a redneck, but he’s actually a very progressive, anti-war movement guy who doesn’t always trust those in power. He came of age in an era when you could be arrested off the street for impersonating an officer by wearing your dad’s army jacket. He doesn’t own guns because he likes them; he wants to be ready in case shit goes down.

I don’t like that, but I understand it. What with drones and privacy invasions and Dick Cheney’s rotten heart, there are lots of reasons for us to be mistrustful of authority. Authority is no guarantee of goodness, or even good judgment, especially when a gun is involved.

I experienced this firsthand more than a decade ago, with a friend of mine whose son, Malcolm, was murdered by a police officer. Malcolm was 23, living in a housing project in the Bronx, possibly a petty drug dealer. An undercover policeman saw and chased him, and Malcolm ran. Like too many young black men in New York City’s Giuliani era, that poor decision was the last of his life when “a struggle ensued” and “the officer’s firearm discharged.” Malcolm’s cause of death was a gunshot to the temple at extremely close range

Officer Louis Rivera, I’m sure, did not want to shoot and kill a young man that night, but using his best judgment, that’s what happened. I imagine he’s not a bad person. He’s one of the “good guys with a gun”, as Wayne LaPierre of the NRA is fond of saying.

I thought of Malcolm about a year ago, when I was at a restaurant with my family and the table next to us was seated with four people, two of whom were uniformed police officers. The officer nearest me had her gun holstered behind her elbow, out of her sight. She was sitting about three feet away; close enough for me to lean over, reach out, and touch the handle of her gun, had I been so inclined. So could my daughter. I made eye contact with my husband, gesturing for him to look. He eyeballed the cops, the table, our girl and whispered, “It’s fine,” giving me a reassuring shake of the head that nothing bad would happen. He was right, of course; the gun wasn’t going to fall out of its holster and accidentally go off, or be grabbed by some brunching maniac, or in any way be pointed at us. Still, I did not feel fine. I felt awful. There was a visible, loaded gun within three feet of my young daughter, and I don’t care who was carrying it. I don’t really believe in good guys with guns.

I wonder if I’m like those folks who complain about gay people kissing in public. “Why do you have to shove that in my face? Can’t you get a room?” By room, of course, I mean target range, hunting trip, your own back yard, the police station, under a vest, tucked away somewhere more private. Isn’t owning a gun kind of a personal decision? Do I really need to see it?

But if this were actually a segment on the news complaining about Michael Sam, it wouldn’t be a celebratory kiss we were debating, it would be a full-fledged orgy, with exotic sex toys and jump ropes and paddles. We’re not just talking about missionary position handguns here; let’s revisit those Tom Cruise weapon-arms.

Dad is a very responsible gun owner, by the way. We just went to visit him, and the countryside is beautiful. My girls got to ride horses and feed goats and run through fields of high grass. Of course I asked to see where his guns are stored. They were locked away, unloaded, as safe as guns in a home can possibly be. I’ll always be nervous, though.

I trust my dad, but I don’t trust guns.

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