via New Yorker
Years ago, when I was twenty-two, I was a policeman in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, and I had a .38 Smith and Wesson. It wasn’t mine; it had been given to me on my first night of work, selected by the sergeant, who took it from a desk drawer in the chief’s office, along with another .38. He measured them beside each other then decided that one of them had a problem with its trigger and gave me what he was pretty sure was the other one. Two thousand people lived in Wellfleet, and we were a fairly informal two-car department of nine men.
Somewhere Chesterton writes—I think it is Chesterton—that you cannot reason a man from a position that reason didn’t deliver him to. A few days later I was taken to the firing range and given six bullets to shoot at a hillside, which was all I could hit. It was the first time I had fired a gun, and by the time the chambers were empty I understood something: a gun was an object in which a power of nature was concentrated so forcefully that a person could use one and feel party to a solemn and thrilling mystery. The thought crossed my mind, unbidden, that if I pointed the gun at the man beside me I could end his life. I don’t mean that I had a murderous impulse, I mean that I had become aware of the authority that the gun had given me. Absent its hard, mechanical shell in my hand, I had no special power. I was just a guy.
For a year I wore the gun on my hip, and it made me feel like someone of more substance than I was. One of the other officers used to say, “As long as I have Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson with me, I need fear no man.” Sometimes to search a dark building at night where a door stood open, I held the gun in front of me. Once I caught my reflection in a picture window illuminated by a streetlight, holding the gun and crouching, and I was thrilled to see that I looked like a movie star in a role, or even someone who might have a movie made about him—someone knowledgeable about and attentive to the sinewy truths of life, like in a fable. I did stupid things with the gun. When I wasn’t working, I sometimes carried it in the glove compartment of my car. (The others wore theirs under their coats or in holsters that fit into the small of their backs.) I didn’t think I would run into a need to draw the gun, but I had a girlfriend who lived three hundred miles away whom I would visit on my days off. When I was pulled over for speeding, I would say to the cop, “My registration is in the glove compartment, but I’m a cop and my gun is in there, too,” and I would not be given a ticket. Once during the winter I had driven up to Provincetown on an errand and coming back along Route 6 a car of what I took to be high-school students, or maybe fishermen, drew alongside me. This was the late seventies, when some of the people who lived in Provincetown had hard feelings for the gay people among them. The boys, taking me for being gay, I suppose, began cursing at me and pointing to me to pull over, so we could fight. I pursed my lips as if offering them a kiss, and when they began screaming and shaking their fists, I pointed my gun at them, and they fell away like bridesmaids parting at the end of the aisle. I was so excited that I sang “Me and My Uncle,” by the Grateful Dead, which is about cowboys, all the rest of the way home.
I don’t think there is any mystery to understanding the passionate feelings people have for guns. Nobody really believes it’s about maintaining a militia. It’s about having possession of a tool that makes a person feel powerful nearly to the point of exaltation. What argument can meet this, I am not sure, especially since the topic isn’t openly discussed. To people who support owning guns, the issue is treated as a right and a matter of democracy, not a complicated subject also involving elements of personal mental health. I am not saying that people who love guns inordinately are unstable; I am saying that a gun is the most powerful device there is to accessorize the ego.
As for the assertion that someone with a gun might have prevented one of these recent catastrophes, I can think of two things to say. One is that the idea of a solitary figure with a hand gun dispatching a man in combat gear with an assault rifle is not a sensible one. I knew only one cop who had fired his gun at someone, and he had missed the man completely. I asked what had happened, and he said, “I got a sudden case of shaky hands.” The second is that some years ago I wrote a book called “A Violent Act,” which appeared in two issues of this magazine. The book concerns the permanent shadow cast across the lives of a woman and her two little boys when a man on a rampage killed her husband with a sawed-off shotgun. This happened one morning in Indianapolis. The husband had been a probation officer who came to the man’s house for an interview. The killer shot him as he walked toward the front door, then left in a car. He drove to a convenience store where he shot the clerk when the man didn’t hand over the money from the cash register fast enough. Over the next few hours he killed a few more people and kidnapped others in Indiana and Missouri—by the end of the day he was the most sought after criminal at large in America—-and then he crashed his car beside a highway and ran into some woods and disappeared. In reconstructing the day, I sought out as many witnesses as I could find, and one was a man who had been in the store when the shotgun went off. He had had a handgun in his coat pocket. I asked why he hadn’t used it. “It just all happened too fast,” he said,” and by the time I might have got to it, he had the jump on me.”
I was a cop for a year, and when I left I gave my gun back to the sergeant. When I wasn’t working, it had scared me to have it around. It had a dark presence, like a temptation one didn’t want to entertain. I unloaded it each night and hid it in a closet under some blankets. One of the other cops used to lock his with his handcuffs around the pipes beneath his bathroom sink. I couldn’t think of anything good I could use it for, only the harm it was capable of causing. My permit to carry a concealed weapon expired after ten years without my ever having gotten another gun or seeing a rational need for one