The first time I shot a gun, I was nine years old.
We were visiting my grandparents in the mountains of West Virginia, and my grandfather, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, had taken my brother and me out to the backyard with a commanding view of the majestic Appalachians where he had set up some tin cans on a table. The gun in question was a rifle. I can’t tell you the make or model, only that its weight was heavy on my young shoulders. My brother had gotten to go first, of course. He was older and a boy. Not to be outdone, I begged for my chance. There was sibling pride at stake.
As I squinted and took aim, my heart rate picked up. My fight-or-flight was not discerning about empty tin cans versus prey. It knew only that this thing in my hands felt dangerous and alive. I pulled the trigger, missed my target, staggered back from the intense recoil, then promptly fell on my butt. I was embarrassed. I was exhilarated. I felt ten feet tall. My shoulder hurt for days.
I wanted to do it all again.
Two years later, on a January morning in Corpus Christi, Texas, as moving vans prepared to carry us two days north to our new home in Denton, Texas, my brother was shot in the head. He and a friend had been off shooting high-powered BB guns. The gun had accidentally discharged. The BB, shot from close range, had struck my brother in the temple; the BB had traveled through his bloodstream and lodged in his lung where it resides to this day. There was an ER visit, a week-long hospital stay, and years of medication. My brother was changed by that BB to the head. That is not a story for now. I will only say that the lasting damage from that gunshot has showed itself in various ways over the years.
I no longer had any desire to touch a gun.
Yesterday, as the news came in from Orlando, I sat in my kitchen working on end-of-year teacher appreciation cards. My hands—hands that once itched to hold a gun, hands that touched the bullet wound on my brother’s head—worked at gluing and pasting, stickering and creating. My hands kept busy, but as I listened to the news feed from the other room, my heart was numb. So much horror, all the time. That was a nightclub I might’ve danced in with my pals once upon a time. It’s Pride—many of my friends are out in the clubs now. But celebration has turned to sorrow and memorial.
Later, my son came downstairs. The TV was still on, the horrible story playing out again and again. Often, when he sees the news on, he will say, “What’s going on? What’s happening?” This time, he looked up, saw the scrolling body toll, then looked away. His whole life has been one in which mass shootings are the norm. He was five months old when Columbine happened. Now, on the eve of his own high school graduation comes Orlando, the worst mass shooting in American history. San Bernardino, California. Aurora, Colorado. Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut. Fort Hood, Texas. Binghamton, New York. It’s a travelogue of grief and madness.
And still, there are the guns. So many guns. So many dead. And we cannot talk rationally about the irrationality of guns.
To borrow from Lionel Shriver, America: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THE GUNS. Now. Yes, right now. Not after the next batch of funerals. Or the next. Or the ones that follow that one. What will it take for us to give up our insane idea that guns keep us safe? That every citizen has the right to keep his or her own personal arsenal? That our Founding-Father porn video of paranoid entitlement financed by the NRA is beyond reproach or a rethink? After Sandyhook, I thought, surely now, now with all of those beautiful children dead, oh god, the children—surely now we will stop this madness. But when even the butchering of first graders did not move the needle on the conversation, it seemed that a faction of America had given up and chosen as its new mascot Heath Ledger’s Joker.
Of the ten deadliest shootings in American history (and even typing that sentence feels like the set-up to a morbid, awful joke), eight of them have happened in the past decade. This is no coincidence.
It was 9/11 that fundamentally changed the DNA of our culture. My son was not quite three when that act of terrorism tore through the heart of the nation, a wound that, sadly, did not heal so much as harden, a thick, scabrous scar tissue that constricted the lifeblood flowing to our compassion, our expansiveness, our rejection of nihilism as a way of life. Our heart’s biggest working artery seemed to pump directly into our worst impulses: fear, paranoia, nativism, xenophobia—our collective Id.
As a New Yorker, I had seen the events of 9/11 all go down in real time. I had breathed in dust and waited anxiously with friends for the return of other friends. I had watched reams of paper fly from the burning World Trade Center and float down onto the East River and blanket Brooklyn’s streets like a misbegotten September snow. The next morning, my husband and I, like everyone, were glued to the TV, hoping that the day before had all been a terrible dream. The images of those towers crumbling into dragons of dust that roared through the canyon-like streets of Lower Manhattan flickered across the TV. “Mommy, turn it off. That scares me,” my son said. He was on the living room floor, playing with his trains. “Yeah, honey,” I said, turning it off. “It scared all of us.”
Yes, it did. But for a few weeks, there had been, amidst the grief, a tremendous coming together. We were scared. But we were not beaten. There was a quiet strength on display. And then came the darkness. I could make an argument that so many things in our culture since then—from the rise of standardized testing to the kudzu-like expansion of vapid reality television of which the presumptive GOP nominee was a beneficiary; it made him a star, after all—have been an unconscious response to those attacks. We’ve been arming and numbing ourselves in a number of covert ways, it seems. We want the money-back guarantee. We want safety and security at all costs. And then we don’t want to talk about that cost. We don’t really want to acknowledge that ceaseless mass violence has become our new national identity and that guns are the seductive poster-boy bling of our bloody brand.
Yesterday, as the death toll continued to rise, as images of crying young men and women holding each other and sobbing mothers waiting for news outside of hospitals filled our screens, Donald Trump tweeted this: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism.”
Appreciate. The. Congrats.
For the record, I do not find Mr. Trump amusing. I can’t even laugh at his hair anymore. I find his nonsensical, megalomaniacal ramblings and hate-drenched rhetoric stomach-turning and terrifying. He is our Nero without the actual emperor position—yet. He is Stephen King’s Randall Flagg come to life on his way to a The Stand-worthy Republican convention. And, like the NRA, who have ceased to be gun club and are fast becoming what I’d consider war criminals, he traffics in our death impulse. We’ve dipped our storehouses of bullets in our grief. We’ve loaded them into the chambers and given them countless spins in this continuing game of Russian Roulette. We keep the muzzle pointed to our temples, helpless, because no one will reach out and take away our gun.
In the week following the attacks of 9/11, we New Yorkers moved about our fragile, broken city, frightened but determined. We stopped to hug friends and strangers alike. We were united in a grief which had been fashioned not into a weapon but into the action of compassion: We donated blood. We baked for our local firehouses. We listened. We comforted. We took the subway and grocery shopped and walked our children to school and got on with the living because choosing life over death and hatred and despair was a defense far stronger than anything a gun could offer. It was the defiance of hope. That first week, as I walked, weeping, past the ubiquitous “Missing” flyers stuck to every building wall, every light pole, every mailbox, I saw a sticker on the side of a dumpster. It said, simply, “I will not be terrorized.”
And that’s what Donald Trump and Wayne LaPierre and Second Amendment fetishists get wrong: They believe the only response to terrorism is to up the ante with more and more guns, until there is so much blood we can no longer see anything but carnage, and so carnage becomes our accepted landscape. America, America, from sea to bloody sea. They believe we must aim our guns toward a nebulous enemy while ignoring the ugly truth: We have trained them on ourselves.