On Madness 1/ On Guns 1/ On Death 1

I have a complicated relationship to guns. I don’t own any, currently, but I grew up around firearms– target shooting, skeet shooting, dove hunting. My father collects guns, has a huge safe full of guns that overflows into a small room that houses not only rifles, shotguns, and pistols but also ammunition, bayonets, sheath knives, hand axes, tonfa, kukri, bo staffs, ax handles, staves. My dad is a black belt in an obscure Chinese martial art. At his peak he could break six 1′ x 1′ x 1″ unseparated, dry pine boards with his bare hand, so the weird weapons make sense. My father’s weapons often have a pedigree– guns from WWI and WWII predominate– and he can tell you their history, their caliber, their bullets’ velocities and weights in grains. He used to load his own shells. He goes target shooting very occasionally, goes hunting maybe twice a year. He enjoys his collection quietly; if you show interest, he’ll happily show them to you, and he can talk for hours on this (or any other) subject.

I kind of wish he didn’t have the guns. Barring a zombie apocalypse, I don’t see anything good coming out of it and I can imagine some very bad scenarios. Without going into details, neither of my parents have had a perfect history with guns, lovely people that they are. And I know an expensive collection like the one in their basement makes them a target for thieves– armed thieves, I’d assume, or just my cousin with his tendency towards jail terms and bad company. He’s a gun collector too. I don’t think anything’s going to happen, but I don’t like it. My dad doesn’t go in for assault rifles, cannons, grenade launchers or the like, though. He is an officer of the court and has no criminal history; I figure he’d own the guns he owns even if there were a few gun ownership restrictions in place in this country.

Which, let’s face it, there aren’t. The few we have aren’t meaningful. No matter what day I’d written this in the last year, I could say that recent events prove this, and I’d be right. As it stands, the massacre in question was at The Pulse nightclub in Orlando. So there’s a catalyst for this essay.

More than one catalyst.

The other day, I was playing board games with some acquaintances– hopefully friends, in my new Left Coast home. The massacre had happened the night before. When one gentleman started complaining that politicians had the gall to talk about guns in the wake of a mass shooting. I politely asked him to stop talking politics and buy fake buildings for his fake suburb. After a couple false starts, he did, but he clearly resented my “restricting his freedom,” even though he understood that when people get killed by assault weapons emotions run high. If I’d wanted him to really understand my feelings about guns, I could have told him about my father, so he’d know I’d been taught to shoot when I was growing up, how to clean guns and store guns after firing them, to never point a gun I didn’t intend to fire.

And I could have told him about my friend C.

I’ve always hated the convention of replacing someone’s name with an initial, but I don’t think C’s family has fully explained what happened to their daughter/sister, and I respect their privacy. I also think her story deserves telling. Some of you might recognize the details. Let’s refrain from filling them in for the Internet’s benefit.

C was my friend from college. Always an odd bird (I am an odd bird, too) she was also smart and interesting to talk to; tall and beautiful, I was always flattered by her attention. She drank too much even for a college student– I was a teatotaler until after my 21st birthday, so I’m a poor judge… but it’s true– and she had a hunted quality to her that kept me from seeking out her company early and often. Still, we were friends, always happy to see each other and I liked her. I cared about her. She went on to get her PhD and I was proud of and happy for her. We emailed occasionally, friended each other of Facebook, lived far apart but kept in touch.

Her return to our home state seemed sudden. Her emails got very strange immediately before– references to an ex-boyfriend, to her father, to someone poisoning her, to a vast confusion that she was trying to run from that she always blamed on external forces. She said she’d called the police for help; she was furious they’d confiscated the pistol her father had given her.

We met over Christmas, hung out. It was good to see her, but something was off with every interaction. She couldn’t do her academic work anymore, couldn’t seem to concentrate. She floated between jobs, always needing help, food. She flirted with me outrageously, asked to meet my parents. I tried to keep my distance, but ended up introducing her to my family even as I avoided any other entanglements. Even though she had moved away from the home she thought was surrounded by secret intruders, her previous fear of mysterious stalkers and her father crept back into her life. Her behavior got stranger, coded with intense symbolism. She left sharp knives on her dining room table, so her imagined intruders would know they were not welcome. She forgot she’d hidden a knife in her car for self defense, was terrified that someone else had put it there. I recommended Tai Ch’i; she attended a couple classes. My old school’s sensei, a full-time airplane mechanic that I knew had harmlessly restrained much larger men at his workplace when they discovered his hobby, told me he was afraid of her after she lost control and slammed him into a wall. The eventual diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia made too much sense when it came. It broke C’s heart to know that I agreed with it. All she could hear was that I thought she was crazy. For the record, I thought she was ill and, because of her denial, hard to be around.

Listening to a show about a veteran with PTSD in a podcast this morning, I could hear C’s story too. Her illness was less about hallucination than complete forgetfulness, coupled with the terrible way a brain can fill in the details it has forgotten. In that podcast, I could hear the stress that having a brain that thinks it’s under attack gives you. I could hear the pain that comes with knowing that the world can turn into an attack at any moment, that meaning might slip away at any moment. The soldier’s story had two big things in common with C’s: a precipice and a gun.

In the soldier’s story– part of Snap Judgement’s “Voice of Reason” episode, so we’re clear– he has a friend nearby. He finds the strength to throw the gun off the cliff after his PTSD is violently triggered. C was alone, and her precipice was the highway overpass she hurled herself off of after a minor fender bender. She hit a woman’s car in a parking lot, and the lady lit into her. She just wanted to get away from the constant attacks she thought were always coming at her. Schizophrenia traumatizes a brain just as surely as military combat; it didn’t take much to set her off. When I spoke to her next she was trying to learn to walk again. I lived a couple hours away, and was a little bit afraid of her besides. She claimed to hate her family, lied about her problems to mutual friends, was terribly alone.

Always conscious of her appearance, C despaired when she started to gain weight because she couldn’t walk around. I was not there; I was in fact beginning the relationship that led to my marriage, my daughter– to this day, the best things in my life– spending 5 days a week with the woman who is now my wife. C had broken both of her legs, much of her spine. The pain was terrible. Her father and brother were both in law enforcement. They couldn’t stop giving her guns, taking them away again, giving her another one because she was so afraid and in their world guns cure fear. It wasn’t a relief or a surprise when I got the voicemail from her brother, saying I was on a list of people she’d asked to inform, my parents and I. There was no reasonable world where she should have had access to a gun, but she’d shot herself. Of course she had. I’ve imagined it many times, her tears or her cold certainty as she pulled the trigger. Sometimes I’m still angry about it. I hope it was over fast.

I don’t want to “take away people’s guns.” I don’t support gun control because of some abstract ideology, but because guns are too easy to find; they kill people. I’ve lost more friends to accidental overdose than to guns. Some of them I miss more than C. Still, as of this writing, there have been 186 mass shootings in the U.S. in 2016 alone. The year’s half over. Every time, there’re multiple people injured; there’s usually someone dead. When people talk about guns and the politics of guns, I think about C. Some people shouldn’t have guns, any guns at all. And yes, any change at all might cause new problems.

I’m done with the old problems. Bring on the new.