I have never told the story of my father’s death in a public forum but today I found myself on a train, struggling with the same sadness and anxiety surrounding today’s tragedy in CT and a similarly unsettling incident in my own city a few days ago. Even on good days, it can be hard to battle the feeling that the world is going to hell or, worse, will be ending sometime in the foreseeable future. But I’m here to say that there are both hope and life after tragedy. I know this because my father was a gunman.
Coincidentally, this week is the 25th anniversary of the night my father was killed. My mother had decided to leave my father after years of dysfunction, taking my sister and I somewhere so she could sort out our mess of a home. My father was addicted to crystal meth and the week before had been witness to the accidental suicide of one of his friends by way of Russian Roulette. Upon realizing that we were gone, my dad spiraled into a physically destructive frenzy, taking one of the many guns that were in the house and channeling his meth-fueled sadness into any inanimate objects that got in his way, including and especially photos of my mother. My neighbors called the cops upon hearing gunfire and soon the police were trying to coax him out of the house.
My father was ready to die by his own hands and was in the midst of a standoff with the local police, gun to head. What happened after that I had to read in The Oregonian articles I was sent only a few years ago, which is also where the word ‘gunman’ was used to describe my father. Apparently, as soon as the SWAT team arrived my father had taped a flashlight to the top of a rifle (it was night time) and began pointing it in desperation at everyone behind a police car, begging them not to come any closer or he’d shoot. And they did, so he did. As soon as a shot was fired, the SWAT team did what they had to do: Tennessee vs. Garner in the use of deadly force. In other words, shoot to kill.
The positive side of this, if you look hard enough, is that he didn’t succeed in killing anyone other than himself. And I do believe he was on a suicide mission, albeit distorted and amplified by the effects of a terrible substance. I spent many years looking for someone or something to blame, anything to make sense of the loss of my father. Nothing fit. I am not a cop-hater and I believe many drug-scheduling laws are Band-Aids for a larger problem. The truth is, there is no one to blame. But I’d be lying if I didn’t keep returning to the same question I had when I was too young to understand anything more than “my daddy is gone”: why were there guns in the house? And, more specifically, how was a man with a criminal record of domestic abuse and a documented meth habit allowed to keep guns in the same house as his wife and two young children? My father’s guns were legal and no one in the criminal justice system, with which he was very well acquainted, ever stepped in to say otherwise.
I believe in gun control. I would like to think we could live in a world where guns don’t exist. Sure, those bent on hurting people would find other tools to do the job but they would have to do it with their hands using something that isn’t DESIGNED to end life. There wouldn’t be the anonymity and the video game-like quality that seems to define these tragedies. Many might not find as much comfort in that as I do, but murder probably isn’t going away and at the very least people should be able to defend themselves on a level playing field. Dark, I know.
I believe in the 2nd amendment – the original, championed by Thomas Jefferson, not the version the NRA has exploited to the fullest extent of people’s ignorance. The one that would allow citizens to rebel against a government by way of a “well regulated militia” and a well-trained one at that – as in, a state’s right to defend itself from a federal government, not citizens to “protect” themselves from other citizens by way of a skewed modern vigilantism. It’s a contract with our federal government and nothing more, but the prevalence of the latter over the former is heartbreaking.
My father was 27 when he died. In the same way I’m grateful I didn’t have ready access to the Internet as a hormonal, angst-ridden, opinionated teenager, I am grateful that I have grown up without guns. I would like to think that anyone who has made it through their 20’s can in some way identify with the heavy weight of existence and awareness of human mortality, but for those who haven’t, that shit ain’t easy. Struggling with the cycle of depression, I have been fortunate to have access to emotional support and positive resources, buoyed by a few vices I need not name here. Growing up in this developed, wealthy country with a fraction of the social services our allies have – specifically access to affordable health care, medical and mental – is enough to sink even the strongest of swimmers. Not everyone has healthy outlets or affordable ways to medicate and, unfortunately, these things are not popular currency amongst those at the top or those that govern. This country has become the perfect petri dish for desperation.
For this reason, I still think of my father as a normal guy. He was a 27-year-old father of two; a young husband who struggled to shake the demons of addiction, despair and the weight of adult responsibility in a flawed system; and a human who wanted to find a modicum of peace somewhere, anywhere. Just like EVERY other person I know. He had too many of the wrong tools and not enough of the right ones. Knowing that, he will never be a gunman to me but simply a man with a gun.