By Scott Kirwin
I am a recovering hoplophobe. I grew up fearing guns and actively supported gun control and voted for the politicians who promised it. But reality has a way of seeping into our fantasies no matter how elaborate. This is the story of how I went from gun grabber to gun owner in less than 20 years, starting from an experience in front of a gun and ending behind one.
My last year of college I lived in a predominantly gay neighborhood in San Diego. A group of guys were going around bashing gays, jumping them, beating them with baseball bats and stabbing them. A teenage boy not much younger than me was jumped and killed less than a block from my apartment. I don’t even think he was gay. He was just a boy in the wrong place at the wrong time.
That was the first time I ever questioned my anti-gun upbringing and stances.
Ironically soon after this I was held up at gunpoint as I was closing down the video store I worked at in a very wealthy neighborhood. My last customer of the night was chatting me up to get recommendations, then settled on John Hughes’s Career Opportunities and Playboy Sexy Lingerie 3. As I was checking him out I asked him for his credit card. He threw a paper bag at me, pulled out what I later recognized was a .40 caliber semi-automatic hand gun. He told me to empty my register into the paper bag and don’t make any sudden moves or he would blow my “f***ing head off.”
The most awkward moment came when I filled up his bag with the day’s takings – about $530. I remember looking around for anything to protect myself with and the only thing I had was the heavy office phone. I knew that if he ordered me to the back of the store I would resist. Years before I had worked at a pizza delivery shop that had been robbed awhile before. The employees had been ordered into the back and executed. I was making minimum wage, something like $4.25/hr and I was scared out of my mind.
I could see him thinking, but he ordered me to walk in front of him and lock the door behind him. I came around the counter and I remember he reached back and grabbed the VHS videotapes. He followed behind me, but at this point I knew he wasn’t going to kill me because there was traffic in the shopping center. I locked the door behind him and went back to the counter then dialed 911. It took the police just 10 minutes to arrive. On the one hand a great response time. On the other hand I could have been bleeding for that long.
The feeling of helplessness I felt in those seconds while he waited to decide how to leave pretty much convinced me: I never wanted to put my fate in someone’s hands like that ever again. But I left the country and lived abroad, and it wasn’t until 10 years later that my boss took me and a colleague out to the gun range to fire my first gun.
Firing a gun washed away the last of my hoplophobia. In one night I fired pistols, revolvers and rifles of various calibers and I realized that guns were just tools, and like any tools they could be used or abused. It took a few years after that until I moved to a gun friendly state when I started owning guns and shooting regularly.
I was raised to hate and fear guns, and my mother was never comfortable discussing the fact that I not only owned them, but taught my kid how to shoot. Guns are a visceral issue that evoke strong responses. It’s hard to bridge the divide between those who hate them and want them banned and those who see them as integral part of their lives. I’m not sure it’s possible.
That brings up a problem with normality: once it is broken, it takes a long time for it to reassert itself. The odds of me being robbed again at that store were astronomical at that point. I probably was safer there with the increased police presence in the mall than I had ever been. But the illusion had been broken and it would take a very long time for it to rebuild. In fact since I quit the job, it never had a chance to.
Fast forward two decades and a black swan crashes through the window of reality, but the process is the same. An objective observer would see that my initial response to preserve reality as almost pitiful. What is different this time is that I am not 22 years old anymore, and I have seen my share of swans during that time. After the call to 911 I have firepower. Even though I am scared, I have responsibilities now and no ugly bird is going to make me break them. I assess the situation quickly and realize that my memory is fallible, so I chuck it. I decide that I don’t need it; I’m not going to waste my time trying to remember anything. Looking back I now realize that remembering is an act for the future. Allowing myself to forget gave me the freedom to focus on the “now.” In the little I have read about traumatic events, focusing on the present is high up on the “to do” list.
Assess the situation. Keep calm. I tend to speak quickly and loudly when I’m nervous so I intentionally slow down the cadence of my words. Keep everyone calm. Crack a bad joke even though no one feels like laughing. Talk about the weather. Whatever it takes to keep everyone – including myself – from panicking. As a writer by instinct I feel myself observing myself, but that is also a task for the future; better to stay in the moment, the now. Time stretches, knees knock, keep scanning the darkness. “Safeties off?” “Yes,” I command. We are locked and loaded. The past is written, the future no longer exists. In the dense fog, in the belly of the swan, waiting for what must happen to happen.