Grumpy about guns and courage

My heart clenched tight yesterday as I read the blurb off Yahoo’s home page about the nine-year-old girl who accidentally killed the shooting instructor who was showing her how to use an Uzi submachine gun. All just part of a Vegas bus tour. It’ll be the Story of the Day for 48 to 72 hours, with incessant commentating, opinionating, and diatribing, all of which I imagine is going to be polarizing, politicizing, and infuriating. Everyone in the gun debate will spin and distend this situation, until suddenly it’s forgotten. I intend to scrupulously avoid all of the follow-on news-cycle bibble babble. It adds no value to my life and my thinking. 

As the mother of my own lilliputian nine-year-old girl, I find myself fixating not on the dead instructor (who presumably knew the risks when he placed a powerful weapon into the hands of a little girl) or the parents (who I feel must be ignorant or fools or both) or the extreme gun rights lobby (which I consider to be insane). My thoughts run to the child, that poor little child, whose super fun adventure with an Uzi automatic went all wrong. I imagine her standing there next to the man she just shot, wondering what in the world just happened as blood pours out of his head. I don’t have to just imagine it. If I want to, I could watch the video. I don’t want to. I don’t want to watch a child kill a man, however accidentally. I imagine that child in the years to come, dealing with the simple fact that she killed a human being for no good reason at all. Will she be ruined? Will she forgive her parents?

It’s not her fault, of course. It’s the fault of her parents, of the instructor, of a culture that says it’s FUN for a small child to shoot off a lethal automatic Uzi that she isn’t strong enough to control. When I ponder what this country’s gun fetish is all about, I always land at the opinion that non-criminal people who love-love-love their guns think of guns as an expression of righteous courage and strength, in the manner of super-heroes like Batman or Rambo who use weapons to take out the bad guys. 

Those cartoon characters are, of course, fake.  Guns don’t speak true courage to me. Holding one wouldn’t make me feel more in command of my life or the world around me. Guns don’t make us mighty. They just make us lethal.

My mom taught me about courage and guns when I was 13, though it was many years before I understood the lesson fully. My parents had recently purchased a mom-and-pop liquor store. It was summer, and Mom and I were at the store together during the day. A man came in and walked to the counter. I greeted him and asked if I could help him. He pulled a large gun with a long barrel from under his jacket and pointed it at me. He told me to give him all the money.

I don’t have a clear linear memory of what happened next, but these are the things I remember. I was paralyzed. My mom walked deliberately over next to me behind the counter, but not too close. She stopped a few paces away and was still as a stone. She looked the man in the eye and spoke calmly. “Please don’t point the gun at her. You can put the gun away. We’ll give you the money. You don’t need the gun.”

The man turned the gun and his eye toward Mom as she spoke. Mom didn’t say anything to me, but I knew what to do. I opened the register and started pulling money out. I asked the man if he wanted it in a bag. He said yes, and as he spoke he turned the gun back toward me.

My mom interceded again. She was still calm, and she spoke quietly. “She’s my daughter. Please. She’s only 13. Don’t point the gun at her. Point the gun at me.” She tapped her chest with the fingers of her two open hands, like a gentle directive or an open-handed namaste. “Please.”

My memory’s eye tells me that something changed in the man’s face. Mom had reached him. He answered her gently. “Don’t worry. I won’t hurt her.”  He turned the gun away from me and it never returned. It stayed on Mom. I didn’t feel in danger anymore. I gave him the money. He left.

Mom must have called the police, because they came and all that. I don’t remember any tears or histrionics, except that once I cried a little when a police officer questioned me intensely about what sort of gun the man was carrying. I knew nothing about guns. “I don’t know!!” I wailed after the fourth or fifth question, breaking down into tears for a few seconds. I thought he had decided I was a liar because I didn’t know what to call the gun. The cop relented and patted my back. 

That’s really the only kindness I remember in the wake of the hold-up. I don’t remember Mom holding me after the thief left the store. I don’t remember special hugs or kisses from my parents or family. I don’t remember anyone really asking me how I was doing in the days that followed. Maybe it happened, but I don’t remember it. We just returned to life as normal.

I thought I was very brave through the ordeal. I was pretty calm and my hands didn’t shake much when I was giving the man the money. Other than that moment with the police, I never cried. Afterwards, I thought it was kind of cool that I survived a hold-up. I’d tell people about it and say how scared I had been at first, but then make a joke out of how I asked the guy if he wanted the checks and the change. What was I thinking, ha ha ha ha.

Mom, on the other hand, was a drama queen. She moped about the house for days, her face set in a grim, closed mask, her thoughts trapped tight inside her as she lay on the sofa staring at the ceiling or a wall. I got kind of irritated with her. I mean, I was just 13 and I was handling it so much better than her!

It wasn’t until many, many years later that the lens through which I saw her — and myself — turned into better focus. Mom saw a deadly weapon pointed at her daughter. In that moment, she must have drawn on every ounce of her courage to silence her fears and speak as my advocate. She placed herself in between me and death, not with a lunge toward a weapon but with a practical choice. If a bullet had to fly, she simply wanted it for herself, not me.  

Mom never held it over me or crowed about her behavior. She never again mentioned the fact that she was ready to die for me. I never felt bad about it. In fact, until quite recently I didn’t even appreciate it. To this day, I’ve never thanked her for that moment in our lives. She never asked me to. It pains me to wonder on this. 

I used to think I was just inherently brave and strong because of the way I handled the hold-up. That’s horse shit. The fearlessness I experienced was gifted to me from Mom when she spoke for me, stood in for me. That man didn’t take a thing that mattered when he walked out that storefront. He didn’t take anything from me emotionally. Mom’s courage built a wall around me that he and his gun couldn’t surmount.

Would I have felt safer if my mom had pulled a gun out from under the counter and tried to kill the man? Not hardly. If he had been hell-bent on killing us, would a gun behind the counter have saved us? Probably not. And if Mom had shot and killed that man, what lesson would I have learned? That holding on to a drawerful of cash is worth a person’s life? Neither of my parents believed that, and I don’t either.

I see photos of these idiots wandering around in shops with rifles slung over their shoulders, acting like they’re making some stand for safety and order. Do those fetishists really think any of us are safer because of their weapons? I’ll take my mom’s style of courage over one of those swinging dicks any day. She never reached for a gun when I was 13. She didn’t throw herself in front of me or make a scene. There were no heroics. Mom did something far more courageous, more powerful than any of that. She stood her ground, defenseless and in peace, simply asking a man to show a little compassion and, well, kill her instead of me if it came to that. What a thing.

I won’t be putting guns in the hands of my children. I won’t teach them that it’s fun to shoot guns or that guns are cool. I won’t teach them that it’s okay to kill someone over a fistful of dollars. I intend to teach them that they don’t need guns in an ordinary life to be brave and powerful protectors. They’ll do better with passionate, peaceful souls. And I’ll continue dreaming of a world in which little girls don’t ever get to play with Uzis.  

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3 thoughts on “Grumpy about guns and courage

  1. I love this post. Your mom was so amazingly brave. You were also amazingly brave. The part where the thief put the gun away, told your mother he wouldn’t hurt you…that was amazing.

    I also thought of that poor girl when I read the story. I feel badly for the instructor, for although he should have known better, he is still dead. I feel badly for his family, who now have to live in a world without him. I feel badly for her family, who will likely go broke paying for therapy. Ugh. Poor kid. So tragic, and not likely something she’ll easily get over.

  2. Amazing essay. Your mother was incredibly brave and I totally get how it took you until the grown-grownup years to see exactly how. Looking through the prism of parenthood changes about 90% of my childhood, seen in retrospect.

  3. You were a brave young girl, and your Mom a brave woman, and you both survived.
    I am sorry for that little girl who will forever have to live with the memory and pain of that awful event, although the fault lies with all the adults involved. What a legacy to leave your kid…

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