This is a very thought-provoking and interesting article by a man whose son was killed in a random act of gun violence. Although it is mentioned in a photo caption, the fact that his daughter also died in a gun-related incident is not discussed in the story. This one will make you think.
- Does having a gun make you more safe or less safe?
- Should people who follow Jesus use guns?
- Should gun ownership require a license like a drivers license?
A Gun Killed My Son. So Why Do I Want to Own One?
By Gregory GibsonNov. 6, 2017
To be clear, there was nothing I could’ve done to save him. It’s just a fantasy that has been circling my brain in a holding pattern for decades — that somehow I could have intervened.
On the evening of Dec. 14, 1992, a student armed with a semiautomatic rifle fired into the guard shack at the entrance to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., seriously wounding the guard stationed there. Moments later a car pulled up to the guard shack and the killer shot point-blank into the car’s side window. The driver died instantly and the car ran off the road. Someone heard the noise and rushed into the college library to report the accident. My son Galen, a sophomore at the college, rushed out the door to help. The shooter was waiting there, at the end of the sidewalk. Galen was hit twice; the chest shot was fatal. He staggered back into the library and died.
If my pistol and I had somehow been on the scene that night, no matter how highly trained we might’ve been, it’s likely we’d have rushed out the door to see if we could render assistance in the reported auto accident. The killer would still have been there, and I’d have been shot instead of my son. Small comfort in that.
A few years ago, I was flying home to Massachusetts from the West Coast with a copy of The New Yorker to keep me company. As the cocktail cart approached, I came upon an article about Henry Worsley’s doomed attempt to walk alone and unaided across the continent of Antarctica. He was a distant relative of the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s comrade Frank Worsley, and he was obsessed with the idea of honoring those legendary explorers by repeating the journey. Exhaustion and illness brought him to a halt a mere 30 miles short of his goal. He was rescued and flown to Punta Arenas, Chile, but he died in the hospital of bacterial peritonitis.
The author at a friend’s home in the woods where he practices at a makeshift range.Damon Winter/The New York Times
Sitting in my comfy red-eye cocoon at 35,000 feet reading of his agonies on the ice, and of his even more agonizing decision to call for help so near the end of his walk, the poignancy of Worsley’s story brought tears to my eyes. Then I thought of his wife and two children, and everything else he’d left behind, and my moist-eyed mood lifted. Why would anyone with so much to lose attempt such a stunt? Though the article never explicitly said as much, I could imagine only one explanation for Henry Worsley’s crazy walk: He was using the continent of Antarctica and the extremity of the conditions he imposed upon himself to explore unknown regions of his psyche, his own interior portal to a vaster, universal interiority. I thought, Ah! That’s just what I’m doing! Then I fell asleep.
Since that night I have had occasion to think of Henry Worsley.
My progress from survivor of gun violence to practitioner of defensive shooting proceeded in the same manner as Worsley’s epic disaster.
Down at the pistol range, for example — a subterranean hall reminiscent of a bowling alley — firing my 9-millimeter Sig Sauer P320 at a man-sized paper silhouette during an advanced gun skills class. The air-treatment fans are running full blast, but about a dozen of us have been shooting for hours. I can taste the sweetness of vaporized lead in the back of my mouth.
Considering the role that guns have played in my life, such moments need explaining, and the Worsley trope is helpful in this regard. I could even imagine that my progress from traumatized survivor of gun violence to practitioner of tactical defensive shooting proceeded in the same manner as Worsley’s epic disaster — step by step.
My son’s killer was a fellow student, a sophomore in the throes of a psychotic break. The administrators at Simon’s Rock had seen the clearly labeled ammo package arrive in that morning’s mail, and an anonymous call to a member of the staff warned that the killer had a gun and was planning to use it. But school shootings weren’t seen as a national crisis in 1992; the dean and the administration hadn’t been trained in active-shooter response because that body of knowledge didn’t really exist back then. Those administrators were ill-equipped to prevent the shooting.
I was so furious at their failure that I sued the college. But the painstaking process of legal discovery served also as a trek through the sources of my grief. Eventually I realized that there was no redemption in revenge. I made peace with the college and became involved in the gun-violence-prevention movement, sharing my story with anyone who would listen. My relationship with guns at that time was uncomplicated. I’d hunted as a kid and I’d received basic firearms training when I joined the Navy in 1967, but like many people in the liberal circles in which I traveled, I believed that guns were stupid and awful and that there was something fundamentally wrong with people who liked to use them.
A family photo showing the author’s son Galen, who was later killed in a shooting at college, and his sister Wendy, who committed suicide using a gun shortly after this photo was taken.Damon Winter/The New York Times
However, after 20 years of advocacy I was beginning to realize that something else was fundamentally wrong. I had always assumed that once people heard firsthand of the misery that a gun had caused, they’d be motivated to support laws that would prevent such tragedies from happening to anyone else. I kept believing this, and I kept telling my story, and Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora kept happening. On Friday in Virginia Beach, a city worker killed at least 12 people.
I’d been told repeatedly that my arguments for gun control had little credibility because I knew nothing about guns.
The real breaking point for me though, was, Dec. 14, 2012 — the 20th anniversary, to the day, of Galen’s murder — 20 children and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook elementary school. An avalanche of heartbreaking stories poured forth and still America did nothing. This nothingness inspired me, in the howling void of my survivor’s journey, to alter my course.
I’d been told repeatedly by gun owners — often from the back of whatever crowd I was addressing — that my arguments for gun control had little credibility because I knew nothing about guns or gun culture. Eventually I came to see some truth in that assertion. If there was a gun culture of Second Amendment zealots, there was also an opposing gun-control culture made up of people who knew little about guns except that guns were bad. People, in other words, like me.
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Growing More Divided
Percent who say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership, by party.
Received wisdom had it that the two sides in the gun control “debate” would eventually hammer out a consensus resulting in “sensible” gun legislation that would “respect the Second Amendment” while making it harder for criminals and would-be mass murderers to get guns. But now it seemed that the implied dialectic was a sham, and that in fact the two sides were locked in a sterile opposition from which no consensus would ever emerge. America was in the midst of a culture war, not a debate. We were muddling our bloody way toward some new identity as a people, or perhaps our dissolution as a people, and no survivor’s story would change that. For the first time since Galen’s death, I saw the situation in a different light. That implied a step in the right direction, but I needed more information.
The long and the short of it is that I bought a gun.
I didn’t just rush out and buy one; I took my time doing research. I had conversations with people at gun shows. I read gun magazines and spent hours on YouTube watching guys take guns apart and put them back together and blast the bejesus out of bottles full of colored water. I watched women shoot, and men and boys and girls shoot. And I have to admit, I did not care for these people and their guns. I found them aesthetically displeasing. But I stuck with it, and eventually it became somewhat more interesting to watch, for example, the YouTube video of the lady in Texas with the pink Beretta, or the guy shoulder bumping his AR so that it fired as if it were on full auto.
I signed up for the gun-safety course at my local gun club. In Massachusetts, this training was required by law to apply for a firearm license. Ninety-five dollars bought me a morning of instruction followed by a few minutes of wrapping my hands around cold steel (polymer, actually) and firing a real gun. It was an exciting moment for me and it was marked by an unusual occurrence.
Somehow, during the live-fire part of the course, an empty brass casing — probably from the pistol of the student next to me — found its way into the right pocket of the vest I’d worn to class. I didn’t discover it until that afternoon, when I put my hand in the pocket and pulled out an expended .22 shell. I put it back in my pocket, and every time I stuck my hand in there I rolled the little brass cylinder around in my fingers. This produced an excitement from a place I could not identify.
Lax Laws, More Deaths
States with fewer gun restrictions had higher death rates from firearms. Most of the correlation is because of deaths from suicide, not homicide.
firearm deaths per 100,000 people
I wore that vest to the police station a few days later. There, after surrendering my fingerprints, and producing my driver’s license and the certificate from my gun course, I filled out the requisite paperwork and had an interview with a police officer regarding my application. I had been advised to answer “for all legal purposes” as my reason for obtaining a license, but she didn’t ask me why I wanted to carry a gun. Instead, we bantered about local issues and characters and that was that. Some states are “shall issue” states, in which the local chief of police must issue a license to carry a firearm to any qualified applicant. Massachusetts is a “may issue” state, in which the chief has some discretion. This woman was his shrewd representative. A couple of weeks later I got a call from her. My license had come in.
When the weather warmed I visited my local gun shop and saw, in a glass case, a Ruger LC9s, a small 9-millimeter handgun that had gotten good reviews in the gun magazines. I’d already decided that I should begin my gun career with something modest, and this stubby little thing had an unassuming look to it. I took a calming breath and asked the guy behind the counter if I could handle the gun.
A 9-millimeter shell casing that the author carries with him.Damon Winter/The New York Times
Soon I found myself engaged in a distinctly American rite of passage. I produced my driver’s license and my recently acquired class A large-capacity license to carry firearms. The salesman gave me a form on which I entered my personal information and checked the “no” box next to each of a number of questions intended to ascertain my fitness to own a gun. Was I a drug addict? Had I ever been “adjudicated as a mental defective?” I could have been as disturbed as the kid who thought God was commanding him to kill my son, but if my criminal record was clean and if I kept a straight face, it’s possible the purchase would have gone forward.
I was the father of a gun-murdered child and I had purchased a gun. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.
Pro-gun people are always talking about fixing the mental health system, but concrete proposals are in short supply. Meanwhile, the mental health community is fiercely protective of patient privacy, and these interests can run counter to the reporting necessary for any background check to be effective. The salesman took my paperwork into the back room, where he checked the six-digit PIN on my firearms license against the computerized state database and ran my information through the F.B.I.’s national instant criminal background check system. Fifteen minutes and a few hundred dollars later, I was an official gun owner.
Then I knew precisely the word for the feeling that shell casing gave me every time I felt for it in my vest pocket. The word was “transgressive” and the effect was steroidal. I was the father of a gun-murdered child and I had taken a gun course and obtained a gun license and purchased a gun. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this, but I was doing it anyway.
One other realization accompanied the rush of power that surged through me. When you walk down the street knowing you are lethal, there can be no such thing as a “modest” gun. That was why the little Ruger remained so long in a drawer in my desk, rendered inoperative by a cable gun lock strung through its innards. Weeks passed before I was able to muster up the courage to try shooting the thing.
I looked at the gun. My hands were trembling.
I have a friend who lives in the woods about half an hour from my house. Over the years he’d cleared a sort of firing range on which he practiced for the deer season, and when I explained my quest to him, he invited me to use it. We took a long walk through the field below his house to a pallet leaned up against a pile of rocks. A bullet-scarred squeeze clamp at the top of the pallet held a paper bull’s-eye. Twenty paces and turn. The gun barked and jumped in my hand; the target escaped unscathed. Ten paces forward. Same result. Five more, down to 15 feet now, and a hit. Then a miss, then another hit.
After a few more rounds the muscles in my shoulders and neck began to ache. Standing sweating in the tall grass, mosquitoes humming around my ears, I looked at the gun. My hands were trembling. My loathing of guns had collided with my determination to master them. The impact was devastating.
Or was it? I recalled one of the more urbane YouTube gun gurus explaining that people have a natural aversion to holding things that explode. He illustrated his point by extending a lit firecracker at arm’s length in front of his face, which was exactly how it felt each time I yanked on the trigger. He referred to the phenomenon as “reactive interference” and the cure for it was … I couldn’t remember what the cure for it was. It probably involved signing up for his online gun tutorial. That night I found the business card of a firearms trainer that the salesman at the gun shop had given me. I called the man and we scheduled an introductory session at an indoor range not far from my house.
His name was Jerry. He was about my height, a little past middle age, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper haircut and matching mustache. He told me he was a retired A.T.F. agent. He worked with a security firm and also trained civilians and professionals in everything from basic safety to advanced tactical shooting.
I told him my story about the death of my son, my advocacy work and my belief that this work could not be properly carried forward without learning about guns. He nodded solemnly, taking it all in, his eyebrows arching slightly at the “dead son” part. I noticed this reaction only because I was watching for it. Galen’s death carries a peculiar power, potentially as deep as the grief that accompanies it. Over the years I’ve learned to deploy that power in a sort of grief-into-anger-into-action judo. I continue to believe that my attempts to turn dreck into gold give Galen, wherever he is, great satisfaction.
Jerry was an excellent teacher, full of stories, and somehow he imparted a calmness, a sense of control. He grinned and wiggled his index finger in front of my nose. “This is the only thing that will make the gun fire.” I scheduled a second lesson, and as my schoolboy hunting days came back to me, I began to experience the Zen of the whole thing — the stance, the breathing, the focus, the squeeze. Then the acknowledgment from the pistol, which seemed almost jovial once I got used to it. An affirmative punch back at me. There, now. Look what we’ve done!
At the end of that lesson Jerry and I got to chatting. I asked him what he thought about the most recent mass shooting and he said, “It scares me.”
“Every time these shootings happen, people run out and buy a gun, but not many of them will take the trouble to learn how to use it. Now when I go to the mall I get the creeps. All those guns in pockets and purses.”
A few months after my lessons with Jerry, I was able to purchase a .40-caliber double action/single action pistol in a private sale from the family of a local man, recently deceased. My friend’s woodland retreat rang with gunshots that fall.
Eventually I attained a modicum of proficiency with my two pistols. They no longer seemed alien or perverse. Shooting had become — dare I say it? — therapeutic. I was mastering the instrument of my suffering. Still, I could no more think of carrying a loaded gun on my person than I could imagine wearing a live chain saw.
Checking his results at the practice range.Damon Winter/The New York Times
Then Betsy DeVos came into my life.
Actually, Parkland came first. In February 2018, following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., President Trump suggested arming teachers. “You give them a little bit of a bonus,” he said. “So practically for free, you have now made the school into a hardened target.” Then, that August, the Education Department and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that they were considering allowing states to use a grant called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program to finance the placement of guns in schools. Within a year, Florida and Texas passed bills allowing teachers, or increasing the number of teachers allowed, to carry guns in the classroom. The idea was out there, and it had taken root.
It took root in my imagination as well. Now, in that endless holding pattern of the re-enactment of Galen’s murder, appears Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, eyes wide behind those oversize eyeglasses, pulling a Baby Glock from her purse and going after the shooter. Or in her place, the librarian at the circulation desk, or the janitor. Or me. Again.
Except this time I have another reason for being there. I have a question: If we’re going to give guns to teachers so that they can kill the killers who want to kill the students, how much training will the teachers need to be able to kill the killers without accidentally killing the students they’re supposed to prevent the killers from killing?
I called Jerry.
So it was that I came to find myself engrossed in tactical defensive shooting, which proved to be at least as physically challenging and intellectually complex as mastering a flawless golf swing. My studies were also the occasion of a major surprise.
Jerry, the professional trainer of professional shooters, told me he thought arming teachers was a bad idea but that he’d take me and my project on. We had a relationship by this time and, full disclosure, I was paying him $50 an hour to get some sense of the kind and amount of training that an armed teacher would need to keep his or her students safe.
At first, under the pressure and urgency of my hypothetical teacher training, I had difficulty handling the guns. The Ruger was too small; I felt as if it might fly out of my hands. The .40 was difficult to operate with any speed or facility. I couldn’t accustom myself to the first hard pull on the trigger. To make matters worse, I’m left handed. All the controls for both of the guns were positioned for right-handed shooters.
Toward the end of the second session, Jerry went inside his equipment bag and came out with a pistol that was a little smaller than my .40-caliber. “Try this,” he said. “It’s simpler to operate and it’s ambidextrous.” He put the gun in my hand and it fit in a way the other guns had not. It was a Sig Sauer P320, the gun that had recently been selected as the Army’s official service pistol. I fired two or three rounds, then I didn’t want to give it back. After the lesson ended, I could not stop thinking about how right that gun had felt.
I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I liked that gun. I wanted it.
That was a measure of how far I’d come. I took the Ruger and the .40 down to the gun shop and swapped them for a Sig Sauer P320 chambered in 9 millimeters — identical to the gun Jerry had lent me — and went home feeling a little loopy. Like falling in love for the first time, at least in the sense that I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I liked that gun. I wanted it.
At his friend’s range with the Sig Sauer he decided was right for him.Damon Winter/The New York Times
My lessons proceeded apace, and after 20 hours of instruction and at least 30 more of practice on my own, I was comfortable enough to park my loaded gun in a hard plastic “appendix holster” inside my belt, beneath my shirt, pressing into my groin. I learned to extract it rapidly and safely, and shoot it more or less accurately, and reload and fire while turning, crouching, ducking in and out of concealment, never, ever, presenting a stationary target.
The only thing standing between me and mastery of tactical defensive shooting was me.
Throughout my training, with disconcerting irregularity, I would experience flashes of intense doubt, echoes of the first bad reaction that had come over me in my friend’s field. I’d be overwhelmed by the realization that my experiment with guns was a childish, self-indulgent fantasy, disrespectful of the life Galen had lost and of all that my family had suffered.
I stuffed gleaming brass slugs into their magazines as if I were fingering prayer beads.
My patient wife had some idea of what I was up to and found it distasteful in the extreme. My son, a burly, bearded contractor who looked like he should be the one with the Sig strapped on, thought I was nuts. A gun had killed his brother. Guns were stupid and awful and there was something fundamentally wrong with people who liked to use them. Of the three of them, my daughter seemed to have the most understanding of my Worsleyan venture. (I often wondered what hiskids thought of what he’d done.) As with all my other advocacy projects, I was expending time and treasure in Galen’s name. My family was proud of me for that, but it could not be denied that the time and treasure thus expended might otherwise have been spent on them.
What I was doing was wrong and it seemed wrongest when I had a gun in my hand, as happened one Saturday afternoon during one of Jerry’s training classes. We were between drills when the feeling came upon me. I stuffed gleaming brass slugs into their magazines as if I were fingering prayer beads and tried to talk myself down. I’m learning about guns so I can better understand the problem of gun violence in America, which will enable me to do a better job advocating against it. (Whatever “it” was — a riddle that grew more complex the more I learned.) Three magazines loaded with 10 rounds apiece. Then on to our next exercise, the mirror drill, in which a full-length mirror is positioned between two shooters. One draws and the other reacts to what he sees in the mirror. Usually it would take three minutes to shoot through a ten-round magazine this way. That day it felt like an hour.
Being the sort of person I am, I combed the literature for information that would help me make sense of what I was feeling. Eventually, inevitably, I encountered the writings of Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, pioneer researcher and scholar in the field of Killology (his designation, not mine, and a perfect example of his sometimes-tin ear). He is the author of “On Killing” and “On Combat” and is perhaps best known for an idea he discusses in those books that divides everyone into three distinct groups.
“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep,” he has written. “If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath — a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.”
It seemed corny and unscientific to me. But if, as an actual sheepdog might, you see the world in black and white, its humorless piety, self-righteous rectitude and complete absence of subtlety would seem appealing.
In fairness, Colonel Grossman has done groundbreaking work delving into the psychology and physiology of killing. One of the starting points of his study is the observation that although we have little difficulty bombing whole nations into the Stone Age, we are hard-wired against killing one another face to face. Was that the source of my yips? I was, after all, training to shoot people at close range.
There was another aspect, laid out in exquisite detail by Colonel Grossman, to this business of up-close-and-personal killing. When one is under the extreme stress of having to do so, the forebrain stops giving orders and yields to the hypothalamus, the stress control center. Bladder and colon involuntarily empty, and the autonomic nervous system kicks in. The adrenal glands release potentially damaging levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones. Blood pressure and respiration spike. Time seems to slow; nausea, auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and even temporary physical paralysis may ensue. Jerry never told us about any of that!
Post-Grossman I have a very different scenario of what takes place in my fantasy library in 1992. Professional trainers are largely in agreement that there’s really no predicting how a person will react in a combat situation. No matter how diligently Betsy DeVos and I might have prepared, we’d be in the midst of a giant mess.
That was it for me. I airlifted myself out of there.
Happily, I didn’t die of peritonitis in a hospital in southern Chile. I wound up in a house of worship in northern New England. In the preface to “On Combat,” Colonel Grossman wrote that he spends nearly 300 days a year traveling the country evangelizing the sheepdog mind-set. According to the Sheepdog Seminar website, he was coming soon to a church near Bangor, Me. I decided to go up there and hear what they had to say about the idea of people with guns keeping people safe from people with guns. One foot in front of the other.
A few of us were carrying openly; many more had pistols concealed in baggy cargo pants.
About 150 of us were gathered at Calvary Chapel, a large modern building across the river from Bangor. Mostly men of middle age and beyond, with a smattering of women and teenagers. A few of us were carrying openly; many more had pistols concealed in baggy cargo pants or beneath untucked shirts. Jimmy Meeks, a minister and the director of the seminar, scooted back and forth in front of us, an agitated, white-haired penguin of a man, making Fox News jokes, church jokes about the uselessness of deacons, even a New England Patriots joke about deflation. Then he gave us the real news: Our country was in a season of violence, a holocaust of unprecedented dimension. Immigrants were pouring over the border like a freight train. Angry people were everywhere. “Our Heavenly Father’s heart is broken over the violence,” he announced, looking up toward the presumptive source of this information. “Our Heavenly Father intends to respond to the violence.” He paused for a beat, then turned on the audience. “His response is … you!”
I had some acquaintance with Mr. Meeks. He’d called me shortly after I submitted my online application for the seminar, to tell me that he’d looked me up and learned that there was a Gregory Gibson in my town who’d lost a son in a school shooting. (Being good sheepdogs, I supposed, they researched every seminar applicant who hadn’t been vetted by the sponsoring church.) Was I that Gregory Gibson? I said that I was, and that he could call me Greg, since Gregory was merely my internet moniker, to distinguish me from the Major League Baseball umpire named Greg Gibson. That elicited a cackle and then a moan, as he told me how sorry he was for the unimaginable loss I had suffered. He was calling, he said, because he was concerned that I hadn’t understood the nature of the Sheepdog Seminar. It was primarily about how church people could keep their churches safe, though the information would be useful to anyone. He was worried that I might be traumatized by some of the material in the presentation.
Perhaps it was the twang in his speech, so fresh to my ear. The way he’d said, “It breaks my heart” gave me the feeling that if I had burst into tears at that moment, he would have wept with me. He began telling me his story. He was 61 years old, a retired cop and a preacher, Southern Baptist. There were issues with his family back home in Texas. He wanted so much to be there with them but he couldn’t stop traveling. He was driven by love. His voice wobbled. He took a breath and told me, “I’m a very emotional guy.” Despite my reservations about sheepdogs and preachers, I found myself falling for the Rev. Jimmy Meeks, calling me out of the blue the way he had, to be sure I wouldn’t be traumatized, to tell me how sorry he was for my loss and to share with me a glimpse of his own travails.
On either side of the stage at the front of Calvary Chapel was a big screen. “Matthew 10:17” appeared on both of them. Mr. Meeks read it, loud and slow, to be sure he had our attention. Then, for those of us — probably a minority — who hadn’t memorized chapter and verse, he flashed the text beneath it. “Be on GUARD against men; they will flog you IN their synagogues.” This was followed by a list of 50 headlines, also projected onto the screens, highlighting some of the “811 VIOLENT DEATHS” that had occurred on faith-based property since 1999.
Over the course of the two-day seminar, two case studies were presented and analyzed in detail by people who had shot and killed, or participated in the shooting and killing of, armed persons attempting mass murders. There were important things to be learned from these brave presenters, a great many things, ordered, elucidated and drilled into us by Jimmy Meeks — urging, weeping, scorning, confessing, praying. He called me out at one point, actually called my name and asked me to stand as he told my story, his voice quavering again. Poor planning. No training. Officials in denial. People approached me after that, shyly offering their condolences.
Yes, there would be guns, but the people carrying them would be the right people.
In the evening, at the end of the first day, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, hands over hearts, sang the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” with lyrics to all the verses projected onto those same screens that had listed the grisly church crimes. Then we prayed, as Jimmy admonished us, “with your eyes open and your heads up!” and I thought how sweet it would be, if Christ had ever come into my life, to be dwelling in the bosom of the church with these strange, earnest people. How comforting it would be to know what to do. To have a plan. Yes, there would be guns, but the people carrying them would be the right people, carefully selected, thoroughly trained. In that moment of communal prayer, I had no doubt that I could trust these people with guns.
Colonel Grossman joined us on the second day of the seminar. He was fit and wiry, constantly in motion, delivering his pitch, very much the military man, punctuating his utterances with “Do you understand?” — as much a command as a question. He had a growly way of speaking and a rhythmic vocal tic, a sort of grunt or “umph” that reminded me of a sheepdog’s affirmative “Ruff!” It pleased me to imagine that after decades of researching, formulating and evangelizing the sheepdog mind-set, Dave Grossman had become one.
He gave a brief pitch for his many books that pertained to the matter at hand. “Why Mommy Carries a Gun” is one title that stuck in my mind. Then he told us what he had learned from training soldiers, from desensitizing them to their natural aversion to killing up close. The terrible news he brought us on this day was that our national video game addiction was creating a generation of killers.
Guns had always been present in our society, he said, but there had been no multiple homicides by a juvenile in schools until the 1970s. Guns didn’t change; we changed. He talked the pioneering work of Dr. James McGee, a co-author of the groundbreaking “Classroom Avenger” study on school shooters. According to Dr. McGee, the one thing these young killers had in common was that they were loners, and, in Colonel Grossman’s telling, immersed themselves in “sicko movies and video games.” He described video games as a form of “pathological play” that rewarded the player for causing death. Colonel Grossman’s take on the research got more dire: Violent visual imagery actually changed the brains of players. Video games were digital crack. The media were taking no responsibility for the content they put out there. The mental health of an entire generation was a stake.
It was a chilling performance. I thought of my 7-year-old grandson, hunched over his tablet, keeping the world safe from zombies.
After it was over, Jimmy Meeks took me up to meet Colonel Grossman. I told him I’d read and been impressed by his work. He thanked me and inscribed a copy of one of his books for me. The book was about video games. It was called “Assassination Generation.”
As it happened, I had business in Washington the week after I attended the Sheepdog Seminar. And as it also happened, I knew Dr. James McGee, the expert to whom Colonel Grossman had alluded. I’d met him 20 years before at a seminar on school safety and threat assessment, and we’d become friends. I decided to visit him at his home outside Baltimore.
He’s a twinkly eyed, avuncular guy, with a record of achievement that belies his genial affect, including service as a recon Marine — their inside joke is that they’re the ones who show up when the SEALS dial 911. He is a trained hostage negotiator, special consultant to the F.B.I.’s critical incident response group, retired director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore and, charmingly, team psychologist for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1980s, including the year they won the World Series, with a big, clunky World Series ring to show for it.
According to Dr. McGee, giving guns to teachers doesn’t even merit serious discussion except in terms of bad outcomes. Cops become cops because they want to be cops. Teachers, by and large, do not want to become killers. But even in the hands of professionals, there was no guarantee of success. He told me that the accuracy rate of police officers in real gunfights is nothing to be confident about and that the accuracy rate in a classroom would be even worse because of the possibility of collateral damage, whereas the shooter would have no such concern. “Assumption of accuracy is not a deterrent for suicidal people,” he said. In Dr. McGee’s learned opinion, resources would be better spent on hardening targets (which, essentially, was the point of the two days I’d spent at the Sheepdog Seminar) and on threat assessment.
We sat in his living room sipping tea. A fluffy little dog and an exotic bobtail cat, both rescue animals, mooched around looking for treats or pats. Birds sang nesting songs outside and a spring breeze wafted through the room. We talked about Menninger’s triad (wish to die + wish to kill + wish to be killed), the duty of clinicians to warn of serious threats from patients, the work of Dr. David Phillips on cluster suicides, the media’s role in the increasing sophistication of classroom shootings and similarly grotesque topics. Much as the Rev. Jimmy Meeks had quoted scripture and Colonel Grossman had repeated “Do you understand?,” Dr. James McGee ended many of his utterances with “You can look it up.”
We went downstairs and admired his basement full of S-gauge and O-gauge model trains, laid out in switch yards and freight depots and small-town stations, tidy worlds in perfect miniature. We walked back to my car and talked about the road trip we’d take together some day, while we still could, and then I headed south.
That was when the trouble started.
Now, the wrongness of arming teachers was more than a mere notion.
As I drove, I thought about the ground I’d covered since deciding to become a gun owner. I’d assumed that my experiences along the way would lead to a deeper understanding of gun violence in America and that I would emerge at the end of my journey a more effective advocate of gun safety. I was therefore surprised to discover that in a certain sense, I hadn’t made any progress at all. I’d started out believing that giving guns to teachers was a bad idea, and here I was, driving down Interstate 95 thinking that there were things we could do to make schools safer but that giving guns to teachers was not one of them. I’d stumbled around in a circle and come right back to where I’d started.
Now, though, the wrongness of arming teachers was more than a mere notion. I’d tested my ideas with help from Jerry, Colonel Grossman, Mr. Meeks, Dr. McGee, Secretary DeVos and President Trump. (I’d been enraged by his “practically for free” statement about school safety. Only later did I realize how that rage had propelled me.) I’d also tested my theories with all the people I’d spoken with at gun shows, the gun shop clerks and habitués, and my fellow trainees — as good, bad and ugly as any random lot of folks, except that many of them saw no connection between gun violence and their own interest in guns.
I considered the power of the sad story I’d shared for all those years.
All of them would agree that what happened Friday in Virginia Beach was a revolting tragedy, but what did that have to do with what he was doing? For some, this decoupling of guns and gun violence was accompanied by a link between fear and demand. If the world was a threatening place and gun grabbers were going to make it impossible to get the guns we needed to protect ourselves, didn’t it make sense to get more while we still could? I know. It’s a minuscule sample size, but that’s not the point. There were consequences to all the interacting and information-gathering I’d been doing. What if the beliefs I’d encountered weren’t gun-nut pathology but simply a worldview oriented 180 degrees from the one to which I was accustomed?
I considered the power of the sad story I’d shared for all those years with hungry journalists who gobbled my suffering and pushed out content, and the pink-faced politicians brought to the verge of tears by the recitation of my sorrows, who then went out and voted against me. I considered my friend with the house in the woods. The first time I used his shooting range I asked him — this guy who routinely kills, butchers and eats the animals who share the forest with him — whether he wanted to take a few shots with my Ruger. He looked at the pistol and made a face. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’m good.”
I considered the fact that in hopes of becoming a more effective advocate, I had ceased advocating altogether. Now I was simply bearing witness. Where I’d expected fewer certainties, I discovered many more, and they all came in diametrically opposed pairs. My wife and children and I had lost our beloved Galen in the most hideous, random, wasteful way, and yet I could not see the world as a threatening place. I was a perfect sheep, except for the loaded gun nestled in my crotch.
Blacks and whites of the gun control debate smeared into gray. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with shooting, but even better (I thought!) at living in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, as if I had consumed America’s gun problem and now embodied it. But when it came to actual people and realistic approaches to the problem of gun violence, black and white were still worlds apart. Focusing on legislation as a means of reducing gun deaths felt to me like a project for white people — detached from the ways in which systemic racism and economic exclusion drove gun violence. I’d spent a fair amount of time doing advocacy work in urban neighborhoods. From talking with people there, I knew that when your main concern is raising money to bury your 14-year old son or getting the police to investigate the murder of your husband, crafting sensible gun legislation can seem like an afterthought.
I drove on, and the opposing terms in my internalized gun-violence “debate” began canceling one another out. Instead of synthesis or consensus, I was left with nothing. What was the point of advocacy, anyway? It hadn’t worked because it didn’t work. Nothing I could do would rid the world of sociopaths and criminals. By the time I reached my hotel in Washington, I was a wreck. Somehow, inadvertently, I’d succeeded in breaking myself down completely, much as Navy boot camp broke civilian recruits down before building us back up as sailors. I must confess that I experienced a few difficult weeks after my visit with Jim McGee. I’m just beginning to rebuild.
I think I’ll keep shooting. I enjoy it, and I want to see whether I can become more efficient and more accurate. And I’ll resume my advocacy work, but I’m going to go about it differently. As with school safety, there are things we can do to reduce gun deaths. Some of them will require education and cultural change, some can be addressed through legislation. Would every Second Amendment zealot have to lose a child in a preventable gun death to understand the sense in this?
It’s a terrible thought, and one I don’t need to think. I’m thinking instead of Jimmy Meeks’s God telling his flock that they were the answer. More than 125,000 people a year are killed or wounded by guns in America, and each of them is surrounded by friends, relatives and loved ones — a million people a year whose lives will never be the same because of that experience.
According to one poll, 58 percent of American adults have said that they or someone they care for has experienced gun violence. Those are the people I want to talk with now. That’s my church.
Randy Hoover-DempseyLearning More Every Day