Yes, It Is About the Gun
“I could shoot the nuts off a hummingbird at a hundred yards.” It was the kind of thing my father, a retired Master Gunnery Sergeant in the Marines, was fond of saying about his once-expert marksmanship. Ironically however, for all of my youth, guns were off-limits—I once caught wicked hell for shooting a BB gun with an adult neighbor—though they were undoubtedly a big part of my father’s military life. It wasn’t until I was in my thirties and doing research for a novel I was writing that he finally took me to the range and shared his expertise with me. I fired a Taurus Judge that day—a .45 caliber revolver that doubles as a shotgun—a semi-automatic rifle, and another handgun. Turns out I was pretty good, though I figured the hummingbirds were probably safe.
My wife and I started going to the range together too. Initially, we rented our guns, but it quickly became clear that wasn’t cost effective. After just a handful of visits, we’d have spent enough to pay for our own gun, so we began to discuss the possibility of buying one. I got my license, and for my subsequent birthday, my wife bought me a sleek and reliable 9mm Glock 17 as well as (though we have no children) a gun safe.
The gun safe plays a central role to this story, and for you to understand why, I’m going to have to get a little bit personal and share an uncomfortable truth with you: I have a mental illness. I’ve been on a rotating cocktail of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for many years to control both depression and anxiety. Before them, I spent far too much of my time dissuading myself from listening to the awful little voice in my head encouraging me to drive into oncoming traffic. My mental health is currently well controlled, but that hasn’t always been the case, and sometimes, as I’m acutely aware, the medications lose their effectiveness.
So, at my insistence, we came to an agreement. I would never have immediate access to the gun while I was alone. My wife would set the combination and would be the gatekeeper for my new, matte-gray G17. Now don’t get me wrong, short of defending my life or that of someone in my family, I could never conceive of a scenario in which I might use this weapon to take another life. But what about my own? While certainly not likely, especially while effectively medicated, I remember the urgency and persuasion of that inner voice all too well. I also know the statistics—over 60% of all gun deaths in America are suicides, and roughly half of all suicides in the U.S. are committed with a gun. In this case, it is probably more likely that I’d take my own life than that I’d ever need to use it for self-defense. This is, unfortunately, a consideration I had to weigh, and we therefore enacted this failsafe.
After yet another seventeen people were tragically killed in a Parkland, Florida, school shooting on February 14, 2018, the conversation surrounding gun control and mental health has reached a critical mass. “It’s not about the guns, it’s about mental illness,” many say—a common refrain for those looking to shift the topic away from the sometimes difficult conversations about background checks, assault weapon bans, safety and proficiency training and the like. Brave students from Stoneman Douglas high school are leading the charge for reform, and for once it feels like there may be finally be some measure of traction on this infinitely slippery slope.
Every day comes the barrage of chants of “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” and “Taking away their guns won’t do any good. If they really want to do it, they’ll just find another way.” Meanwhile, my gun is locked securely in my safe, protecting me from myself. If I really wanted to take my own life, there are dozens of ways I might do it: pills, carbon monoxide, razor blades, the bathtub… And yet, the only thing I lock safely away is my gun. Why? Because it is the easiest way. It is accurate, efficient, quick, painless (if I do it right), and largely foolproof. My gun is the only thing in the house that is expressly designed to kill, and I lock it away for all the same reasons that these men (and they’re almost always men) are using it to shoot up and terrorize schools and other venues across the country: because it is the most effective, deadly method available.
Is there an established causality between mental illness and gun violence? Recent analysis of more than 200 mass killings has revealed that only 22 percent of the perpetrators could be considered mentally ill (statistically speaking, right about the same density as mental illness sufferers in the general population). But, despite all prevailing evidence to the contrary, mental illness is still the scapegoat of choice. My own mother has used it to push back against the surging demands for reform. And in the process of blaming mental illness, we’re further stigmatizing the nearly 20 percent of Americans suffering with a wide-array of psychiatric disorders. If mental illness were truly the cause, the bullets might never stop flying. Most with mental health issues will never commit a crime, nor raise a hand in violence to another, but we are being cited as the reason for these horrific mass shootings even as we grieve and protest and call for change.
It’s likely impossible to say what, if anything, lays at the true heart of the gun violence epidemic in America, and solutions appear even harder to come by. But in a society with more guns than people and with assault weapons nothing more than a few days and a few hundred dollars away, it’s safe to assume at least part of the problem is access. Sure, there is any number of ways that I could do myself in, but there’s still only one that I deliberately deny myself access to. If even I, given my history of depression, know my gun is the most dangerous item available to me, you can damn well bet that those planning maximum carnage know that too. So while you may contend “guns don’t kill people,” the people who wield them know they’re far more likely to be successful—and therefore deadly—with a gun than any other option available to them. And maybe, just maybe, if those guns weren’t so readily accessible, we’d all be a little less likely to die by them.