This story is intensely personal, one involving guns, domestic abuse, and biography. It’s not what I started to write and it certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s honest and reflects much of who I am. Apologies for any errors and I tried to avoid the mention of real people; however, it is just as much my story to tell as theirs.
In 1970, I lived near Rich, Arkansas, near the nexus of Highways 39 and 49. It was a swampy place, surrounded by farms and mosquitoes. My family lived for a brief time slightly up the hill to the East, on the south side of the road. It’s easy to remember, because in March of that year, my dad killed a cousin of mine while drunk driving. Growing up, I thought my cousin Donald Wayne Morris was an uncle, as we called his wife Aunt Elizabeth. Like most family lore, it wasn’t accurate and caused confused conversations. After my dad was released from prison for, among other things, armed robbery, he came back to Monroe County, Arkansas to continue his wild ways. One of the ways he chose to do this was to have an affair with my “Aunt Elizabeth,” the widow of the cousin he had killed in a drunken driving episode. I was at home in the little white house near Rich the day my dad killed Donald Wayne. As I remember it, his wife was with us at the house, too.
But this story isn’t about Aunt Elizabeth, drunk driving, or armed robbery.
Despite having an extensive criminal record, my dad always had firearms around the house. Being a quintessential redneck, he believed that all guns should always be loaded. He would brag, “You’ll be careful if you know that all guns are always loaded.” Had Bill Engvall been around back then, he would have paid for a “Here’s your sign” tattoo to be emblazoned on my dad’s forehead. My dad also didn’t believe in keeping guns hidden or under lock and key, even if toddlers or small children were around. After extensive research, the word that best describes him in this regard is “moron.”
Growing up, there were a couple of notable deaths resulting from children getting their hands on guns and shooting themselves or each other. Some family members wanted to scream and get angry about such easy access to guns – but were silenced by the withering collective stare of the culture that considered any questions about gun access to be a treasonous breach of their rights. There were angry shouts about it sometimes, but they were rare and quickly subdued. In pockets of society all around this country, men will grow angry at any mention of responsible gun ownership. They are not likely to understand nuance and the greater collective good. The words evoke a threatening aura of loss, or make them feel like they are quite wrong about the idea that not all guns and gun owners are created equal. It is an ‘all or nothing,’ scenario, without regard to a safer middle ground.
I’m not certain how old I was, but somewhere before my fifth birthday. One early Saturday afternoon, my mom and dad were screaming at one another, planning to escalate to blows at any moment. It was a familiar and constant ritual – and they knew the steps as well as any dance. I went into their bedroom and the longest rifle I had ever seen lay across the bed. It was sleekly black, with a surprisingly long silver barrel. There were others guns in the room; there were a couple of shotguns and pistols under the bed, a few in the closet, and one leaning in the corner for quick access. It was the black one on the bed calling my name, though. Without hesitation, I went up to it, put my hand across the trigger guard, and squeezed the trigger. The gun leaped from the bed, thundering like an exploding gas tank in the bedroom. I felt my ears pop inward.
I’m sure I started crying – and not just because of the painful gunshot inside the room. I knew my enraged dad would be coming in to exact his revenge. I wasn’t disappointed. I suppose he forgot his mission to scream at my mom in the kitchen when the gun fired, because he backhanded me so hard I thought the back of my head was going to touch my shoulder blades. Although mom denied it, dad kicked me more than once as I curled against the dresser near the bedroom door. Mom would find it hard to believe I could recall an event from such an early age. I used to point out that it was more traumatic than a typical memory, as it involved firearms in closed spaces and being kicked like a coffee can along the sidewalk.
Later, I looked through the round hole in the bedroom wall to see that the line of fire went straight to the next house along the road. It turned out that the bullet had pierced through the siding on that house, too, although no one was hurt. I often wonder if anyone from the other house still tells this story.
At the time, I couldn’t understand how stupid my dad sounded, screaming at me that I could have shot someone – and that I should never touch guns. Part of it was that he was constantly handing them to me or doing ridiculously stupid things with them as he drank. Often, he pointed them in anger at other people, including his own family. He shot at several people when I was growing up. He fired guns from inside moving vehicles, shot propane tanks, poured ammunition into both open campfires and fireplaces, and did just about every idiotic and unreasonable thing possible with a gun.
But this story isn’t about how I could have killed someone when I was very young.
All through my youth, my dad had guns everywhere. Guns, knives, crossbows – of all kinds. He had a violent temper and a lengthy history of domestic violence and criminal behavior. Anyone who knows me also knows that while I came to terms with my dad before he died, the truth is that he had no business being allowed to touch guns or own them. Police in Northwest Arkansas and in Monroe County knew dad’s criminal history and love of hitting people in anger. They also knew he had an arsenal pretty much his entire adult life. Dad had more than one gun given to him by members of law enforcement. Is it hard to see that he felt somehow empowered to continue the same wayward behavior?
Part of the reason I’m telling this story is to shake my head that people seem surprised that just about anyone can get guns and commit horrible acts of violence. I acknowledge that it was a different time even a couple of decades ago. The truth, though? People haven’t changed. Right now, in places that might surprise you, there are people are thinking of doing crazy things. Many of them are surrounded by people that don’t think their friend or family member is going to be the one who loses it and goes on a rampage. The gun buffet is at their disposal, if they want it. It’s true that a person so motivated isn’t going to be limited by a lack of easy access to guns. Don’t try to weaken my story by implying otherwise. If the guns are military grade automatic weapons, though, we are treading into the less reasonable realm of gun ownership. As I might have mentioned, my dad had access to explosives, too, despite his criminal record.
On more than one occasion, I fantasized about taking one of the guns and killing my dad. He deserved it on several different nights. For those unfamiliar with anger and alcohol, the nightfall has always brought with it a greater likelihood of violence. For all of you who’ve never been put in the position of wishing you could kill your own father to protect yourself, I can only say “you’re lucky.” People around us and certainly some family members knew how likely it would be to get a call informing them that my dad had killed one or all of us, finally. There would have been tears and the usual, “We could have done something”nonsense. Yes, they could have done something – they could have knocked my dad silly and taken all of his guns. There were a couple of times I regretted not killing my dad because the lesson of not doing so was followed by him beating my mom so violently that it was difficult to get the sound of her head bouncing off the metal bed support frame from my mind. It would not have been the gun’s fault had I grabbed a pistol from under the table and shot my dad. It would have been his fault.
It is true that it’s not the gun’s fault. People commit crimes.
It’s also true that the gun crowd is a little too zealous; playing the role of society that surrounded me while I was growing up. We can all be reasonable without resorting to exaggeration. Our collective future society is not going to look like it does today. It’s inevitable, because the problems we are dealing with are complicated.
It might be an easy thing to say that my dad was an aberration from the normal; he was aberrant, that is true. He also was representative of many in our society, those who secretly know that having access to any gun they want is probably a bad thing for most of the rest of us. We blithely wander through our lives, hoping that anger or mental illness doesn’t propel someone to kill us or someone we love, all the while uneasily thinking of the millions of complex firearms sitting in closets, under beds, in attics, within reach.
As I walk the streets, I don’t worry about getting shot or protecting myself. It’s a fools errand. There is no guarantee of safety, no matter how many guns I carry or how many take up space in my home. From my experience, if everyone is carrying around sticks, the likelihood of someone getting clobbered is 100%.
I don’t own any guns but shooting at a firing range is entertaining. If you’ve never done it, you might be surprised how enjoyable it is. I don’t hunt, though, mainly because I would be a vegetarian if I weren’t so damned lazy. The idea of shooting animals for sport or food is strangely exotic to me. While I would do it to survive, it would be a lesser choice for me. (You’d find me eating stale prairie grass before you’d catch me skinning a hog as an appetizer.) For our own sake, we have to figure out a way to separate the exaggerated claims of gun ownership for hunting and basic personal protection from the one the fringe continues to impose on us all – the one which commands us to pretend that all guns and gun owners are the same.
Most gun owners are responsible, reasonable people. Contrary to what the NRA would try to tell us, most people don’t want automatic weapons or the ability to buy literally any firearm they want. They think gun locks and safes are reasonable. Most want responsible controls in place for everyone. It’s the way society works when it works well.
The shadow in the back of my mind, though, is the one created by people such as my father.