Both sides of my family come from rural origins— poverty and prosperity, depending on the relative. My grandparents’ generation kept guns for hunting, and to put down livestock when something went wrong. That’s all I knew of guns when I was little. I felt sorry for a snakebit gelding and I knew he had to be put out of his misery.
All the men in my family served in the Army or Navy— the older generation was drafted; my cousins volunteered. Some of them were tragically affected by military culture, others found it to be the ticket Out of Dodge they’d always yearned for, out of poverty and prejudice, to things like the GI Bill, college, moving up.
My mother and father were explicit pacifists, activists against all wars. They were the first ones to go to college. The first time I heard the long word “oxymoron,” it was because my (drafted) father said, “Army Intelligence is an __________.
I remember a terrible argument I once had with my daddy once, when I took up the side of armed self-defense, against US imperialism and the FBI’s “war at home.” I was so mad at my father’s insistence on non-combat.
In pure 15-year-old drama, I charged, “What if someone held a gun to my head and you were right there and you were the only one who could stop them, would you do nothing?”
He hung his head and cried. I could cut my tongue out after that.
I got serious gun training as a high school activist from radicals (Bernie is now a Buddhist priest) who believed the FBI and Nixon were not screwing around. These were the days when Hoover was systematically assasinating Black Panther Party members.
I enjoyed target practice; I was good at it. I liked all the lessons, the cleaning and oiling drills with the M-16, the Kalishnakov, .45 automatic, .357 handgun, a little .22 rifle I don’t remember, a shotgun. I was pleased to have beginner’s luck. My teacher, a gun-nut guy to the core, told me women have better aim.
The thing I remember the most from him was safety, and how if you knew how to handle a gun and treat it with respect and “safety first”— you would not be a hysterical gun-hater. The cliche was true; I have a handle on gun debates today because of those lessons.
I didn’t get a gun of my own, until I moved to Louisville, KY, as an organizer in the UAW, during the “busing crisis” there, which was really a white supremacy freakout crisis about integrating public schools.
When I came to Louisville, my friends Danny and Mary met me at the airport and handed me a shotgun on the tarmac.
“What do I do with this?” I was nonplussed.
“If I were you, I’d sleep with it,” Danny said.
So I did, laid it right next to the bed. That was a tough year.
Sure enough, Louisville was the first time I ever had someone hold a gun right to my head (a .357, I recognized it).
My Prince Charming was a Klan member in the UAW plant parking lot, who pulled up to me in his pick up truck told me to “get my niggerloving communist cunt off their property.” –Vamoose.
My other “hold-ups” took place in Detroit, with the cops holding the pistols instead. The most memorable was when I had a dinner at my house for high school students organizing against South African apartheid, a little conference we held downtown on Woodward.
I was boiling spaghetti. There were a couple dozen of us, teenagers, black and white, hanging out, really hungry. We were so tired from that long day we weren’t even playing music or partying like we usually did. I was 18.
My racist nextdoor neighbor looked in the window and called the Detroit PD, (all-white in 1976). They came pounding on the door. BAM BAM BAM OPEN UP.
Junior and Bushy flushed their pot down the toilet, I left the stove and answered the door a crack, reciting my National Lawyers Guild rap about how they needed a search warrant, a polite firm white girl script.
There were six cops, and my “cracking open the door” was all they needed to barrel it down. One of them twisted my arm into a half-Nelson, put his revolver to my head and used me like a hostage, pushing me forward, yelling at everyone else in the living room. “We have reports you are holding a police officer captive!”
That was funny but no one was laughing. I will never forgive Steve O for making pig noises, it only made the sergeant rougher on me. Steve, you were by far the oldest one there, at 22. That barrel pressing into my temple.
Anita and Tonya were there; they were 14 and 15. Their moms would never ever forgive me.
All the fun was out of target practice.
Another time in Detroit a guy who was trying to join our group showed me his van full of weapons like they were his cock, a seduction. I had to “talk him down.” Instant nausea. Couldn’t wait to get away from him. That same guy turned out to be a lunatic who attacked his dentist, one of my comrades, and two others. Never got put away ‘cause no one pressed charges. He reminds me of the shooters we see today... they were always around. He wanted to “kill gooks” — that was his raison d’être.
The last time I lived with a gun for defense was with Melody, in Long Beach, California. She was a crack shot; she had medals from the Junior NRA or whatever it was that ran those contests when she was a little girl.
I admired her prowess, but I remember hiding her rifle to an inconvenient spot, because I didn’t want to see it around the house. I didn’t even know what a “gun safe” was, and we were raising our little girl.
By then, it was the end of the 70s. The whole American Left had fallen apart, the US lost to the Vietcong, and the little chances I had to be involved in performance art, I grabbed them. Aside from Chris Burdun, it wasn’t gun-crazy.
I’ve lived in other countries, lived with the gun laws we see all over the world, where people farm and ranch and hunt and have keen eyes for sport shooting— who go through registration and training just like getting a driver’s license. Gravitas and preparation. It’s a different world, not without violence but definitely not suffering a firearms public health crisis.
I’m too old now for anyone to press me into service. If I was young, I would not take up arms against people; I would be as stubborn as my dad. When I hear of schoolteachers ready to take a bullet for their students, it makes me sick. The wrong sacrifice, the wrong question. Why do we have a permanent arms economy? Why is there cynicism about whose life is worth a dime? No chance at beginners’ luck no matter how you break it down.