“You’re sure this is what you want to do?” my cousin Danny asked as he turned off the car engine. We had just pulled into the parking lot of Davis and Sons, a large pawnshop in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.
“Yeah,” I nodded, “I’m sure.”
We locked up the car and walked into the shop. Though Davis and Sons carried the standard pawnshop fare of used cameras, musical instruments, watches, and jewelry, the largest part of the store by far was the section devoted to firearms. Aisles of racks and display cases held hundreds of new and used rifles, shotguns, revolvers, and semi-automatic pistols, in all sizes and calibers, with “prices to fit any budget,” as a large sign in the window proclaimed. Danny and I walked up to a display counter and began looking over the merchandise.
“Help you boys?” a salesman asked.
“I’m looking to buy a gun,” I told him. “I don’t have a lot of money. You got anything used for around $75?”
“This is for target or protection?” he asked.
It was January of 1982, and I was in Louisville for a short stay, visiting family and friends for the holidays. My home for the previous five years had been the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, a run-down, though affordable, neighborhood. I’d moved there in 1977 to study art at the Pratt Institute and was now trying to make a living as a freelance magazine photographer.
Crime was a serious and frightening problem in Fort Greene. In the short time I’d lived there, a female friend of mine had been raped in the lobby of her apartment building, and a half-dozen other friends and acquaintances had been mugged or assaulted. In a subway station, one of my Pratt professors was beaten so badly that he needed hospitalization. I was robbed at gunpoint once, and beaten up by a gang of strangers on another occasion. My apartment was burglarized early one Saturday morning, the intruder taking my wallet from my bedside table as I lay asleep.
My parents knew none of this. The only members of my family I’d confided in were Danny and his father, my uncle Jim, a former Louisville cop and a Marine Corps marksman. They were also the only ones who knew of my decision to buy the pistol.
After careful consideration, weighing the benefits of several different guns, I walked out of the store with a .22 caliber RG six-shot revolver, the epitome of a cheap Saturday night special. Aside from its $65 price, the salesman also emphasized the RG’s capacity to accept long-rifle cartridges. These larger shells had a hollow-point slug that flattened on impact and were delivered at a higher muzzle velocity than regular .22s. These features made for greater tissue and organ damage, made the gun’s potential to incapacitate an assailant, its “stopping power,” much greater.
Since I was returning to New York the next day, the salesman kindly let me take the pistol and a box of shells with me when I left the store, ignoring Louisville’s mandatory 24-hour “cooling-off” period, a day’s wait between the purchase and pickup of a handgun. The law had been imposed on all gun shops within the city limits a few years earlier, after an angry office worker had purchased a pistol on his lunch hour and used it to shoot his boss in the head a short time later.
In addition to violating the cooling-off period, the purchase that day was illegal for other reasons. Though I was living in New York, I’d fraudulently used my parents’ address to obtain the Kentucky driver’s license needed to buy the RG. Transporting the gun across state lines—putting it in my suitcase and taking it with me back to Brooklyn the next morning—was a federal offense, as an attorney friend would later point out. And though everyone in my neighborhood seemed to be doing it, carrying a concealed, unlicensed handgun on the streets of New York City was illegal, punishable at the time by a mandatory year in jail for a first offense.
None of this concerned me. The laws against doing what I was doing seemed highly abstract at the time. More real to me were my experiences and the experiences of my friends and acquaintances as victims of violent crime. My neighborhood was exceptionally dangerous, and the city seemed either unable or unwilling to make it less so. The fear and anger I felt made me believe there was little alternative to carrying a gun.
• • •
It was not as though violence was something new to me. The neighborhood where I’d grown up was a tough, working-class enclave in the south end of Jefferson County, Kentucky. Though I spent my teens in a neighborhood where almost every family had a relative who’d gone off to fight in Vietnam, I had shoulder-length hair and wore an army jacket with a peace flag embroidered over the left breast pocket. I’d been harassed often and assaulted on several occasions; a long-haired friend of mine ended up in the emergency room after two rednecks beat him up with a baseball bat. The risk of being attacked on the streets of Brooklyn seemed, more or less, an extension of the threat of being stomped in my high school parking lot.
The difference now was what I was going to do about it. Nobody was ever going to take a piece out of me again. The first time I rode the subway with the gun in my pocket, it was with the bitter satisfaction that I’d finally drawn a line no one was ever going to cross. When I was out on the street or on the train late at night, I would often slip my hand into my coat pocket and press my palm against the butt. It felt very, very good. For the next eight years, I never left my apartment without the gun, was never on the street without feeling its weight in my pocket.
The fear and anger I felt made me believe there was little alternative to carrying a gun.
I love guns. They are seductive, with a visceral appeal that seems to bypass reason entirely and go directly to some more primitive part of the brain. When my uncle Jim saw that I couldn’t be dissuaded from buying the pistol, he offered to take me to a local firing range for the first of several lessons, using a large-frame Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum that he owned. To heft that gun, to squeeze off that first shot and feel the recoil shake my arms and torso, was to experience the power of an extraordinary machine. The pistol was dangerous and difficult to master. But by the end of my first session of target practice, I could consistently put six shots into center mass on a black silhouette target at 30 feet. It was hard not to feel like a badass.
I also hate and fear guns. The .22 in my pocket had one purpose: to take a life. That reality was never far from my mind, and the thought that I might have to kill an attacker—or that an attacker might somehow take the gun away and use it to kill me—was deeply sobering. Then and now, it seemed almost absurd that it had taken me several months of study, practice, and testing before the State of Kentucky saw fit to give me a driver’s license, yet it had taken all of 30 minutes to pick out, purchase, and take possession of the gun I now carried in my pocket. A gun is as destructive in its own way as any automobile.
While organizations such as the National Rifle Association may see themselves as protectors of the Second Amendment, what America’s gun culture has cost in wasted human life is impossible to deny, even putting aside the horrors of events like the Sandy Hook shootings. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2008, 31,593 Americans were killed with a firearm, including 12,179 people who were murdered and 18,223 people who used a gun to commit suicide. The figures include 2,037 children and teens murdered with a gun, and 748 kids who used guns to kill themselves. In ten states—Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington—you are now more likely to die from a gunshot wound than in an automobile accident, according to figures from the Violence Policy Center, an advocacy group.
And while gun rights organizations are quick to trumpet anecdotal stories of gun owners who’ve successfully used a handgun to defend themselves or stop a crime, those numbers pale alongside the number of gun deaths. According to the FBI, between 2005 and 2009, only 975 deaths caused by civilians using firearms were justifiable homicides—killings in response to the commission of a felony.
Several years before I bought the RG, I’d talked with a cop who walked a beat around Pratt. We’d become acquaintances and would occasionally stop and chat if we happened to bump into each other. One afternoon, the conversation had for some reason turned to guns. The cop wore a police marksman’s badge, seemed fairly conservative in his politics, and was not someone I’d necessarily expect to speak up against private ownership of handguns. But when I mentioned my ex-cop uncle and several other members of my family back home who kept guns in the house, his face darkened.
“Your uncle was a police officer, that’s one thing,” he began. “He’s been trained. But the NRA has this party line that everyone oughta be able to carry a gun for protection. That more guns make us all safer. That’s bullshit. You want to know what happens? I see this shit every day. Two friends go into a bar, they get tanked, they have an argument. One guy gets really pissed, he has a gun in his pocket, he pulls it out. Boom! His friend is dead. Some kid finds his dad’s gun in the dresser drawer. Boom! His baby sister is dead.”
• • •
I discovered that in many ways life with a gun was more stressful than without. I quit reading on the subway, instead paying rapt attention to the other people in the car, looking to see who got on and off the train, and re-evaluating the threat level after every stop. There was also the ever-present fear that, in a moment of carelessness, the bulge of the revolver might be visible through a jacket pocket, or through the rear pouch of the small grey camera bag I used to carry it when the weather got warm.
The more I carried the RG, the more I also realized how little it afforded in terms of real protection. Carrying a handgun in your jacket pocket or your waistband on the streets of New York City is vastly different from keeping one for target shooting. Only the former poses the question: “Can you kill?”
This isn’t simply a question of whether you’re capable of taking a life and living with the ugly consequences. It’s a question of how well you understand the other implications, the hidden subtleties, inherent in the decision to carry a handgun. Can you read a situation quickly and accurately enough to gauge whether your life is truly in danger and whether drawing it is justified? Can you keep an assailant from taking your gun away and using it against you? Are you prepared to go about your everyday life unable to relax, scanning every face you see in the street or, in my case, in the subway, for any sign of danger?
The gun in my pocket was a declaration that the city had broken the social contract.
All police cadets are trained in the use of deadly force, especially how and when it can be avoided. The training often involves role-playing: other cops (or hired actors) play out scenes an officer will likely encounter in the line of duty, such as a violent family dispute or a car stop. A key purpose of these exercises is to convey to a trainee how complex and chaotic these situations usually are, and how vastly different from what he may be expecting. A drunken husband may be beating his wife, also drunk. As the officers pin the husband to the floor and try to handcuff him, the wife might try to grab a gun from a cop’s holster and draw down, screaming at the officers to leave her man alone.
In my personal experience, violent crime had come quickly and unexpectedly. Someone stuck his foot in an elevator door and began asking for directions; a few seconds later, a confederate stepped up behind him and pulled a revolver out of a shopping bag. Someone suddenly grabbed me from behind and pinned my arms while another man stepped in front of me and punched me in the face. There was always a moment of hesitation on my part before reality sank in, hesitation that gave my attackers control of the situation. I constantly asked myself whether having a gun on those occasions would have made a difference, whether I would have been able, both physically and psychologically, to draw the weapon and use it before events spun completely out of my control. I tried very hard to believe the answer was yes. The truth was there was no way to know.
Imagine yourself sitting in the Century 16 Multiplex in Aurora, Colorado watching The Dark Knight Rises just after midnight on July 20, 2012. You’re carrying a gun in a shoulder holster under your jacket. (The state of Colorado allows its citizens to carry a concealed handgun with little restriction.) During the film, someone enters the theater through a side door. His hair is bright red and he’s wearing body armor. Do you know immediately that this person is armed and intends to kill as many members of the audience as he can? Do you think it might be some kind of promotional stunt or a prank, as many in the audience apparently do? Even after James Eagan Holmes has begun shooting, can you draw your weapon and take accurate aim at him, though the theater is pitch dark and dozens of people around you are screaming and stampeding for the exits? Are you as likely to kill one of them as you are to kill Holmes?
• • •
A year after I’d begun carrying the pistol, Anne Pfreundschuh, a 21-year-old Pratt student, was found severely beaten and drowned in the bathtub of her apartment. Her building was a few blocks over from mine. Two teenagers were convicted of the crime after they were caught trying to sell some of the items they’d stolen from their victim. One of them had been released from prison the day before the killing.
Pfreundschuh’s death felt like a grim validation of my decision. Through all these horrific crimes, overshadowing all my other concerns, was a sense that I was fighting back and, with that sense, a feeling of bitter satisfaction, of defiance. Crime in my neighborhood seemed to be unmanageable. Drugs were dealt openly at several spots near my apartment building. At night my neighbors and I would listen to gunfire coming from the Fort Greene projects and the area around the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
If the government was powerless to stop this onslaught, then the gun in my pocket was a declaration that the city had broken the social contract. Not that the New York City justice system would have taken my view into account if I’d been arrested carrying the pistol. But I was frightened and angry, trying to make a living in a difficult field with little in the way of support or resources. The feeling that I had even the slightest control over my own safety made any risk seem worth it.
• • •
I told almost none of my friends that I was carrying a gun and said very little when discussion turned to the city’s rising crime rate. Most of my associates were professionals living in safer neighborhoods who hadn’t experienced violent crime the way I had. These friends generally were not products of the gun culture and were mostly in favor of strong gun-control laws, if not an outright ban on ownership. They would have been unsettled, to say the least, to know that I was usually carrying a loaded pistol when I visited their homes.
Two of my friends, my upstairs neighbors Wayne and Susan, did know what I was doing. Because they also knew the dangers of the neighborhood, they worried about what could happen to me. I was back in Louisville, Kentucky on another occasion, visiting my family over the Christmas holidays, when I read a short article in the local paper reporting that a man named Bernhard Goetz had shot four teenagers on a New York City subway train the day before. That night I called to check my answering machine and heard a message from Susan, who didn’t know I’d left town, asking me to get in touch with her and Wayne right away. I called her immediately.
“Everything’s okay,” she told me. “It’s just that yesterday, after those kids were shot on the train, the first thing we heard was that the man who did it was a skinny blonde white guy with glasses. We were afraid it was you.”
• • •
One afternoon, I was sitting on the G train heading toward downtown Brooklyn. My seat was next to the door and I was sitting with my legs crossed, my ankle propped on my knee, the sole of my shoe facing out into the car. There were one or two other riders in the car with me.
The train stopped, the doors opened, and a young black man, maybe seventeen or eighteen years old, stepped on. He wore a leather jacket with an eight-ball on the back, black designer jeans, and Cazal eyeglasses—thick-framed glasses with gold trim that were a hot fashion item with mid-1980s inner-city kids. As he walked into the car, his pant leg brushed up against the sole of my shoe, leaving a large streak of brownish-grey dust just above his knee.
“Shit,” he hissed as he reached down to brush off the dirt.
“I’m sorry,” I said as the doors closed and the train pulled away from the station.
A girlfriend slipped a surprise valentine card into my coat pocket and found the gun; we broke up a short time later.
“Fuck you,” he yelled. He straightened up and looked at me, then moved around to stand directly in front of my seat, his face hard, his eyes glaring down. He was muscular, and a little under six feet tall. At first I thought he was going to throw a punch.
Then his hand moved into his jacket pocket.
There was no way to know if he had a gun. But given his obviously expensive clothing, the possibility that I had just pissed off a local drug dealer loomed large. There had been a news report a few weeks earlier that crack dealers in my neighborhood had been giving their best runners—usually teenage boys from the projects—small semi-automatic pistols that fit easily into jacket pockets. A fifteen-year-old in upper Manhattan had recently used one to shoot a police officer in the neck, leaving the cop a quadriplegic.
The train lurched along and then slowed. I was sitting with my camera bag on my lap. The front section had my camera, light meter, and film. In the zippered back pocket was my gun. The zipper was undone, as it always was when I was in the subway or walking through dicey sections of my neighborhood. My right hand now slowly moved up, my fingers starting to creep inside the unzipped top.
“Fuck you, motherfuckin’ asshole,” he snarled.
I looked straight back into his eyes and made my face harden.
“I said I was sorry.” My words were slow and deliberate, my voice a monotone. The train began to pick up speed as we glared at each other. My hand slowly reached deeper into my bag, my fingertips brushed the gun’s metal hammer and moved down toward the pistol grip. I was waiting for the kid’s hand to emerge from his jacket pocket, was waiting to see the first glint of gun metal. He wouldn’t be expecting me to have a pistol, I reasoned. If his hand came out of his pocket with a weapon, I was betting he would draw it out slowly, giving me time to pull my own gun and squeeze off a shot before he could.
Several seconds passed. The kid’s hand stayed in his pocket. He looked down angrily at me for a moment more, then abruptly turned and walked into the next car without glancing back. A few minutes later, the train stopped, the doors opened, and I got off to make my connection.
In all the years I carried the pistol, that was the closest I came to using it.
• • •
I could tell myself the problems involved in carrying the piece were worth it, compared to what might happen the next time I found myself staring down someone on the subway. But I couldn’t deny that carrying the gun was having a corrosive effect on my life and relationships. A few of my friends eventually found out what I was doing, and I began to feel walls going up around people I cared about very much. A girlfriend, slipping a surprise valentine card into my coat pocket one morning, found the gun; we broke up a short time later.
Another time, standing on a corner in midtown, I felt a hand clap me on the shoulder and a voice boom out, “Hey buddy!” Startled, my muscles tensed and I turned quickly, instinctively putting my hand in my pocket. Behind me was my friend Chris, a squash buddy whom I’d confided in about the gun a few weeks before. He looked at me, eyes wide, shocked to see me bristling over an innocent joke.
“Hey, whoa!” he said, taking a step back from me. “I was just kidding.”
Immediately, I began apologizing, feeling Chris was now probably more rattled than I was. But from then on, I could never be certain if he was completely comfortable when we were together, whether some small part of him might be wary of my presence.
My fear of getting caught with the gun had also begun to grow. I’d managed to scrape together enough money to buy a used motorcycle, so the subway became less of a necessity. But riding the bike increased the probability of being stopped by the NYPD, who seemed to delight in pulling motorcyclists over for even the most minor infractions.
Unzipping the front of my knapsack, I took out my wallet, praying the cop hadn’t seen the gun barrel.
One warm Sunday afternoon in early summer I was on the bike, heading south on lower Fifth Avenue. At 14th Street, I made a left and, as I turned, caught sight of a cop on the corner, talking to an elderly woman. The officer’s head snapped up as I passed, he looked straight at me and raised his hand.
“Pull it over,” he yelled.
Perhaps it was the abruptness of his actions, maybe it was the volume of his voice; I felt my face blanch as hot panic set in. I was carrying a green canvas backpack with the gun tucked away in a side pocket. Pulling the bike over to the curb and cutting the engine, I swallowed hard, trying to force down the fear.
My instinct had been to run, to hit the gas and blaze out of there. But that was the worst thing I could do—every cop between 14th and the Brooklyn Bridge would immediately be looking for the white guy with the red motorcycle. The odds were not in my favor.
“License and registration,” the cop demanded. It occurred to me that he might have received a call on a perp who fit my description. If that was the case, I was moments away from a full frisk, a search of my bag and, almost certainly, arrest.
“Yeah, sure,” I replied hoarsely. “My wallet’s in my backpack.”
Still sitting astride the bike, I removed the knapsack and set it down on the gas tank. The gun in the side pocket made an unnervingly loud clunk as I set the bag down. Worse, as I looked down, I now saw that the barrel of the RG was poking part-way out of a small hole worn through the bag’s fabric. Trying not to seem agitated, I put my hand over the hole and took hold of the bag, pretending I was steadying it on the round tank, and quietly pushed the gun away from the worn spot. Unzipping the front, I took out my wallet, praying the cop hadn’t seen the gun barrel.
He took my license and registration card from my hand. I tried desperately to keep from shaking. He examined the documents carefully, saying nothing. I cleared my throat and took the chance that my voice wouldn’t sound like a broken pennywhistle.
“Did I make an illegal turn back there, officer?” I said. “I didn’t see any ‘No Turn’ signs.”
The cop examined my insurance card silently.
“Naw,” he finally said, not looking up. “That old lady back there was talking my ear off, and I had to find some way to get away from her.”
He looked at me and grinned, then handed the cards back.
“Drive safe, pal.” The officer turned and walked away.
• • •
About a year later, I fell in love with a woman who demanded that I put the gun away for good. The RG went into a box, and the box went into a closet. She and I married and moved to San Francisco shortly thereafter, to a quiet neighborhood by Golden Gate Park. Though a large city, San Francisco was seeing much less of the drug-fueled violence that had plagued New York during my years there. San Francisco felt safe to me, and the gun never left the box where I kept it.
I returned in 1997 to a vastly different New York City. There had been more than 2,245 homicides the year I left. The number now was a fraction of that. The Clinton administration had made federal funds available for more police officers, and the Giuliani administration had jumped on the money, hiring hundreds of additional cops. The government had also severely tightened the regulations on the licensing of federal firearms dealers, who are allowed to sell guns across state lines. This choked off a large part of the pipeline that made handguns easy to get. There were fewer pistols on the city’s streets. The number of homicides would eventually drop to around 500 annually. Last year there were 414 murders in New York, the lowest number on record.
The end came on a Sunday morning. I wrapped the RG in newspaper and stuffed it into an empty milk carton, which I put into a larger bag of household trash. I carried the bag down to the end of my block and dropped it into a street-corner garbage can.
I will never believe that carrying the gun made me safer in any real sense. Fear of crime was my reason for buying it, but the gun itself engendered a whole new set of fears, which proved to be even more corrosive to my psyche. For all the dangers the RG brought with it, it was never really needed. And for that fact, I will always be grateful.