When I was 8 or 9 years old, I almost shot my father. When I say almost, I mean I loaded two 12-gauge shotgun shells into a side-by-side shotgun, snapped it closed, and walked down the hallway to his study, where he was working. I remember the gray runner that lined the center of the floor, and the wood slats on either side. I remember my feet landing one after the other on the soft pile.
I think of this day often—it was one of my closest brushes with life-altering calamity—but especially whenever we’re going through another national shooting tragedy and the endlessly rehashed debates about gun control. To me, given what I experienced 30-plus years ago, it’s incredibly simple.
The details of the story matter only because they’re so petty.
I was living with my father in a dilapidated mansion in Briarcliff Manor, a suburb of New York City. There’s of course a whole story behind how that all happened, and what was going on, but it’s not really germane to this story, so I’ll just say that my family was living through a truly terrible divorce and that nobody comported themselves particularly well at the time.
It was probably March. For Christmas, my father had given me a computerized chess set—it was 1980 (or so), and I was a nerd; that toy just blew my mind to bits. I can still see its little red lights, flashing, and smell the new plastic.
The divorce had drained whatever money there had been, but we still had the mess of a house that my parents had bought maybe two years before my mother left. They had planned to slowly fix it up while we lived there—it had holes in the ceilings and walls, and exposed wires—but my father lacked the skills to do the work himself, so he bartered free rent to get it done. And it was this arrangement that landed me in the kitchen that afternoon with a twentysomething man from upstate New York, whom I’ll call Chuck. Chuck was actually the brother of our boarder, which is only relevant because I’d like to believe that Chuck was too obviously unappealing to have ever been allowed to board with us, although I’m not sure that’s true. For whatever reason, Chuck was helping work on the house, and he was just a deeply unsavory character—racist jokes and lewd remarks and a general sense of menace were his calling cards.
Chuck had “borrowed” my brand new chess set shortly after Christmas, and hadn’t returned it, and man, did I miss it. (I had barely played with it!) So that day, after months of pining, I screwed up the courage to ask him if he could return it sometime soon. I was standing in the kitchen with Chuck and one of our series of live-in housekeepers (my father had the wisdom to hold onto the domestic help as long as he could). Chuck, I should point out, was an enormous man—probably 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, at least in my memory. He was a pale-skinned, sandy-haired, jowly yeti of a man.
He paused to make sure he had the housekeeper’s attention, and then, with a wicked smile, said: “James. Blow me.”
My cheeks seared; rage surged. I was dizzy. And that was enough. First, of course, I wanted to shoot Chuck, but then I knew it wasn’t really Chuck’s fault. Chuck was just being Chuck—a bully. But he was in my house, humiliating me. And all the discomforts of my situation were suddenly upon me: the absurd, falling-apart, too-damn-big house we couldn’t afford to heat, the absence of my mother, the late-night, yelling phone calls between my parents, my father’s anxiety about money … the list was endless, and none of it was my fault. All of it, it seemed at that moment, was my father’s. And I couldn’t see any way out. I’d already tried living with my mother, and that had failed. My grandfather, the only adult I trusted and admired, was dying from like five kinds of cancer, undergoing chemo, and was generally hapless in a way that was adorable so long as he wasn’t actually responsible for me. All I saw was a future of suffering: mine.
So, I left the kitchen, too angry and ashamed and frustrated to cry (what good is crying if there’s no one around to fix it?), went to the unlocked gun cabinet, where my father stored the shotguns he kept for bird hunting (more an aspirational than actual pastime), and then to the drawer in the sideboard, and took out the waxy shells (so satisfying to handle!), slid them into the lovely twin chambers, gleaming inside and redolent with the scent of gunpowder, slammed it shut, and started down the hallway.
And then, about midway down the hallway, something amazing happened. I imagined, for a moment, what would happen after I’d shot my father: the silence after detonation; the image of his bloody body; police standing around in the study, their hard, maybe sorrowful eyes on me; lawyers and social workers and judges and courtrooms, and then what? Off to someplace where kids who do things like that go? And who were those kids? No doubt they were bigger and badder than me, less bookish, probably practiced at violence. I’d be sent to a land of nothing but Chucks, no books, no encouraging teachers, no bike rides through the suburbs, no Wonder Woman or Bugs Bunny. In short, the end of whatever pleasures and safety my life afforded me, and a descent into a life I knew I didn’t want and couldn’t possibly handle.
I had stopped walking. I did a quick, brutal assessment of myself, of my capacities, gifts and deficits, and decided that there was only one possible course of action: I had to do well at school. “Kids like me,” I remember thinking, “kids like me have to get good grades in school.” Then I returned the gun to the cabinet.
I was so incredibly lucky. For a moment in my youth, I was possessed of an almost otherworldly foresight and intelligence. I’ve never been that smart since—and I hope I never have to be that smart ever again. I went from abject, acute desperation to clarity in a matter of seconds—a clarity that most of us can’t often muster, and that we shouldn’t bet on others being able to access.
We live in a world in which, at some point, we all feel powerless and miserable and angry—that’s just part of the human experience. Anybody can be capable of violence at any time, and guns are so easy and so seductive and so dangerous. Because we’re all too unstable, under the best of circumstances, and our lives are too challenging, and too many of us live under conditions that are far from optimal, and there are too many bona-fide reasons for rage and frustration and hate in our daily lives, and we’re all children for a long time, and children are easily intrigued and resourceful when they want something, and too vulnerable to themselves and others.
My experience that day illustrates the casual, incidental danger of guns. The details of my story are trivial, foolish, and totally pedestrian—and that’s what makes guns so terrifying. Sure, my childhood at that time was (hopefully) worse than the average kid’s in that privileged ZIP code. But not necessarily—or not necessarily by much. What sticks with me—other than eternal gratitude for the kid I managed to be that day—is just how many pressures surround us, and how they can make anybody want to hurt somebody. What if I hadn’t had parents who were successful, educated people who could provide for me? What if I hadn’t been lucky enough to attend great schools, where my motivation to excel was met with ample resources and committed teachers? What if I hadn’t already been in therapy? What if I had underlying mental health or developmental issues? What if I hadn’t had such a kind and loving grandfather? The what-ifs are terrifying.