Mike Kemp/In Pictures — Corbis
The room had no windows, so the smell of gun oil filled my senses at least eight hours each day. It clung to my clothes like smoke, and like a smoker’s cigarettes, it became my smell. No one in my high school noticed. We all smelled like something: motorheads of motor oil, farm kids of wheat chaff and cow dung, athletes like footballs and grass, dopers like the other kind of grass.
It did not appear to anyone — including me — that residing within my family’s weapons cache might affect my life. Together, my three brothers own at least a dozen weapons and have yet to harm anyone with them. Despite their guns (or, arguably, because of them), they are quite peaceable. As for me, I have three guns, one inherited and two gifts, and I’m hardly a zealot. In fact I never had much interest in guns. Yet it is I who killed a man.
It was the second week in August, a Friday the 13th, in fact, in 1982. I was with a group of college roommates who were getting ready to go to the Omak Stampede and Suicide Race. Three of us piled into a red Vega parked outside a friend’s house in Okanogan, Wash., me in the back seat. The driver, who worked with the county sheriff’s department, offered me his service revolver to examine. I turned the weapon onto its side, pointed it toward the door. The barrel, however, slipped when I shifted my grip to pull the hammer back, to make certain the chamber was empty, and turned the gun toward the driver’s seat. When I let the hammer fall, the cylinder must have rotated without my knowing. When I pulled the hammer back a second time it fired a live round.
My friend, Doug, slumped in the driver’s seat, dying, and another friend, who was sitting in the passenger seat, raced into the house for the phone.
The house sat beside one edge of a river valley and I knew that between the orchard at the opposite side and the next town was 20 miles of rock and pine. I was a cross-country champion in high school. I could run through the woods and find my way to my cousins, who lived far into the mountains. I could easily disappear. But I remained where I was, mindful that even if I ran, I would escape nothing. So, when the sirens finally whirred and the colored lights tumbled over the yard and the doors of the cruisers opened and a police sergeant asked who was responsible, I raised my hand and patted my chest and was arrested.
Though the charges against me were eventually dropped, I have since been given diagnoses of a range of maladies, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and adult attention deficit disorders. The pharmacists fill the appropriate prescriptions, which temporarily salve my conscience, but serve neither my story nor the truth.
Where I grew up, masculinity involved schooling a mean dog to guard your truck or skipping the ignition spark to fire the points, and, of course, handling guns of all kinds. I was barely proficient in any of these areas. I understood what was expected of me and responded as best I could, but did so with distance that would, I hoped, keep me from being a total fraud in my own eyes.
Like many other young men, I mythologized guns and the ideas of manhood associated with them.
The gun lobby likes to say guns don’t kill people, people do. And they’re right, of course. I killed my friend; no one else did; no mechanism did. But this oversimplifies matters (as does the gun control advocates’ position that eliminating weapons will end violent crime).
My friend was killed by a man who misunderstood guns, who imagined that comfort with — and affection for — guns was a vital component of manhood. I did not recognize a gun for what it was: a machine constructed for a purpose, one in which I had no real interest. I treated a tool as an essential part of my identity, and the result is a dead man and a grieving family and a survivor numbed by guilt whose story lacks anything resembling a proper ending.