Friday, April 5, 2013

The Time I Owned a Gun

     When I got old enough to buy a gun, I was attending Bryn Mawr College, located on the privileged suburban Main Line of Philadelphia.  There must have been crime, but it wasn't a gun-toting, fear-ridden place, so I felt safe in the fantasy world of Tudor houses and wealthy matrons whose trust funds financed expensive luncheons and a bevy of politically-correct, philanthropic causes.  No need for me to own gun.
     Then I spent a year on Lamu, a little island off the coast of Kenya, where the per capita income was less than $400 per year.  I lived out of a duffel bag, cooked on a kerosene stove in the mangroves, and never ran into an angry person.  No one had guns.  There were fishing nets, and an occasional machete for cutting through the tropical flourish.  I bought a hatchet to chop the tops off green coconuts to get at the water and sweet, buttery contours of coconut which I ate for lunch every day.  I never thought of the hatchet as a weapon.  For weapons, you need an enemy.
     Inspired by Africa, I prepared for medical school.  Taking pre-med courses in New York was treacherous:  John Lennon was shot and killed two blocks from where I lived.  But it didn't occur to me to buy a gun.
     New Yorkers don't defend themselves with guns.  Instead, they cultivate muscle, mean faces and threatening postures.  I learned to walk as though I were stalking someone.  I stared strangers straight-on as I went down the stairs to the subway.  I acted unafraid, and became unafraid.
     I moved to New Orleans to finish med school prerequisites, enrolling at University of New Orleans.  I rented half a duplex near my job and the school--it was cheap, but the neighborhood was a hotbed of crime.  A rape, robbery or murder was reported every few days.
     A policeman lived with his wife and baby in the other half of the duplex.
    "This is no place for a woman, alone," he said.  "You need a gun."
    So I bought one, and he taught me to use it.  That week, while I was thinking about where to hide it, a young woman was killed three doors away.
      The thing was a 32-Magnum, black, shiny, scary--weighty and portentous in my palm, my thumb slung over the trigger, the barrel loaded.  The tendons in my wrist stuck out like cables when I took aim.  The report was shocking, so loud! and the unexpected recoil made it obvious I needed more muscle strength.  I did biceps curls.  I learned "flash sighting," which is when you focus on the front of the gun and use your judgment, based on rear sights, to determine when to shoot.  My motor coordination got better.  I needed to acquire "procedural memory," so I wouldn't have to think when it came time to use the gun.  It had to be instinctual, I was told  That meant:  lots more practice.
     The truth is, I never wanted to use that gun.  I didn't think I could overcome my sympathy for the victim.  I had to imagine scenes of violence, and drum up anger--enough to fuel a counterattack.  It was hard.  I guess I wasn't scared enough, or hadn't been harmed enough, in my life.  I should have spent more time at the shooting range, but it wasn't fun, so I found excuses not to go.
     When I moved out of that neighborhood I sold the gun.  I have lived in dangerous places since then--North Philadelphia, for instance, where Temple Medical School is located.  Every day there was a shooting, and several times a week medical students' cars got vandalized.
     I assisted at surgery for gunshot wounds in the operating room, thrusting abdominal drains and chest tubes into people in the ER to save their lives.  The ambulances were always dropping off people, comatose, with veins so knotty from years of shooting up that no one could get IV access.  That's how third-year med students like me learned to put in central lines, weaving catheters into collapsed neck veins of bodies while they were jiggled and thumped through resuscitation maneuvers.
     I lived in that violent neighborhood and walked two blocks to school each day.  It did occur to me to buy a gun, but I had two babies at home, and was afraid of a counterattack.  I'd heard that old argument that more people are killed by their own guns, than use them for defense.  Anyway, women with children are full of prolactin, oxytocin and estrogen--hormones that generate maternal feelings, like love, not anger, not fear, not vengeance.  Maybe that's why more guns are sold to men than women, and why men start wars.  Could there be too much testosterone in politics?
     I don't recommend that people own guns, but I don't oppose it, either.  The Second Amendment isn't my reason:  if we imagine the intentions of our forefathers when they drafted that amendment, their circumstances can't be applied, by reasonable people, to our current state.  We aren't about to form a militia to fight against government tyranny--and even if we did, how could we match the offensive attack of our megalithic government?  We'd need bombs, drones and nuclear weapons to wage a fair battle against the American military.  And those will never be legalized, I hope.
     I felt the need for a gun, once, and I was glad to be able to buy one and think about using it.  I hope the urge doesn't come back, but if it does, I don't want anyone to stand in my way.      

1 comment:

  1. You were my parents' physician and you also treated my uncle - even visiting him at home before his untimely passing. You seem to have great potential as a writer. I very much encourage you to write a fiction book along the lines of Grisham and Baldacci, but with a medical twist.