Testimony of a Gun-Death Survivor

I know from personal experience about the long-run suffering inflicted by gun deaths. I was not quite three years old when my father was killed, in November, 1945, by a fellow American soldier test firing a souvenir Lugar in the barracks. He had survived the war, but not the peace that followed. That shot has echoed down the decades in my family. I think I can still faintly hear it today, nearly 70 years later.

The cruelty of gun deaths comes partly from their absurd randomness. When I was a child, I imagined that my father was a war hero who had been killed in combat.  (How else could he have died?)  When I was an adolescent, I learned that the US Army reported that he was shot in a room where “men were working on guns.”  Later still, due to my mother’s obsessive persistence, we learned the even more prosaic truth:  he was seated, playing cards, when the unanticipated recoil of the Lugar directed a shot meant for the floorboards across the room and into his back.

Survivors of such capricious deaths cannot help being tormented by thoughts of alternative realities. In the case of my father:  If only the shooter had aimed in a different direction or taken into account the powerful recoil. If only the shot had gone twelve inches to the left (or the right). If only my father had been demobilized earlier.  If…if…if… Not far behind such thoughts lies the guilt felt by survivors.  For my mother, there was guilt about my conception. If only I had been born earlier, my father might not have been drafted in the first place.

My mother was haunted all her life by this death. Never able to find relief, she eventually took her own life, stipulating that she was to be buried beside her first husband.  Remarriage could not give the succor she needed:  As a Catholic woman with a young child, she faced a limited field of choice in the immediate post-war years, since a shortage of marriageable men was the inevitable consequence of the war. Her second marriage, to a man who had already been divorced twice (one more than she knew when she married him), lasted only six years, but left her with two more boys to raise. There was no further hope of companionship.

Premature deaths twist the emotional lives of families in ways that are very hard to discern, let alone straighten out. The familial black hole created by my father’s death, combined with my physical resemblance to him even as a child, meant that the adults around me encouraged me to see myself as his heir, an identification that I embraced eagerly, with little ability to anticipate all its implications. My father was described by all who knew him as a handsome, intelligent man, the first of his immigrant Sicilian family to try his luck in the American mainstream. In the abstract, not a bad example to follow.

The full meaning of this identity came home to roost during my 20s, when I was beset by intensifying anxieties and depression. As I approached 30, the age when my father was killed, I was visited by night terrors and the dread of early death. My understanding of what I was going through was limited (despite psychotherapy), and I perceived myself as mentally and physically ill. It was only when relief set in during my early 30s that I began to comprehend how my torment was connected to a death more than a quarter century in the past.

I feel I can now, at the age of 70, declare that the wounds that stem directly or indirectly from that gun death have healed.  It took many years of psychotherapy, and a very loving marriage. But based on my family’s experience, I think I am safe in predicting that for most of the survivors of recent gun massacres, in Aurora, Newtown, and now Webster, NY, the sadness will never fully dissipate.

My experience has led me to strong, strong support for gun control. A civilized society doesn’t allow private individuals to gather weaponry so that they can wreak violence on unsuspecting fellow citizens. The only sane course is to restrict access to very lethal weaponry such as automatic guns and to require the same sort of regulation of gun owners that we require of car drivers.

As a social scientist, I am trained to understand the way things actually work and to avoid projecting idealizations onto the social world.  The vision of the National Rifle Association and its supporters, of near-universal armament, so that for instance guards (or even teachers) can shoot it out in school hallways with intruders, is such an idealization. There is in fact no existing society that is so heavily armed (aside perhaps from the Jewish settlers on the West Bank, but is this an example we should want to follow?). Hence, the NRA project is based on a theory about how such a society would work, not the evidence of how one really does work.

In truth, we are already the most heavily armed society that has ever existed.  Currently, some 300 million guns are in private hands in the United States, almost one for every person living in our borders.  If widespread gun ownership inhibited violence, we should be a very safe society. But we are not:  We suffer a much higher rate of homicide due to guns and much more frequent gun massacres than any other western society. In comparison to some countries with very restrictive laws, such as Great Britain, the disparities approach a hundredfold.

The NRA and many of its supporters imagine a society of massive gun ownership, peopled by responsible armed citizens who use their weapons only to protect themselves, their families and their neighbors. A realistic glance at how weapons are actually figure in daily life in the United States exposes the fantastical aspects of this idea. Instead of prudent shooters, we have, just to take examples from recent months: parents who kill their children by accident, as happened when a gun being sold by a father discharged in the truck where his son was riding; individuals who use guns in ambiguous, but ultimately resolvable situations on the principle of “better him than me,” such as the killing of Trayvon Martin; and others who, in a moment of fury, impulsively shoot, as in the killing of a black teen in Florida over loud music.

In an ordinary year, some 30 thousands Americans are killed by guns (most, admittedly, by suicide), and 75 thousand are injured. Our overall rate of gun deaths (per 100,000) places the U.S. in the top 15 nations worldwide, just behind South Africa and not far below Mexico.

I acknowledge that, in a country drenched with weapons, meaningful gun control will not be easy to achieve. But the idea that the proliferation of guns forces the rest of us to arm ourselves moves us further in the direction of an insane, unworkable vision. More guns will not protect us, but worsen the violence and spread the suffering of gun deaths.