UNRAVELING THE KNOT

ALLAN G. JOHNSON'S BLOG

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Planes Don’t Fly and Guns Don’t Kill

There are so many multiple murders these days that it’s hard to keep up. I have written elsewhere about the manhood/gun angle to all of this, and it’s time now to look at the guns themselves. The NRA tells us that guns don’t kill, people do. As someone with some experience of using guns to kill, I have a few things to say about that.

I was seven when I killed the family cat, although that was ruled an accident and did not involve a gun. The cat was going out and then back in with me through a heavy back door that opened onto a porch, well, make up your mind, and being only seven and unaware of what a door can do, and thinking the cat was out for good and then going in and letting the door close behind me of its own considerable weight, and then a sickening thud and a muted scream as the door caught the cat in the middle of its body and I turned and watched it fall down the stair to the smooth stone of the porch and thrash about in the light dusting of snow and then lie still.

I went out and bent over the cat. I didn’t know about death and the dead, but I knew something had happened and that it had to do with me and that I would be sorry, which I was without fully comprehending why.

I had a better idea some years later when I stalked the back yard in the early hours of the morning before the neighbors were up, my BB gun in my hands, listening for the sound of crows high up in the trees, the crows my mother had granted me license to kill any time I should get so lucky. She had no use for them, she said, her coming from the farm and knowing them only as marauders in the corn. I got pretty good at it, but they were up so high and the gun so lacking, that all I managed to produce was a dull thwack of a BB hitting home and then an outraged squawk as the crow took off for a safer and more congenial place. Until one morning there was no squawk, only the soft choppy rhythm of a body falling down, its descent slowed by branches and leaves as it passed by on the way to earth, landing with a thud on the ground.

I was stunned. I wondered if anyone had seen, especially as it fell in a neighbor’s yard which seemed to me at the time to be the greater transgression.

I went into the house and watched from the kitchen window, but no one came to see.

I waited throughout the day, stopping from time to time to glance over the fence to the shade of the neighbor’s yard where the body was barely visible against the dark surface of the grass. I told no one what I’d done, knowing instinctively, for all my mother’s permission and encouragement, that I had done something wrong, which I could tell from the way the crow just lay there in silent reproach, knowing that sooner or later I would have to come and get it.

I waited for dark and took a shovel from the garage and crept into the neighbor’s yard where I retrieved the crow, feeling the weight of its body, more than I thought it would be, it being so small. I carried it to a sheltered space behind the tall spruce in the back corner of our yard, aware all the while of its black, upturned eye visible even in what little light there was. I buried it, quickly and furtively, not pausing long enough to honor the bird or allow my shame to blossom into anything like real regret.

A few years later—I was probably sixteen at the time—I bought myself a .22 rifle which I took to a sportsman’s club outside of town on weekdays when no one was around. I spent the afternoon at the outdoor bench rest where I shot at paper targets I ordered through the mail from the NRA. I liked being outside, and I liked the solitude, being on my own, the smell of powder, the feel of wood and gunmetal and brass casings, the sense of ease I felt in handling the gun.

And then, one day, like any other, while I was reloading the magazine, a small bird happened out of the woods and landed on the corner of the wooden frame that held the target. It stood there for a moment to preen itself before moving on, which it would have done were it not for me, seeing it there as I swung the rifle back into position and sighted down the barrel first at the target and then, so easily, up a little and to the right.

I killed that bird and I was old enough to know why, although not in time to make a difference. I killed it because I wanted to and because I could, to feel the power of the gun in my hands to do what guns are meant to do, to exercise absolute control over whether a being dies or goes on living.

For how long did I want? Only the fraction of a second that it took to give the slightest backward pull on the trigger, and then, suddenly, so suddenly, and pathetically, the sharp report and the bird seeming to fling itself off its perch and onto the ground.

I instantly regretted what I had done, my heart sinking in my chest. I put down the rifle and ran the length of the range. I couldn’t find it at first, it was so small, and then, there it was, still and silent, a hole in the side of its breast, bits of feather rustling in the breeze.

In that moment, I knew that I had committed nothing less than a murder, a killing without just cause. At first I tried to comfort myself that it was a very small murder, the bird no bigger than my fist. But, then, no, it came to me that there is no such thing.

I took the rifle back to the sporting goods store and handed it to the man behind the counter, telling him I didn’t want it anymore. He asked if there was something wrong with it. I said no, I just didn’t want it. He explained about returns and refunds, used goods, shaking his head, holding the rifle in his hands, like a small corpse. I looked away, not wanting him to know, wanting only to be gone.

The National Rifle Association tells us it was not the gun that killed the bird, it was me. While I have no quarrel with claiming my responsibility, it seems an odd rhetorical trick to define the problem as having to choose between one and the other.

It is of course true that if I had not had the impulse to kill, it never would have happened. And yet, at the same time, consider, on the one hand, the difference between pulling a trigger a small fraction of an inch, that tiny distance it takes to get from the impulse to the act, and, on the other, strangling the bird to death with my own two hands or beating it with a club.

In which case would the impulse to kill have been most likely to result in death?

To separate the gun from the shooting is like telling carpenters that it’s they and not the hammer that drives the nail, or pilots that it’s they and not the plane that flies. Have you ever seen a pilot fly?

We are also told that guns are necessary for self-defense. I find this confusing. If guns are irrelevant to mass murder, it being people who kill and not the gun, then how can guns also be essential for killing people who might kill you? Which is it? Do guns protect people or do people?

If weapons are irrelevant to the cause of violence, then I suppose we should save ourselves the trouble of trying to halt the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons, which some nations claim the right to possess in their own defense.

I was just fifteen years old when I killed that bird and yet old enough to understand what happened that afternoon. I killed a bird on the sudden impulse of wanting to. And the gun allowed me to do it faster than doubt could enter my mind, and then the silence of no taking it back.

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