Ms. Gamble didn’t come back to school after a kid brought a gun to her second grade class. A dismantled gun. Or maybe broken. Something about it didn’t work. I was in fourth grade when he brought it because it wasn’t too long after Columbine happened. I was in the fourth grade wing of the school, which at the time, felt far enough away to protect me from anything that might have happened on the second graders’ side. But it didn’t change the fact that a second grader brought a gun–a BB gun, I think. It didn’t make the news because there were enough copy cats at the time that it didn’t matter. I do remember the kid got suspended and that Ms. Gamble didn’t come back to school.
I didn’t get in trouble as a kid. I was really, really freaked out by authority, and I just wanted to be accepted and loved and in good graces. I didn’t get a spanking or a whoopin’ or even grounded. But I do remember two times that I received two pretty intense come-to-Jesus meetings with my dad–both of which involved guns. We are and have always been a gun family. We hunt regularly, and because of that, often have food on our table that might be a little less conventional than the ground beef you find at the grocery store. But it’s the ability to hunt that had saved our family in winter months when funds were low and construction work wasn’t nearly as fruitful for my dad. Our money went toward vegetables and milk and bread and Dad would bring home the meat. For that, I will always be grateful to guns because at the time, guns were our respite, not our restraint.
But the first time that guns got me in trouble was at my mamaw’s house. I was 12. Nothing good ever happened there, so I’m not surprised that was the locale. The hunting gene ran deep in my family, so my mamaw took me inside and showed me my dad’s pellet gun. My dad then showed me how to load it and shoot it. It was not my first time around a gun–I actually remember feeling pretty confident. I posted up on a hill and waited for birds to come through to shoot. I wasn’t allowed to shoot the dove or the red birds, but I totally had a green light for the blue jays. One landed on an old telephone pole that was leaned against the shed, and I aimed and shot, missing the bird completely. I heard the tiny pellet fly and eventually hit a tree in the distance. And that’s when I heard my dad yell.
He hollered for me to come over to him and asked me what I had just done. I told him about the blue jay and how I almost hit it, and he said, “Almost? You almost hit it? Did you see what was behind it?” I looked back to where the bird would have been. I didn’t get what he was trying to get at. He said, “My truck was behind it. Did you even see my truck?” And that’s when I felt my face getting hot. I was embarrassed but I was also mad because, even though it’s an expensive thing, it was just a truck. I apologized and said, “I’m sorry Dad. I didn’t mean to. I wouldn’t mean to hit your truck,” and that’s when he said, “It has nothing to do with the truck. What if Casey was back there?” My brother Casey means more to me than anything else in the world, even to this day. It made me even madder. “But Casey wasn’t back there,” I responded, and he said, “But what if Casey was back there?” I stood quiet, and he repeated himself. He said, “You wouldn’t have known because if you can’t see a truck, how would you see Casey? What if Casey was back there? What if Casey was back there? Justin, what if Casey was back there?” I started to cry. “I can’t trust you with this. If you don’t care to respect this, then I can’t trust you with this. Go inside. You’re done.”
And I went inside and cried. I cried for a pretty long time because I couldn’t answer the question: “What if Casey was back there?”
I didn’t shoot another gun for a really long time because the consequence scared me. I’ve approached a lot of things in life that way. But eventually, I did return back to shooting, and I’d go hunting with my dad a couple times a year. I came to enjoy shotguns over rifles or handguns because I liked going duck and goose hunting with my dad the most. They felt the most stable on my shoulder–a shotgun felt very purposeful. So when my dad got a new one, he wanted me to test it. This time, I was 16, which is the worst age that any human can be. 16 year olds are careless and stupid. If you’re 16 and reading this and offended, talk to me in about 10 years, and we’ll laugh and laugh. I walked outside in pants that were about two inches too long for my legs at the time, and my dad handed me the shotgun.
He was reaching over to get shotgun shells for me, and I leaned back on my left leg and shook my right foot, trying to free the end of the pant leg from my heel. I don’t know which way the barrel of the gun went, but I do remember my dad saying, “What the fuck are you doing?” He immediately grabbed the gun from me and said, “What the hell was that?” I explained that I was trying to free the pant leg, but it didn’t matter, and that’s when he said, “Justin, you’re old enough to know better. I’m out here. Your mom is out here. Do you want to kill someone?” Ignorantly, I asked if there were shotgun shells already in the chamber, to which he responded, “Does it matter? Did you know it was empty? Are you sure?” And I wasn’t. I’m a smart person. I graduated valedictorian of my class, and I went to college, then grad school. I’m a smart person, but it doesn’t matter. Because I wasn’t sure. The rest of our conversation fell off, because at that point, I was old enough that I realized what I had done. The responsibility in my hands was still one I didn’t fully understand, and it’s one that I don’t believe most people do. It’s a responsibility you can’t afford to not understand.
When I sat down to write tonight, I didn’t fully know what I was trying to say. I knew what I felt, but I didn’t know what I was trying to say. I have never lost someone to gun violence. As I had said earlier, I’m thankful for the role that guns have played in my direct life. I’m thankful for the food it has provided my family, and I’m thankful for the lessons that they have taught me about respect and humanity. And that’s when it hit me–my dad, who is very enthusiastic about the guns he owns and the hunting he does, was never trying to educate me about the importance of guns. He was never trying to persuade me that owning a firearm was a right that I needed to come to appreciate. He was trying to teach me about the value of human life and the gravity and fragility of being alive. He taught a number of my friends how to hold a gun and load it and shoot it for the first time. But he gave them all the same speech, instructing them about how much responsibility comes with just holding a firearm, and looking into each of their eyes and explaining how easy it is to make a mistake. His motives never revolved around guns–it was the same intensity he used to explain what it meant to drive a car or to have someone you love pass away. It was always about respecting life.
I’m not trying to convince you one way or another about guns and the state of gun violence in America. There is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s as evident as the sun that will rise in a few hours after I finish writing this. I’m also not trying to detract away from the very important conversation that needs to happen about guns in America. Over 100 people have been shot and killed in the city I live in, in just this calendar year alone. Washington D.C. has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, and yet, people continue to be killed by the very commodity we’re attempting to regulate. People across the country are dying: in movie theaters and schools and on assignment and in church. The culprits’ faces bear few similarities because they’re cops and loners and criminals and former reporters. I don’t have an answer on what to do. I fear to offer an opinion, because these opinions and decisions are not fired up comments on a YouTube video. They’re decisions that could affect life and death. I don’t know what to do.
But I do know that when I sat down at my computer today, I was angry about events from the night before. I was frustrated with work, and I was ready to go to the mat over an issue that had come up. Waiting on my boss to get in, I opened up Twitter and saw the news report about the journalist and photographer shot live on air. And I froze. The male victim was 27. He didn’t look much like me, but he didn’t not look like me either. He lived about 4 hours away, and he was engaged to be married. He looked happy. He looked like someone that probably looked forward to getting home after a long day at work. He looked fun. And in a way, I saw pieces of myself in his picture. And I thought about how easy it would be for his picture to be mine. And in the tweets that followed, I saw people offering their opinion on gun violence, so I sent a tweet offering condolences, using the station’s handle, and then I closed out Twitter.
I closed out Twitter, not because I thought that the politics of the situation weren’t necessary, but because the politics of the situation were mistimed and misguided. I wondered if anyone sending those messages had actually considered Adam or Allison. Considered their lives. Considered what it meant to not have them in this world anymore. The messages we send in the immediate aftermath of human loss should not be laden with a political agenda. And no–there is no good time to have a political agenda: the losses are happening every day, but I fear that what we’re losing in the pursuit of policy reform is the same humanity that I learned by being around guns. We’re too concerned with what the gun does and less about who it does it to. We treat videos as propaganda for our cause without understanding that the footage we’re watching and sharing is the death of someone’s child or partner or parent. In the argument for who’s right and who’s wrong and whether or not guns should be banned, we’re losing sight of the people we’re fighting for. We’re more concerned with being right than feeling the loss and remorse that should come along with the human experience.
No one’s death can be remedied with a hashtag. When you hashtag #gunviolence, you are doing nothing more than turning the death of the day into a weekly Jimmy Fallon Tonight Show game. Without action, your hashtag does very little, but without actual human compassion and respect for human life, your hashtag does even less. I mulled and mulled over the shootings that happened in Roanoke and wondered about the two people who lost lovers in the aftermath. I wondered about their families and about the people that we often forget exist in these times: the coworkers they shared their days with, the cousins and classmates that they’d affected along the way. And it all became too much. I stepped outside and called my mom to let her know that I loved her, and she asked me if I was ok. I talked to her about the shootings that happened and how I didn’t know what to say or do. And how it was all getting so random: it could be the Walmart my parents shop at or the metro stop I get off at when I’m going home or the Arby’s where my brother works.
And then I was haunted by the same question: What if Casey was back there?
A week or so later, I asked my mom why Ms. Gamble didn’t come back to school, and she told me she was scared. I wasn’t old enough to get that it had nothing to do with the gun, which was ruled non-functional. And after all these years, I’m beginning to understand. Maybe Ms. Gamble knew something that we didn’t at the time, or at least, I didn’t. She might have known that the world was mean and that people weren’t prepared to deal with the great level of responsibility they’d been given. She might have thought that the kid was too far gone to save, as if one school shooting had given him passive permission that it was okay to pretend to do it himself. Or maybe she just didn’t know what was going to happen next.
Ms. Gamble didn’t come back to school after a kid brought a gun to her second grade class because she was scared. And I get scared, too.