Why you should care
Because guns don’t kill people. People with guns kill people.
Guns are weird things.
Weird because sometimes their symbolic impact gets in the way of any attempt to understand them, as they fundamentally are tools with which we build nothing but extensions of our desire for the world to hew to our own designs. In other words: They’re ways to make a point. They also occupy a space, at least in the American mind, that’s damn near totemic.
So maybe the best way to start understanding them as something other than instruments of violent death is to understand them as at least a portion of the gun-bearing community wants them understood: as tools to defend the self.
This would explain why, about 15 years ago, I was carrying one, on the occasion of me setting out across the great and grand expanse of America. Just me in a rental car with a trunk full of my first, just-published book, a tome on the philosophical underpinnings of interpersonal conflict called Fight, or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking. I tell you what it was called just to indicate what kind of folks might be coming out to hear me talk about it. Which, in literary terms, we call foreshadowing.
To others, we probably looked like two guys talking, but something else entirely was happening.
But having had a federal firearms license for years, my understanding of how to handle owning a gun was pretty solid, and amounted to, basically, never pulling it out unless you were going to use it, and planning to use it only if you planned to kill something. Simple, in a way. Especially given I was a solo traveler covering as many states as I could hit in the space of 30 days in an America where just about anything, if the newspapers are to be believed, could happen.
Which is to say I was hoping for the best but expecting the worst. A good game plan regardless of lots of circumstances.
However, the book tour largely rolled out without incident. In bookstores and nightclubs, the deal was largely the same: People showed up, I told stories that were near or next to the actual ones published in the book, they bought the book, we all left. Without incident.
And wending my way back across the country and stopping in Austin — what some friends of mine call “the San Francisco of the South” — I had no reason to expect anything different. Sure, there were weird road moments. Lonely truckers who invited themselves to eat dinner with me in diners to regale me with animal sex stories (sad and disturbing, but true). Cops with guns drawn stopping me for “speeding” 2 mph over the speed limit (sad and disturbing, but also true). Nothing major.
That night in Austin, though, the weather was weird. Always a useful, almost Shakespearean harbinger of a kind of doom. Coming-off-the-Gulf stormy threats. And then I went off-book that night and told a story, a sad story, about once having to kill a dog I was attacked by. The crowd was quiet and attentive and gasped at the spots that were gasp-worthy. I stopped storytelling, the crowd clapped and I made my way to the merchandise table to make with the book selling, which was why I was there.
People bought and chatted, I signed, they filtered away. Through the crowd clustered around the table, I caught the eye of one guy who was just standing there, watching. Not watching, really, more like staring. Or glaring. One hand was in his pocket, the other held a drink. All the while I signed, gave some more of my stories to the last few folks there.
Then there was just him, as I started to slowly pack up the books that hadn’t sold.
“Heya, can I help you?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to buy anything,” he said. I laughed. Because: of course. “I just wanted to tell you something.”
“My dog just died.”
“Sorry to hear that.” I had packed up the last box and shifted it to the side, and with it the table that had separated us.
“And when I heard you tell your … little story …” The hostility was now noticeable. But I had been on notice since the staring. “It just made me … so fucking mad.”
We stared at each other for what felt like an hour but was probably only 10 seconds, and then I spoke.
“It was as upsetting to tell again as it was to live through, and I hadn’t really intended to tell it tonight, it just seemed …”
“Yeah, I was mad.” To others, we probably looked like two guys talking, but something else entirely was happening. In his trucker’s cap and overalls — I swear to God that’s what he was wearing — and unshaven like he was, I could have almost predicted what came next.
“So I went out to my car and got my gun …” I waited for him to move, not taking my eyes off him. “But I decided not to shoot you since …”
“You went out and got your gun?”
“Well, yeah, I …”
“A gun … ?” Now it was my turn to interrupt. “You mean a gun?” I stepped in so I could place my hand on what I had figured out was his dominant arm while I pulled up my shirt. “Like this one?”
He looked at mine, then back at me. All of his tough-guy gaming went out the window and was replaced not so much with fear, but with a realization that at least one of us had heard this joke before.
“I wasn’t going to shoot you, man,” he said quietly.
“And I’m not going to shoot you.” I dropped my shirt.
“But I will buy a book,” he said, working his mouth around a smile that couldn’t have been more genuine.
“Yeah, brother, I like your style!”
And so it went. Sales and marketing. The American way.