I was just a little girl, round faced with a Buster Brown haircut and serious brown eyes, when I got my first, and only, gun. It was shiny, heavy in the hand, with a trigger that discharged with a satisfying click. It hung low on my hips, encased in a black leather holster, embellished with an intricate pattern of bright silver studs. When I wore it, I was Hopalong Cassidy, four years old and fearless.
I don’t recall which of my doting aunts and uncles had bequeathed this amazing gift to me, but it surely, for a brief period of time, was one of my most treasured possessions. I’m not sure why, though I would guess that on the street where we lived in the Bronx, a neighborhood of mostly first generation families striving to make it to the middle class, I might have been the only kid on the block with such a magnificent piece.
The cap gun’s appeal was short lived, replaced, with either a new doll with eyes that blinked, or perhaps a brand new Pinkie to bounce off the stoop, or a double Dutch jump rope, but it remains ever in my memory.
Flash forward more than 40 years, and I am sitting in a jury room in Maricopa County Superior Court in downtown Phoenix, empaneled with a jury charged with deciding if a young man is guilty of manslaughter. After more than two weeks of testimony, our responsibility hangs heavy in the room, as we go back and forth on the weight of the evidence and the guilt of the defendant. And then, the bailiff brings in the murder weapon and passes it around the group at the table. I had never held a real gun in my hands before, never felt the coolness of the metal, the sleekness of its design, the way it fit so neatly into the palm of my hand. Never thought before how something so beautiful could be so deadly.
Especially now, when lethal weapons seem to proliferate as fast as cap guns and otherwise, and it is the otherwise that troubles me and lots of other Americans, the rising tide of gun deaths and mass killings and the growing number of guns in our hands. Our hands, I say, because, like it or not, ordinary citizens are the owners, and guns find their way into the hands of just about anyone in America today. Loose gun regulation, lax enforcement, illegal sales, any number of factors, have led to the proliferation of weapons. Not to mention the ability of the powerful gun lobby to derail regulation and suppress critical studies that could provide compelling data to persuade even the most recalcitrant lawmakers to consider gun control and engender viable legislation.
Last week’s horrific shooting on the idyllic Umpqua Community College campus now takes its place among the frightening spate of senseless gun deaths that have occurred in the most pedestrian places, felling the most ordinary among us, would-be nurses or truck drivers, dedicated teachers or librarians, courageous security guards or soldiers.
And they remind that guns are not toys.
That the sound of gunfire is not a harmless pop.
Bang, bang, we used to shout, brandishing our cowboy pistols.
Yep, bang, bang.