A collage of colorful guns.

First Person

My Father, His Gun, and Me

It wasn’t her dad's firearm that terrified the author when she was growing up. It was the realization that a weapon could never protect her from the palpable violence.

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I was in college when my father pulled a gun on me.

I went to college four hours from home, and sometimes I surprised my parents by coming back for the weekend unannounced. Once, I got in late and struggled to open the front door. The lock had always been problematic. My parents’ bedroom overhung the porch, and my father was a large man. I heard him get out of bed, go to his closet and then come to the window. I knew he kept a small handgun amid his clothes.

The window slid open with a whoosh and he said, “Who’s there?” Half growl, half whisper.

“It’s me,” I yelled up, equally annoyed and humored by his melodrama. “It’s Jamie.”

I heard him go back to his closet before he came down to let me in.

The first time I held a gun it was a prop.

Constructed out of plywood and painted matte black, it was larger than my hand, and I was afraid if I held it too tightly, I would get a splinter. My director at summer camp was staging a gender-bent scene from The Maltese Falcon. He told me I looked like I had never held a gun.

“I’m 15,” I said.

He told me to respect what I had in my hand. To treat it with reverence and the knowledge of the damage it could do. In response, I held my arm very straight in an attempt to get the gun as far away from my body as possible.

“Don’t act afraid of it,” he said. “Respect is different than fear.”

My father’s personality matched his stature. He was quick to anger and quick to yell. As a child, I never doubted he loved me, but I was afraid of him. I have vague memories of being spanked. Even after the spankings stopped, his explosive outbursts frequently caught me off guard.

Because his ire was often directed at my older brother, I had enough distance to realize my father couldn’t control himself. I understood and accepted that the rest of us could only avoid upsetting him for so long before he needed to direct his inherent rage at someone.

When I was getting ready to leave for college, my dad’s assistant warned him to ease up on me, lest I rebel in glorious fashion, but I had no impulse to rebel. By then, I had moved past fearing my father, and without respect for him to fall back on, he had little control over me. Rebelling would have been a waste of my time. That’s not to say I followed all the rules, I was just exceedingly careful about the ones I chose to break.

Years later, my best friend told me she was afraid of my dad, and I laughed. I had forgotten I had ever feared him.

My father died under mysterious circumstances. Cause of death (according to the death certificate): blunt force trauma of the head, ruled “accidental.” Cause of death (according to the medical autopsy): multi-organ system failure, with two intermediate causes, one underlying cause, and three contributing causes, including unexplained “frequent falls.” Cause of death (according to the obituary written by a reporter for the local paper—at one time, my father, many years before his death, was newsworthy): Complications from surgery.

None of the official reports mention the break-in in his apartment, or the voicemails I found encouraging him to testify against his boss, a lawyer who, as a college student, had been accused of causing a fellow student’s death (I had seen the court documents online), and who, years after my dad’s death, was finally disbarred.

None of the official reports mentioned the gash on the back of his head that could have been from falling out of bed and hitting the corner of his nightstand, like he said, or could have been the graze of a bullet from a gun pulled backward from the temple at the last minute.

None of the official reports mention that it was my decision to turn off the ventilator that was forcing air into his lungs at the end, or how I sat with him as the color drained from his face until he looked like he was made of putty.

When asked how my father died, I typically say, “It’s complicated,” but it’s not. I just don’t know the answer.

Growing up, I was afraid of the dark. I could only fall asleep if both my nightlight and the hall light were on. It also helped to hear the muffled blare of the TV from my parents’ room and see the moving blue light dancing on the window in my room. Even when I was old enough to stay up later than my parents, I couldn’t stomach a dark house.

After watching TV in the basement family room, I would leave a light on down there to avoid walking up the stairs in the dark. I was a responsible teenager, and my mom couldn’t understand why she always found a light on in the morning.

“You forgot to turn the lamp by the stereo off again,” she’d say. “It’s wasteful.”

I hadn’t forgotten anything. Even with the light on, I took the steps two at a time.

“I’m sorry,” I’d reply, not the least bit contrite.

I was a people-pleaser, and didn’t like upsetting my mom, or wasting electricity, but fear is a powerful motivator that can drive us to strange choices.

Recently, in the town where I live, a woman was shot in the head. She was asleep in bed, her husband lying next to her. Her neighbor accidentally discharged his “AK-47-style pistol” while cleaning it. A bullet tore through their shared wall before it struck the sleeping woman.

Even the words, “AK-47-style pistol,” seem overly aggressive. The kind of fear that could push a civilian to arm themselves in that way scares me.

The neighbor immediately expressed remorse, and days later when the woman’s husband and son made the decision to turn off the machines that were mimicking her signs of life, the husband expressed forgiveness toward his neighbor.

Accidents can’t be avoided. As a kid, I was told there are no “drunk driving accidents,” only “drunk driving crashes” because when you get into a car drunk, you are accepting the increased odds of doing harm. It becomes an intention, not a mistake.

The charge is “involuntary manslaughter,” but the truth is, once you pick up a gun, nothing that follows is accidental.

The second time I held a gun, it was real.

While I was in college, my father had trouble finding work, and got a credit card in my name without my knowledge. I found out when the credit card company called to alert me to a sizeable bill in cash advances.

I drove home, once again unannounced, to confront my dad. I made sure to arrive in daylight, when the house was empty. I let myself in through the side door and went straight to his closet. My uncle met me outside to take the gun away. On the porch, I asked him if my father had stolen money from him, too. My uncle told me he didn’t have to answer my question.

At no point was I afraid my father would physically harm me. I was, however, terrified he would harm himself.

The confrontation was uneventful. My dad promised to pay the bill, to get a job, to take better care of himself. I told him his brother had his gun. He was more concerned about why I felt the need to remove it than the fact that it was gone.

To the best of my knowledge, he had never used it. I’m not even sure why he had it. My father’s cars, always some version of a station wagon or a large cruiser that could be confused for an unmarked police car, were stolen from our street more than once. But I couldn’t imagine him shooting anyone. I have no doubt it’s fear that drove him, and others like him, to arm himself with a deadly weapon. I know the things I fear won’t be conquered by deadly force.

The same month the shootings happened in Parkland, Florida, a gun store opened within 1,000 feet of my kids’ school. Every day we drove by the large plate glass windows which used to display pianos but could barely contain deadly weapons. The large red sign, lit up at a night, had strong black images of handguns and rifles. Some families organized against the store, working with the media, school groups, and the township commissioners to prevent the temporary lease from becoming permanent. I went to meetings and penned speeches in hopes of protecting my kids.

But I did not fear the gun store.

There was something stopping me from actually imagining what it would be like if a person with a gun got into their school. So I did the things I knew I had to do without actually feeling the fear that was motivating the parents around me.

The next time I held a gun—my father’s gun—I knew it was a symbol, of things that went wrong and things we had to lose

A few months before my father entered the hospital, he sold our family home. At 62, he was starting to show signs of confusion and paranoia, no doubt the side effects of underemployment, financial strain, and my mother’s recent exit from the marriage.

My brother and I came to town to clean out our family home, but we also had a covert list of things to accomplish. “Get rid of the gun” was at the top. The gash was already visible on the back of my father’s bald head.

It was my brother’s idea to throw the gun in a waterway. When we had an excuse to leave the house, we drove down the hill to an industrial spot on the banks of the river we had grown up crossing almost daily. We looked for surveillance cameras before we chose a place to park.

I had carried the gun out of the house, but stayed by the car while my brother went to the river, He had always been action-oriented while I am prone to retreat into the past. The car was full of the things that had been important to me when I was a teenager: notebooks and photo albums, letters and yearbooks. I chose to stay by them, guard them, as if anything in the vehicle would be worth anything to anyone else, as if holding on to the artifacts of my past would mean my father wasn’t unraveling.

Our trip to the river was just a pitstop on the way to transfer boxes from the basement of the home we grew up in to the basement of the home my mother had escaped to. She would have preferred that we get rid of the boxes, but it felt like we were already getting rid of too much that weekend, so we just transferred the detritus from one address to another.

My brother’s first attempt to launch the gun into the river was thwarted by two jet skiers. I wasn’t close enough to see him, but he described it to me: the gun in his palm, his arm outstretched behind him and his sudden contraction, trying to look like a normal guy on a riverbank. He had advised me to tell anyone who approached me that I was scouting a location for a photoshoot. I practiced this deception under my breath while I waited for him.

I have only ever wanted my own gun once.

I don’t remember a sense of fear after my father’s death, but I do remember my plan to procure a gun. At Thanksgiving dinner, the weekend of his memorial, I announced the first step of my plan: to learn how to shoot. I was shouted down by my loving, liberal family, including my aunt, a life-long peace activist who, as an undergrad, was present at the Kent State shootings.

They talked me out of getting a weapon fairly easily. It may have been as simple as my brother’s famous combination eyeroll/sigh. I knew I did not need a gun, but how comforting it was to hear everyone explain the reasons to me, to focus for one moment on logic instead of the pain the loss of my father had elicited in me.

I have learned to live with my fears, understanding that though they exist at my core, they are changeable and don’t define me. When I grew out of my fear of the dark, I became terrified of childbirth, telling anyone who would listen that I planned to adopt. I went on to give birth to two small humans. Once I conquered childbirth, the fear of losing them took hold of me, and is still with me every night when I stand quietly in their room, checking for the rise and fall of their bodies before I can turn out the light and go to sleep myself.

My fears are ever changing and immune to deadly force. Climate change is coming for me, sexism and misogyny have already had their way with me, anti-semitism is a thing I know exists, and yet I have to remind myself daily that people often see me as “other,” even though I just see me as “me.”

I judge the neighbor with the automatic pistol and the man in the grocery store with a slogan on his shirt that warns of a hidden gun on his body. I judge my father. These men have taken the easy way out. They prioritize their presumed sense of safety over the actual safety of the rest of us. As if their fear is the only fear that matters.

My father’s fear controlled him and shaped me. Knowing there was a gun in the house didn’t make me feel safer (even before it was pulled on me), it just made me aware of how much there was to fear.

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