At seventeen, I’m a good kid, always home before curfew; I’ve never had a sip of alcohol or puffed on a cigarette. On this particular night, after going out with friends, I fumble in the dark at the back door until I realize I don’t have my house key. I jiggle the door handle, but it’s locked.
The laundry room door is ten feet away, a second back door on our little ranch house. It’s sometimes left open by my little brother as he races in and out while playing. Tonight I’m in luck: it’s unlocked. I shoulder my way in; I have to use the door to slide a loaded clothes basket across the linoleum. The house is dark and still; it’s after midnight. I reach my hand out, and when I flip the light switch I bathe the laundry room in warm yellow light.
My father rounds the corner in the kitchen, and I jump.
The gun shines, even in the low light of the kitchen. It’s the middle of the night. My father’s hand holds his .357 Magnum aloft, but it begins to droop as he speaks.
“Jesus Christ, Amy,” he says. The words escape his body on a gust of punctured breath. “I could have killed you.”
In the 1930s, .38 Specials were the favored weapon of law enforcement until gangsters began overpowering them with semi-automatics. The police were forever getting into shootouts with getaway cars—really—but the .38 Special was so weak that its bullets could barely pierce the glass of a car window. They needed something more effective, something that could blast through the steel of an American automobile. The government asked Smith & Wesson to develop a gun for them, one that could stop a gangster dead.
Enter the .357 Magnum.
I’ve seen the gun before; it’s not a complete surprise. I don’t know where my father keeps it or any of his other guns, but this one is his favorite. It has a shiny silver barrel, bright enough to show your reflection, and the handle is ivory-colored, crosshatched with an intricate design. I can tell by the way he holds it that it is very heavy.
He takes it to my great aunt’s every New Year’s Eve so he can shoot it into the sky at midnight. On one of these nights, when I am eleven or twelve, he sees me eyeing the gun.
“Do you want to hold it?” he asks. “It’s not loaded.”
Soon I will become a junior member of the National Rifle Association. I will put a hot pink NRA sticker on my tennis racket cover. I will believe in the religion of the Second Amendment, just as my father does, because I want to be like him. I want to be liked by him.
But that New Year’s Eve, I shake my head, I walk away. No. The gun frightens me on some deep, wordless level. I do not touch it then, or ever. The choice is a glimmer of my future self.
In 1989, Rebecca Schaeffer, the actress of My Sister Sam fame, was killed by a mentally-ill fan. He withdrew a gun from a paper sack and shot her in the chest when she answered her door. He killed her with a .357 Magnum.
Her last words: “Why? Why?”
I am 14 the same year Rebecca Schaeffer dies, and I win an honorable mention in a national youth writing contest sponsored by the NRA. I pen a dark cautionary tale about terrified Americans peering from behind curtains at army tanks rolling down their streets, helpless to defend themselves against their tyrannical government. They’ve lost their guns and now their government owns them.
My story earns me $50. My father is alight with pride.
After he almost shoots me, my father’s face is a mosaic of terror, relief, fury. I hear a faint trace of accusation when he speaks.
“I thought you were someone breaking into the house,” he says.
I won’t speak of this night for decades. He will keep his guns—he will panic-buy guns after every school shooting, even Sandy Hook, because he is certain they will be taken away—while this night begins my turning away. Eventually I will come to marvel that I ever believed guns could be the answer to the problem of safety. To anything.
But at seventeen, standing in my parents’ kitchen, none of this has happened yet. My father and I look at one another and neither of us says a word. His arms now hang at his sides, and the gun has disappeared from sight.