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About That Gunfight
Remembering a moment of absolute clarity.
I have had many opportunities to think about death. There are scenarios and experiences that have burned pivotal moments into my life, a few of which involved life and death. Today I am reminded once again about the moment I would have killed a young black man. Every time I think about the moment, I have the same clarity of purpose and intent. I would have dropped him like a hot biscuit. I feel like rethinking it again. Come with me. It might help us.
I set up the scenario with my original text - the first time I wrote about the encounter which took place in the Fall of 1991 in the early evening just south of Park Slope, Brooklyn. I wrote the text below in 2000 when I was doing some post-modern experimental [stuff] on the interwebz. Please forgive the lower case.
if i had ever considered arming myself more seriously, what happened that night changed my view forever. i still hadn't memorized the trains and retained a bit of anxiety about the frequent yet petty crimes i had already witnessed in my first 8 weeks; the occasional, even gracefully choreographed chain snatching, the in-your-face threatening mendacity of panhandlers and the wicked yet almost comic squabbling between two ham-fisted nigerian watch peddlers the other day on 42nd and lex. yet my anxiety was a product of my willingness to step in and stop that violence which was still only verbal. i have a gut instinct for stepping between combatants. i don't know where it comes from, but i must fight myself to resist stopping fights between others. i'm like the fonz, believing a well place 'hey' will cool hot heads. yet i know deep down that i should know more kung fu in order to satisfy my interventionist urge. i want to be a buddhist cop because i hate the destruction.
so this on night, headed more or less fearlessly downtown i was shocked. a young black kid on a dirtbike heads up the ave towards my position and stops at the back door of a chinese takeout as the man steps out. the old chinese man and his old chinese bicycle are preparing their way to deliver a handlebar-bike-basket full of food somewhere in brooklyn, but they are stopped by a 9mm pistol aimed straight at his head. the dirtbike kid's heft of the glock is practiced as he pulled it from his backpack while coasting to a stop. he is as focused as any 14 year old can be, silently laughing his ass off at the terror he sees in the old man's eyes. he barks something threatening as i move slowly out towards the curb, nearly parallel to the chinaman yet still behind him enough to see over his shoulder the grinning face of his deadly teenaged adversary.
within the space of 2 seconds i realize three things. one, the kid was paying no attention to me at all - all he wanted to do was scare that man. two, i could have gotten at least three bullets into him and used the fire hydrant for cover before he realized what was up. three, if i had my own gun there is absolutely no question that there would have been another dead black teenager in brooklyn this evening. i would have killed him without hesitation.
the event was so clear, so perfect that it felt like a scenario described on usenet as a strawman. as the tears welled up in my eyes and the kid turned his bike and rolled back downhill, with his 'ha ha made you flinch' laughter, i asked myself if this was what i was put on earth for. my desire for peace led me to the unequivocal destruction of the kid with the deadly sick sense of humor.
i don't know where i went on the F train that evening. i kept playing the scenario back in my mind, a prisoner of the moment. yes. yes. no doubt yes. the answers kept coming back in the affirmative - i would have shot him, i would have felt good about it. if the situation presented itself again would shoot again. the only thing that saved that boy's life was the fact that i didn't have a gun.
Before I actually got a gun in my hand, I had a lot of reasoning behind never putting a gun in my hand, and it had a lot to do with the kind of slapdash thinking takes place in daydreams about being king when you’ve never been near anyone near a king. I suppose that’s rather like what a union guy on a forklift says about corporate vice-presidents. I am reminded of the saying about blue collar Trump supporters who like him because he behaves like they would if they had ‘fuck you money’, and affluent Beto supporters who like him because he thinks like what they believe poor people think. It’s cognitive dissonance all the way down. Yet it stands to reason within your bubble of reason. So I never touched a gun.
I understand the bubble of inner-city rationale. Nobody asked to be raised in the ghetto and few people who are second and third generation ghetto have any reason to give love to those with whom they’ve been thrown together according to some racial covenants written in their grandparents’ day. Somebody really wants to kill his landlord. Or maybe they just want to put a gun in somebody’s face for giggles. Who knows? What I hear is that there’s too much death and destruction in the internal third worlds of America and guns are an accelerant. What logic is there to allow deadly weapons to flow? It would just make killers of us all.
for most of us, this aggregation of work does not result in life or death of our creation outside of our own families. this is as it should be, for we are not all warriors or shaolin priests. so taking the gun in hand cannot be a part of the same rote commercial exchange as the rest of our consumer activity - because the most disciplined mind i possess or can imagine possessing will, mastering the moment, use it for its ultimate destructive purpose, without hesitation. even if we had no such mental mastery, the gun directs all of our passion to the single end of spitting deadly projectiles. we, like the dirtbike kid, are not meant for such things. our contemplation is too shallow, the meaning in our lives would be shattered and squandered by killing. killing is simply too large a deed for us to bear. we would be rightly crushed by our own action.
and so, almost ten years later, i have finally put these thoughts to the page. i suppose i would just be getting out of prison now, hopefully with the same wisdom. or perhaps i would have been released long ago, or perhaps never even arrested by a society eager to see me as a 'warrior'. but my mamma didn't raise me to kill black children, or any other kind of human being. so i reject such instant, fake honor. and i reject it when people tell me it is my right to bear arms. that's not what my arms are for. i could only accept the honor of being a warrior as my duty, and i know that this is not my life's duty.
All very reasonable, until I learned a subtle difference. Buying a gun is not like buying a car. It’s not a consumer good. You must learn it. You must master it, which you cannot do until you master yourself. Nobody can guarantee that you will even try, and having hung out in gun stores many months before I purchased my first, I recognized something very disturbing in my fellow man. Very few of them had the same calm demeanor, logic and skills as those men and women behind the counters. To think of a gun as anything other than an extension of yourself is to completely not understand it at all. This was made crystal clear to me by the software legend Eric S. Raymond whose essay Ethics from the Barrel of a Gun is so starkly undeniable that it should be required reading. I will excerpt nothing. Read it and know whether or not you believe in character.
I was starting to get to know this about character and myself, but it was still many years after I survived a separate incident. It was the kind of robbery that sends chills. Perhaps I had it in mind when I first wrote the encounter in Brooklyn. In this occasion I was filling up the tank of my mini-van with my 3 year old daughter in her seat. It was at the gas station just around the corner from my house in Altadena, CA. A young black man in a stark white oversized t-shirt bolted from the office. The proprietor followed him out showering lead from a six shooter in what seemed to be random directions. One bullet hit a plastic sign a few feet from my head and 45 degrees off the angle at which the suspect fled. I was livid. I hung around for 30 minutes just so that I could harangue the owner en passant in my rant to the officers taking the call. Though I did wish they’d catch the perp, (fat chance) I’d have had the owner arrested if I could. What kind of man shoots around babies? Nevertheless by 2007 I was thinking differently.
I have come to accept something about my civil duty and responsibility to the public to my fellow countrymen. In dropping the persona of my bohemian self, in becoming a husband and father, in becoming a middle aged man, I had to acknowledge my own power to be an example, more than I ever thought I'd have to be. Way deep down inside I knew the truth of the phrase 'civilization is where you put it', but I always thought when it came down to it, it would fall to the professionals and experts. I should have known better. It takes all of us, not just rhetorically, but really.
I couldn't say I wanted to be a police officer. I wanted to be a 'buddhist cop'. I didn't want to disturb my inner peace through the action of bringing peace into the world. I was a bumpersticker pacifist. And because of that I inverted that latent desire in people I didn't respect from courage to cowardice.
Yes I want to own a gun, not to be any old pistol-packing vigilante. But I start to wonder about the men who do, just as I wonder about the men who drive Porsches in my neighborhood, and the men whose sons I admire in the local Scout troop. What is my relationship to my neighbor, and how have I let them down by not knowing them better? What are the slim tendrils of curiosity that I can work into bonds of mutual interdependence? Today I know something I didn't know in 2000 or in 1992.
Since my brother ‘Doc’ is LAPD, I went out with him to a second rate suburban gun range in a run down business park in Torrance, Ca. It wasn’t inspiring at all. It was a bit horrifying. It was an exercise in frustration and fright.
The first thing I notice about the first time I fired this gun was not the noise, nor the recoil, but the smell. I squeeze off several more and the sensation is very much like having a good sized firecracker go off in your hand, only with slightly more control. These are nothing more and nothing less than explosions. You have all this discipline at your disposal, but the damned thing just explodes in your hand.
I can't see where the bullets are going. I can tell that I'm hitting the target, but for all the precise control I am consciously exerting on this machine, it is reliably unpredictable. When I fire, it bucks up and punches back slightly and then in a fraction of a second it's over. Here's a good way to envision the feeling. Open up your right hand, palm forward as if you were a snob observing the perfection of your nails. Don't extend your arm completely, bend it at the elbow. Now pick a target across the room and line it up just over your middle finger. Eyeball it. OK, hold steady. Now ball up your left fist and punch your right palm. Your fingers jerk and then are suddenly still and your target is somewhere up down right or left of where your right fingers are now. Do it 20 times, and you'll understand the frustration of shooting. You can't predict anything except that if something get hits by the bullet, it's finished.
I got to the point at which I was not a fumble-fingered idiot. It took about 1000 rounds. A good reliable gun is not cheap. My first pistol cost about $500. Ammo is not cheap, if you intend to get good. If you think you’re going to exact revenge like some actor on television, ‘bang bang you’re dead’, then you are on a highway to hell. Among many other things, I quickly learned that it was impossible to learn quickly, and people don’t just fall silently over into a heap from one well placed shot as if it were some Vulcan judo chop. A shooter must practice and practice and practice. I got into the habit of going through about 200 rounds every two weeks. Right about now you can get reloads, which are essentially recycled bullets, in bulk for about 30 cents per bullet.
I eventually discovered, because I eventually took a citizens police academy course, that I was doing a great deal more shooting than your average police officer. More in fact than many SWAT officers. The average cop qualifies annually for firearm recertification by firing less than 50 rounds. Something that can be done in less time than a trip to 7/11. Just imagine the expense of having a department of 120 officers, typical of a town of about 75,000, shooting 200 practice rounds on a monthly basis. That’s nearly $12,000 per month for ammunition alone, not counting whatever costs would be associated with maintaining a firing range. Cops, by and large, are not good shooters, and they know it.
Beyond the logistics, mechanics and economics of becoming a good shooter there is the matter of mindset in the multiple contexts of the act of shooting. I’m talking about what is known as situational awareness. There is no simple way to convey how much this matters far beyond the political terms used in discussions around gun control and regulation. It is honestly one of those things that must be experienced over time with body and mind in harmony. We assume, much like I did in Brooklyn that simply adding a firearm to the equation brings along and validates all our previous thinking and speculation about violence in the streets, informed as it is by cop movie schtick. That’s very much like watching a Nike commercial, buying the shoes and running a marathon the next day. Just do it? That’s far from how it gets done. It’s some place we think it’s easy to go even if we’d rather not. That’s how wrong I was. My advice on this matter is simple. Ignore everything people say about guns, and the adjectives they use to describe them unless and until they use the adjective ‘my’.
In 1992, I posed for this picture, tongue in cheek, as a ‘studio gangsta’. I cannot express how unrealistic the picture was in every respect except for what it conveyed in a particular meme space about what a cool badass looks like. The point to be made was that I could be taken seriously, in that I mocked the very idea that anyone could be reasonable who owned a gun and wasn’t a sworn officer of the law or military. I was thinking theoretically and rhetorically in my own rational bubble with plenty of good company. All of that theory and rhetoric met a moment of reality for which I was not actually prepared for until about 22 years later.
I will quote ESR on one count. “The universe does not care about motives.” I’m sure he’s not the first to philosophize on the point. Our society sustains a great number of fictions and rational bubbles that only make sense to ourselves. Yet we must sort our motives out; it took me decades to put two and two together. The physics of handling a firearm, the responsibilities between myself and society, and several other fractional concepts don’t simply round up to 4 but require working out the series of algebraic equations and unknowns in the calculus of justice, life and death.
Over the past few months I talked with Doc about buying a rifle. The meme of ‘rooftop Koreans’ came to life as violence erupted here in Los Angeles and other parts of the country. I visited the private range where my good friends and I occasionally practice. My hands are good now and it didn’t take long for my to hit targets reliably after about a 2 year hiatus from regular practice. In the back of my head, before the canonization of Saint Kyle, were calculations and visualizations of how I might prepare to defend my own neighborhood if and when worst came to worst. I know the head of security here in our pristine gated community is ex-USMC, and I recognized enough of the bumper sticker subtexts in our neighborhood to recognize fellows. Still I know that it all comes down to the moment. Me and another human being guessing each other’s intent, calculating the distances between thought, action and consequences. In the end, I put off the purchase, but I still know which rifle I want - which is different from what I had been thinking for quite some time. The turmoil dispersed and my pistols went back into the garage. I haven’t even thought about it until this time of reflection.
I am no longer the man heading out for an evening of entertainment in the crisp air of 1990s Brooklyn. Yet I remain transfixed in time, for there was no resolution. I don’t know what lesson I can draw. The clarity of the moment persists. Google Maps tells me it was 9th Street near 4th Avenue, and I clearly recall the fire hydrant, the bicycles, the old man and the young man, my anger and resolve.
One of the first lessons of Stoicism I recall was the aphorism of Seneca going to bed imagining that all of his fortunes were lost. He would find a way to get to sleep with the expectation that in the morning he would be a pauper. He would wake in the morning to find his assets more or less as sound as the previous evening. It prepared him to better deal with whatever actual good or bad news transpired during the night. Similarly, I have been recently watching war movies: A Bridge Too Far, Beasts of No Nation, Defiance, Red Cliff, and significantly Westerplatte Resists. I know why old soldiers are silent. For any thinking man, facing that moment of death is exhausting. There is only the fiction of retelling the story. There is only the fraction of fitness that makes one survive and another die. There is only the retrospect of survivors.
“We live in the middle of things which have all been destined to die. Mortal have you been born, to mortals you have given birth. Reckon on everything, expect everything.” – Seneca