Guns are an inflammatory topic. There is rarely a casual opinion in the room, and for that reason, I hesitate to speak up on guns, personally or publicly. However, the inflammatory nature of a gun conversation doesn’t change the impact of guns in my own history. I’ve actively searched for hero stories to give credence to the claims of my gun enthusiast friends and family who insist guns make us safer. It’s been hard to find happy-ending stories that involve guns. On the contrary, it takes zero effort to hear about another shooting leaving someone dead and a family mourning.
It was the first day of summer break, fifth grade was over, and I couldn’t wait to hang out with my friends all summer. I was excited that one of my friends had called me so early in the morning, so I jumped up to grab the phone. As soon as I said “hello,” she says, “Nadia, I’m so sorry. I heard about Courtney on the news.” It is now 30 years later, and I still feel the sinking desperation, confusion, and outright denial I felt when I got that phone call.
Courtney was my best friend. She lived a block away from me. We were on the gymnastics team together. We sold candy bars for fundraisers together. We spent countless hours walking down the railroad, riding bikes, jumping on my giant trampoline, scaring each other with Ouija board stories, playing at the pool, and loving each other like sisters.
The phone call that morning sent me into a daze. I knew something wasn’t right, but my mind wouldn’t let me think what I knew must be wrong. My friend could tell I hadn’t heard about it yet, so she told me that she and her mom were watching the news and saw that Courtney was shot and killed earlier that morning at her house by her brother. I was stunned and unable to process this news, I sat frozen trying to think of some possible way to prove this is a mistake. Finally, I did the only thing left to do; I called Courtney at her house.
Courtney’s mom answered the phone. I said, “Hello, can I please speak to Courtney?” like I had so many times before. I don’t know how long I was holding my breath, but I remember I couldn’t breath, hoping with all my being that her mom would put Courtney on the phone. She paused, her silence heavy, before saying, “Courtney doesn’t live here anymore, hun.”
The night before Courtney’s death, I was supposed to spend the night at her house. She was having a sleepover with our other friend, Kelly on the last day of school, but my dad refused to let me go. He took great pride in that decision, because it was the following morning, while Courtney and Kelly were handling some chores, that Courtney’s brother took the gun from the bedside table of their parents’ bedroom, pointed it at Courtney in jest, and accidentally pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through her neck and out of the back of her head. She died instantly. And Kelly witnessed what no child should have to see; her best friend died before her eyes. My dad considered it a great blessing that he kept me home that night and protected me from what Kelly endured, or from being shot myself. Even so, her death sent me into an existential and spiritual crisis before I even hit puberty.
My excitement for the summer of hanging out with friends at the pool turned into a summer spent in fear of death. I wondered what happened to Courtney. Was she in hell because she kissed boys and cursed like a sailor? She died before she could do any of the things the church required to be saved, as far as my young little head knew. How would I find her? I wanted to go to heaven, I knew that, but I thought I had time for another confession with the priest to clear things up before I died. Now, I wasn’t sure I would, and I needed to know how to fix that for Courtney. It terrified me to imagine her in hell.
That summer, I spent every night sleepless, and everyday riding my bike alone to her grave site, writing her little notes, and leaving them where I hoped she’d see them. Her mom let me pick out whatever I wanted to keep from her room. I chose some of her cutest outfits and a stuffed animal of Odie, from Garfield. I kept that so long, that it became my son’s once he was born.
Dealing with Courtney’s death was an incredible challenge, pushing me into the deepest darkest waters of fear and doubt way before I was ready to handle such difficulty. But, her death also fueled a fiery cauldron of hate and anger, which was initially sparked by her brother, for stealing her from me. It was an accident, but a stupid one, and he was older, about to head into eighth grade. I wanted to erase him from the planet, and that anger inside me was nothing I recognized, so the guilt that came with it was severe.
It was hard to see Courtney’s brother in the hallways in high school. By then, I had a better handle on all the emotions and grief brought on by Courtney’s untimely gun-inflicted death. The fear and anger was still there, but it had shifted significantly, into the recesses of my mind and heart, where it was easier to manage day to day. I was mad at her parents for having a loaded gun in the house, but I also loved them, and the cognitive dissonance caused by this conflict was too complex to deal with as a young teen.
I never forgot Courtney, and what happened to her will remain with me for eternity. It certainly has shaped my views on guns as violent weapons that destroy lives, though I’ve put substantial effort into being open to pro-gun logic, knowing I have a biased opinion based on my history. I have yet to find an argument for guns that matches the impact of this experience against them. I’m still open, but support stricter gun laws and efforts to reduce senseless gun related deaths, through research and public health programs, especially among children and in schools.
More Guns, Less Safe
Since then, I’ve had some less significant run-ins with guns, including an incident during a high school house party, when my drunk and chemically-influenced boyfriend got mad at me, prompting him to stick a gun in my face. I felt almost detached from the reality of a gun being pointed at me, somehow able to stay calm, perhaps because of all the witnesses. It’s hard to say. My boyfriend’s older brother managed to get him to give up the gun, but it took a knife stab from his older brother to get him to do it. Good times with guns? Not especially.
As I moved into adulthood, I felt fortunate to be only indirectly exposed to gun violence. A friend of mine with a troubled marriage ended up with her husband in critical condition due to a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest. Luckily, he survived, but the devastation was drastic and frightful. A few years later, I heard about two people breaking into the house we previously lived in, killing a mother in her bedroom while her son and husband watched, injured yet alive. My sons and I felt grateful for being alive, relieved that we moved before it could’ve been us, but also sorrowful for what that family has suffered.
The remission of gun violence in my life did not last long. After midnight, the night before my son’s tenth birthday party, I woke up to gunshots being fired, popping in rapid succession, so powerfully, I ducked and screamed, unsure where the shots were coming from and just how close I was to flying bullets. I thought the shots were coming from right outside my bedroom window, but it was hard to tell in the chaos of fear and panic.
I ran to the front windows to sneak a peek at the street. I assumed it was my neighbor across the street. Lance and I used to be friends, but when he began shooting guns next to my 8 year old son, and behaving erratically, I distanced myself from him. He was jealous and despised my son’s father, my ex-husband. Lance was a marine and had an arsenal of guns, a wide variety, in his home. He often threatened to kill my ex-husband or anyone who drove into our neighborhood, who he deemed suspicious. When he and I stopped talking, he would aim his guns at my house to scare me. I never felt safe.
On the night before my son’s tenth birthday party, the gunshots I heard just outside my bedroom window were indeed from Lance’s gun, shot at the sister of another neighbor. I later learned that Lance got friendly with her and was drinking at their house that night. One thing led to another, something triggered Lance, and he went home to get his gun with the intention of shooting her. She ran, but he shot at her multiple times, hitting her twice in the arm and chest. His own dog took a bullet while trying to protect the woman. This all happened in my yard.
The SWAT team arrived and set up camp in my driveway. Lance was hiding and they weren’t leaving until they found him. By then, my sons were both awake and intrigued by the chaos. Blue lights flashing and bullhorns repeating “Come out, Lance, you are surrounded,” didn’t make for a peaceful night. We watched the whole thing from an upstairs bedroom window. SWAT sent a robot into Lance’s house. They knew about his arsenal of guns. This was serious.
The SWAT standoff on my property lasted for hours. Lance was not giving himself up, and my son’s birthday party was set to start in just a few hours. In a sudden turn of events, around 8 am the SWAT team ran in herds through the yards of several nearby houses. It looked like Lance was on the run. Within minutes, SWAT was slowly gathering back to their headquarters in my driveway. We were informed that Lance put a bullet through his own head. It was over.
The atmosphere was dark and heavy in the neighborhood. It was a cold crisp January day, and the morning fog was lingering. Neighbors were cautiously coming out of their homes, inspecting the damage done on their property during the SWAT surge to catch Lance once he decided to flee. One neighbor had a bullet hole in the car he parked on the street that night.
I wondered if I should postpone my son’s birthday party, but it would crush him, so I refused to let Lance’s tragedy ruin my son’s tenth birthday. There was a Crime Scene Investigation van parked in front of my house, and I had a lot of explaining to do to our guests, but the party happened. That evening we heard that the woman shot by Lance survived and his dog needed surgery, but also made it. Happy ending? I suppose it could’ve been worse.
Lance was the type who preached about owning guns for safety. He claimed to be the one-man neighborhood watch, ready to shoot anyone who threatened to mess with any of us. He boasted loudly that he would be the only one who could help us against our government, a famine, or a zombie apocalypse. We would need him and his guns then. He avowedly served as the hero that saves the neighborhood. In the end, he and his guns were the threat, not the safety.
Thirty years have passed since Courtney died. I remained in touch with her brother, Michael, after high school through social media. He had to live with the pain and guilt of having shot and killed his little sister for so many years. My heart softened for him over time, as the volcanic rage over losing my young best friend simmered. Just a couple of years ago, Michael was shot in the face and killed instantly. He was murdered by a 21-year old man while sitting in a car during a drug deal gone bad. Upon hearing this tragic news, I thought, what good has ever come of guns? In my own life, the answer is undeniably none.
These life-altering gun incidents are not happening in bad neighborhoods to bad people. These personal stories are not about blame or judgment of anyone for death or damage. This is about looking at the impact of guns in my own life for what it is; deadly, scary, permanent. I continue to be open to the benefit of guns in society, but the evidence I’ve gathered does not support this assertion. This isn’t even about guns. It’s about a supportive society and personal growth, openness and connection. I wonder how we can all do better for each other. Guns are not how we do better. They are a crutch leaned on for fear’s sake. We can do better. This article by The Good Men Project is a start toward that effort.
“Kings are the agents of change and transformation in the world. It’s on us to fix this. We can’t fix the past and we can’t control the future. But if each one of us become the Kings of the world, then the world can start working again.”