I know what it’s like to be a five-year-old staring into the face of a deranged gunman. I know the fear and confusion that paralyzes me still as I close my eyes and see again my eight-year-old sister pushing me under the bed and crawling in after me. I know what it’s like to watch a gunman’s feet as he paces back and forth, waving a hunting rifle recklessly, threatening to kill us and then kill himself.
This is my earliest childhood memory. It has shaped my life—the person I’ve become, the way I look at the world, the way I think of children, the way I feel every time another human being with a gun comes unhinged. The gunman was my father, and at the end of a drunken weekend, he would have no memory of terrorizing his family.
I am a survivor—one of the fortunate ones. I don’t know what it’s like to die and look back at this earth at the people I’ve left behind. I don’t know what it’s like to lose a loved one to the bullet of a gun. But I do know what it’s like to lose a brother to drug addiction and see another brother become homeless, victims of another kind at the hands of a world that has no idea how to help any of us.
No law enforcement official ever even bore witness to the story I’ve only begun to tell fifty years later, despite the fact that our neighbors knew it was happening. So my father was never challenged for his actions, left to deal with his own demons.
But neither does he fit the portraits we paint of deranged people in possession of guns. He was a coal miner who labored every day so that the children he held at gunpoint would get the education he didn’t have. He was a complex man, shaped by his own childhood and by parents who allowed him to quit school in fifth grade. When he was sober, he loved his children and wanted us to have a better life, though he had no idea how to make that happen.
The hunting rifles my father owned were legal. And they put meat on our table when my father lost his job and the food stamps he got from the federal government would only pay for pinto beans and canned vegetables and milk.
As I watch the controversy yet again that always unfolds in the aftermath of the slaughter of innocents, I know that angry people on both sides who are shaped by their own stories will shout at each other until their voices are gone. But I also know that we will never solve the problems that lead to human tragedy until we begin to paint the debate in all the complex colors of human emotion.
So don’t just tell me your opinions. Tell me the stories that colored them black or white. Then I may understand you. Then we may begin to hear each other.