April 1st, 2015
The Myth of the Good Guy with a Gun: How I was Almost Curtis Reeves
Curtis Reeves probably didn’t wake up that morning and decide to kill someone. He probably did all the mundane, banal things we all do: grab breakfast, read the news, made a couple of calls, and decided to catch a movie. I don’t know Curtis Reeves, but I almost ended a day the way he did. I’m not a monster, but if not for a slow power-window, I would’ve done something monstrous.
My father didn’t own a gun and neither did I until my early twenties. I wasn’t a gun nut, but I was passionately pro Second Amendment. Every “real” American was, or so I thought. It’s what made the United States special, unique. I could paraphrase historical platitudes from figures like Machiavelli who wrote “between an armed and an unarmed man no proportion holds.” I could expound on Jefferson’s Constitutional philosophy that the Second Amendment upheld the First. Basically, all those specious, seemingly valid but in reality shitastic points that are raised ad nauseum in the comments section every time Bob posts a piece calling for Gun Control, I used as my talking points. But being an intellectual gun enthusiast wasn’t enough. I wanted to practice what I preached. Rather than simply talk about the unassailable Constitutional right of gun ownership, I became a gun owner. My it was my first gun and only gun.
I still have it. It’s a Ruger P89 9mm. It’s the same series Antonio Banderas’s character used in Desperado. I purchased it, literally, over a kitchen table from my best friend’s dad. Fifty bucks and it was mine. No registration, nothing, because Tennessee state law didn’t require it. I wasn’t obligated to let the government know I had a pistol because my right to own it was practically biblical scripture divined by Saint Jefferson and sanctified by the hallowed blood of patriots. I’m an American and it’s my birthright. Or so I thought.
Besides, I wasn’t just any ignorant jackass who shouldn’t be handling a firearm. I’m a former US Marine. I carried the SMAW (Shoulder-launched Multipurpose Assault Weapon), was trained to use C-4 to make improvised explosives, and shot Rifle Expert. I’d been around guns for most of my life and treated them with the respect they deserved. Or so I thought.
The next step was to get my concealed carry permit. I looked into it, but scheduling the time to complete was always difficult. I wasn’t the best at follow through in those days. But while I couldn’t carry it in public, I started carrying it underneath the passenger seat. Someone told me I was allowed to carry it as long as there wasn’t a round in the chamber. This was in the days before Google, so I didn’t bother to research it. It was Tennessee, the “Real America”, and if I didn’t have to register it then it seemed reasonable that I could carry it in my personal vehicle. Besides, it’s pretty stupid to have a firearm and not have it on your person to protect yourself. Criminals aren’t going to wait for you to go home to fetch it. I learned to shoot in the Boy Scouts, and they also taught me their motto: Be Prepared. I was. Or so I thought.
I’d been driving with my pistol for a couple of months when my Curtis Reeves moment almost happened. It had been an exhausting day at a dead end job and I was driving home to a failing marriage. I was on I-26, heading through Johnson City, a stretch of road I’d been down a thousand times. On autopilot, lost in a fantasy where I was fighting monsters, doing good, or anything to distract me from my wretched life, I saw a car in my peripheral vision swerving rapidly toward my driver’s side door.
My reflexes kicked in and I jerked the wheel away from the oncoming impact toward the emergency lane. I’d managed to dodge away at the last second, but I’d overshot the lane, and I was heading right into the end of a guardrail on an overpass. I pumped the brakes to give me an extra second and darted back to the right lane. I figured a side swipe was better than head on collision. Fully alert, heart racing, white knuckled hands death gripping the steering wheel, I screamed out “Fuck!” Then the car made a beeline for me again.
I was scared and confused but completely in the present moment now. This time, I dodged out of the way without any problem. I looked over to see a white car with three teenage boys in it. All three were laughing hysterically at my plight. They swerved into me again, but this time I didn’t dodge away. Seeing I’d had enough of their game, they pulled up just inches from hitting my car. The one in the passenger seat flipped me off with both hands which earned him a hearty back slap from the boy in the backseat.
Fear and confusion turned to white hot rage in an instant. These little shit stains could’ve killed me, all for a laugh. I hated their very existence. I reached underneath my seat and grabbed my pistol. I used my knees to steady the steering wheel as I racked the slide back. The click-clack of the slide was satisfying. I was about to demonstrate a truism of life to these dumb fucks. I was about to become someone they’d very shortly regret fucking with.
The shock on the passenger’s face was apparent. He frantically gestured to the driver to speed up as my free hand reached for the button to roll down the window. I wanted clean shots to make every single round count and I damn sure wasn’t gonna blow out my window for these wastes of humanity. These little assholes had tried to kill me, put my life in danger, and did it as a prank. I’d show them just how fucking funny it was.
The car took off, the driver flooring the accelerator seeing how much danger they were in, and I followed after them. I chased them down the interstate for about a half mile when the muted, dull throb in the back of head that was my conscious finally broke through and screamed “Calm the fuck down! This is insane!”
I slowed down, and what I’d done, what I was about to do, what I’d lived through started to hit me. I drove the rest of the way home in a daze with a sharp whine in my ears and an acute pain in my temples. After I pulled into my apartment complex, I took several deep breaths to steady myself before I walked inside the house to crack a beer.
Seeing I was drinking some alcohol, which I rarely did, keeping beer in the house for friends, combined with my obvious agitation, my wife knew something was up. After I’d told her what had happened, she insisted I keep the pistol at home. “What if you’d actually shot those boys?” she said. “You couldn’t live with yourself!” She hugged me and I shed a lot of tears of tension. I retrieved the pistol from my car and left it in the nightstand drawer.
I don’t carry a gun with me anymore. It has taken me years to transition from a rabidly pro-gun guy to a gun control advocate, but this incident was the catalyst.
I have little doubt that Curtis Reeves is wondering where everything went so horribly wrong. He’d gone out to see a movie, and in an instant he’d snatched a man’s life, and almost took another. The cliché is that it takes mental preparation to take a life. No, all it takes is a bit of anger. It doesn’t require any thought at all. We all have a trigger, a limit, and whatever it might be when it’s pulled, that’s it. For some of us it’s in those instances, we reach for the biggest stick we have. It could be a harsh word or a physical thing. Whatever it is, we want the impact to be devastating and there’s nothing more brutal than a bullet.
If it hadn’t been for a slow window, I wonder if I would’ve pulled the trigger. I was certainly angry enough. I could’ve justified to it myself saying those teenagers put me in danger. I’d come a hair’s breadth from a potentially fatal accident, but I hadn’t actually had one. Another few seconds I might’ve been a killer, or maybe I would’ve stopped myself. I can’t know for sure. I do know I might’ve ended all of our lives that night, and shattered families. Worlds would’ve burned away in a flash of anger.
That’s why I don’t carry gun. I considered myself one of the good guys. I was familiar with firearms, handled them properly and I wasn’t a criminal. It was for protection, and I was sure that I’d never use it unless absolutely necessary.
Firearms are too easy to use especially when you give yourself license, when you tell yourself you’re justified you have it. It’s your right after all. You’re not like everyone else, and I’m sure that’s exactly what Curtis Reeves, a retired police officer and firearms instructor thought. He was a good guy with a gun until he wasn’t.
Aurora, and Sandy Hook are shocking tragedies on a mind boggling scale, but they’re poor examples to advocate for gun control. James Eagan Holmes, and Adam Lanza can be dismissed as outliers, crazies that can’t be stopped no matter how much gun control we have. Even in my worst moments I can say without a doubt that I’d never walk into an elementary school with a loaded assault rifle and mass murder little children. It’s inconceivable, and utterly unconscionable. And I’m definitely not the same angry person I was back then.
But I was almost Curtis Reeves. If we want to get serious about gun control that’s where our focus should be. Because when you stop respecting the power of firearms, when you forget that in a moment of anger after a tub of popcorn has been dumped on your head you just might reach for it because you’re a “good guy” and therefore have the authority to use it. That’s when your world ends with a bang.
April 1st, 2015