Two things. First, this piece is longer and more personal than what I normally post. There isn’t any Constitutional reasoning here, no policy positions, no advocacy. Second, while I don’t normally go in for “trigger warnings,” I think in this case that I should flag that what follows is going to be intense, and involve some very real, very violent, and very troubling things.
Over the course of the past year and a half, I’ve gotten a lot of mail, from all sorts of people – civilians, both gun owners and non-, law enforcement officers, veterans. Some of the letters have been supportive, others have been critical; some have been uplifting, others, terrifying. An Op-Ed of mine that ran in the New York Daily News generated the most of the last category, including a series of emails from someone I believe is associated with a specific extremist group. This individual wanted to let me know that America was on an inevitable path towards a second Civil War and that, when it finally broke out, I would be a prime target for liquidation.
Understanding my NYDN piece as a call for a renewed Assault Weapon Ban (which in fact I don’t support), he told me that such a measure would represent “the complete and total rape” of his “human rights.” Claiming that my position, as he understood it, made me a “slave-owning scumbag” – a term which he insisted had nothing to do with race, not least because he despised what he termed America’s “large, perpetual race-grievance based dependent class” – this person went on to write that that “background checks are a gross violation of my human rights…ALL existing firearms laws are.” “Get this through your dumb fucking head,” he wrote, in his last, most agitated letter. “This isn’t “absolutist,” this isn’t “rhetoric.” I will defend my rights with my life, and if you don’t understand what that implies, then I will state it plainly: I am willing to kill for my rights.”
He didn’t have to put that last bit in bold to make his point, although he did anyway. For my part, I got the message loud and clear: however idiosyncratic his understanding of what constituted rape or slavery, this man was not afraid to kill people.
His militancy, and the response to the NYDN piece in general, rattled me. But while all that left me afraid – scared to go out, at least for a while, skittish leaving the library late at night, jumpy on the decks of dark parking lots – nothing hit me quite like another letter I received, in response to another piece, this time in The Daily Beast. My friend Jason and I had gone to an Atlanta-area gun show to take portrait pictures and interview the attendees. We were there with the permission of the organizers, and entirely open about what we were doing. For the most part, the folks we met were welcoming, chatty, and even warm, but the private sellers – people who were there looking to sell guns for cash and handshake, no questions asked – didn’t appreciate the exposure. One in particular got agitated by our presence, threw a fit, and forced us to leave. Paradoxically, it seemed that my notebook and Jason’s camera frightened him – even though he was the one walking around with a Colt AR slung across his back. “We leave,” that article concluded, “without ever getting a chance to ask everybody what they’re so afraid of.”
The letter I got about that piece wasn’t typed. It had been painstakingly handwritten on a few pages of looseleaf and then mailed to the coordinator of a prison outreach organization that had reprinted the piece in its newsletter; the coordinator had then scanned the letter and sent it on to Jason and me. I won’t share the author’s name, or the names of his victims – I have no desire to give him an extended platform, or to magnify the suffering of their relatives – but suffice it to say that he’s currently serving a life sentence in prison somewhere in the South for his role in a multi-day, multi-state crime spree that he undertook with his two brothers over a decade ago. He was eighteen at the time; his older brother was twenty-one; the youngest accomplice, fifteen. Their meth-fueled rampage culminated when, just a few days before Christmas, they arrived at the home of a woman in her mid-twenties whom they later told authorities they had intended to rape and rob. Her three-year old daughter answered the door. Hours later, the girl’s naked body was found on the house floor – she had been sexually assaulted, her throat slit multiple times. Her mother’s corpse was found handcuffed to a bed, covered with a cushion, shot once in the head.
This man did not write to apologize. By his own admission, his actions were beyond atonement. Nor still did he write to place the blame for his crime on guns – although he did note that despite the fact that his older brother had been previously institutionalized for behavioral problems and a suicide attempt, he had encountered no problems acquiring “a sizeable little arsenal.” Those weapons included “a Colt AR-15, 12ga Mossberg, 9mm S&W SA, 9mm Ruger P95, .38 Charter Arms, .44 Colt Anaconda, .380 Bryco and a .22 Lorcin. I distinctly recall [being at one gun store],” this prisoner wrote, “[where] the cashier eyed us nervously and said ‘Y’all don’t kill nothing that don’t need killin.’” But the primary purpose of his letter wasn’t to talk about guns. Instead, he wrote to Jason and me about the last line of our article, which had “gotten” him.
This leaves me with the last line – “What are they so afraid of?” In a word, “Society.” I sincerely hope that what I am about to say isn’t misconstrued. I have no defense in what I was a part of and I got exactly what was coming to me. But it is of vital importance (I believe) that it be said that victims generally learn to fear, and that fear very easily translates into hatred. Such was my case in all this. I was an 18 year-old carrying guns, knives, tasers, you name it. All those things were my shield. I only felt secure when I could see myself being able to lash out. To a greater or lesser degree I think that’s precisely the fascination with guns today. The relationship between fear and hate I feel is closely mirrored in the difference between the responsible use of guns and the explosive violence they have gained notoriety for.
This man, who claimed to have re-converted to Catholicism in prison, concluded his letter with something that brought me up short. “There is no atonement for what I [was] part of. I will forever recall [the victims] as the greatest tragedy of my existence. But out of all of this I have learned something I never thought of. It is impossible to love with fear in your heart.”
Right after I got this man’s letter, I Googled his name, and clicked on the first link that came up. The first thing that flashed across the screen was a photo of that little girl, her eyes big and blue, her grin, toothy and wide. For weeks after getting her killer’s letter, I couldn’t stop seeing her face in my dreams. A doorbell rings, and she bounds to answer it, bright-eyed and smiling. She opens the door, and the brothers are there, standing on the porch.
The letter from that militia sympathizer may have given me panic during the day, and occasionally it still does if I think about it too much, but he doesn’t invade my sleep. The three year-old girl opening that door, though, is a nightmare I still can’t shake.
Just last week, Byron Smith of Little Falls, Minnesota, received a sentence of life in prison for the premeditated murder of 17-year-old Nick Brady and 18-year-old Haile Kifer, a pair of cousins. Smith had grown exasperated with previous unsolved burglaries, and so, on Thanksgiving Day of 2012, he decided to set a trap for anyone foolish enough to enter his home. Smith moved his car to make it appear that he was not at home, and then waited in his basement in a chair he called his “deer stand,” equipped with energy bars, bottled water, and two guns. He also took an audio recording of the entire affair – you can listen to it here, if you want to.
On the tape, we hear glass breaking as Brady enters the basement, and then we hear Smith shoot Brady twice. Brady collapses and moans, and then Smith shoots him again, saying, with evident relish, “You’re dead!” after he fires the last round. Smith drags Brady’s corpse away on a tarp he’s laid out specifically for the purpose of not getting blood on his basement carpet, and then he adjusts his weapons while waiting for Kifer, who enters moments afterwards. He shoots her, and she falls down and gasps.
“Oh, I’m sorry about that,” he says to her, sweetly. Kifer begins to weep, “Oh my God!” Standing above her, Smith then fires twice more. “You’re dying!” he exults. And then one more round, followed by Smith sneering: “Bitch.”
After cleaning up the bodies, Smith delivers a breathy tirade into the still-running audio recorder. Among the other things he says, he offers the following:
“I refuse to live in fear. I am not a bleeding heart liberal. I felt like I was cleaning up a mess. Not like spilled food. Not like vomit. Not even like diarrhea, the worst mess possible. They weren’t human. I don’t see them as human. I see them as vermin. This bitch was going to go through her life spoiling things for other people. Stealing, robbing, drug abuse. It’s all fun, cool, exciting, and highly profitable, until someone kills you. Like I give a damn who she is? “Oh, sorry!” …. I try to be a good person. I try to do what I should, be friendly to other people, help them when I can, try to be a good citizen, not cheat people, be fair. And because I’m a good person, they think I’m a patsy, I’m a sucker. They think I’m there for them to take advantage of. Is that the reward for being a good person? And if I gather enough evidence, they might be prosecuted. If they’re prosecuted, it might go to court. If it goes to court, they might be found guilty. And if they’re found guilty, they might spend six months, two years in jail, and then they’re out, and they need money worse than ever, and they’re filled with revenge. I cannot live a life like that. I cannot have that chewing on me for the rest of life. I cannot, I refuse to live with that level of fear in my life.”
No one disputes that Kifer and Brady were attempting to burglarize Smith’s home. No one also disputes that, all told, Smith fired nine shots from two different weapons, most after the two teenagers lay wounded at his feet, and that both Kifer and Brady were unarmed.
Not too long ago I was visiting Asheville, North Carolina. In a gallery near French Broad, I found myself transfixed by a piece of art in a way that’s never happened before. The piece was by Jessica C. White, a brilliant artist who does woodcuts on a variety of themes, including a series of images that appear to be taken from surreal, faintly macabre children’s books. The one that caught my eye was called “Information Desk.”
The scene is somewhere in a thick, ominous forest. A girl in a cute little dress with an orange bow stands in front of a large office desk behind which sits a large brown bear, his paws stretched out neatly in front of him. She seems diffident and fragile, vulnerable, but also graceful and present and strong. Silhouettes of wolves lurk among the trees behind her, no less foreboding for being shadowy and spectral. The girl looks over her shoulder in their direction, at once seemingly worried but also somehow untroubled, as she asks the bear, “Can you tell me how to live without fear?”
Looking at the girl, reading her question, I stood transfixed, and then I started sobbing, crying in a way I hadn’t since I was a child. I thought about that girl in the photo, about the men at her door, about fear, about how there are wolves and bears, some imagined, some dreamed, and some so very, very real. I thought about all the letters, about the calls, about the threats, about the nightmares, and about how nothing made me want to go out and buy another gun and keep it under my pillow more than people telling me that they would relish watching me die for the outrage of using my First Amendment rights to ask them to reflect on how they understood our Second Amendment ones. I thought about how it’s impossible to love with fear in your heart, and I thought about how being unafraid to kill people doesn’t mean that you are actually free from fear – that in fact it can mean just the opposite. And I realized then and there that I was OK with being scared, that I was OK with being frightened, but that I wouldn’t ever, ever live dominated by fear.
Because there’s fear and then there’s fear. There’s a way to “refuse” fear by doubling down on living in it, and then there’s a way to live with it that’s not a disavowal, but a recognition. I think living in a democracy means accepting that we are ultimately fundamentally vulnerable to each other, like it or not. Of course, some days, I’m terrified by this fact, and I feel like I don’t have firm answers about anything; other days, I feel like I understand myself and my fellow Americans only less and less. But for all that, what I remain certain of is that we can’t afford to keep living in fear.