Olneyville, Providence, RI, 2009
I found it very difficult to make sense of the situation I was in.
I was woken up by a strange noise. My brain, in a cold start on a hot summer night, took a few moments to understand what was happening. The screen from our bedroom window was on the floor. There were unfamiliar noises coming from the living room.
I tried to breathe and listen to the darkness, slowly and quietly, while opening the bedside vault. I dialed
911 on my phone, hit
Send, and padded my way toward the living room as quietly as I could, making my way down the hallway toward what I hoped was a wild animal or even an intoxicated neighbor needing to be reoriented.
Our loft apartment in Olneyville was on the ground floor, and had beautiful large windows that opened horizontally, like the flaps on an airplane wing. Our home had polished concrete floors and the highest ceilings I’ve ever seen. That night, my voice seemed impossibly loud in spite of my efforts, and echoed across the ceiling as I aimed my Sig Sauer semi-automatic pistol at the head of the silhouette fumbling with my windows.
It was a misshapen and ghoulish shadow irregularly lit by passing cars and hidden by window-blinds. It froze for what seemed like an eternity when I calmly chambered a round1 and announced my intention to shoot the back of its head out into the courtyard if it set one foot inside my home.
I had been told often enough that when seconds count, the Police are mere minutes away.
My phone call to
911 was instantly handed off to an area dispatch unit based on my calling area. I hadn’t actually said much to the operator up to this point, but I wanted them to be able to hear what was happening. I had set the phone down next to me on my cat’s carpeted tower behind the sofa, and I heard dispatch reacting to my revelation that I was armed and threatening force. This was a significant piece of information for the Providence Police. The man on the phone sounded suddenly frantic, like this wasn’t something he had ever encountered before. I imagined him flipping pages in a procedure guide, trying to find the right thing to say to me.
So there I was. The portrayal of the rugged, noble, freedom-loving libertarian protecting his homestead is usually more inspiring than the reality of me, standing in my living room in a t-shirt and underwear. The
911 dispatcher repeating “sir? sir?” into the empty room and me aiming a pistol, ready to fire. It was at that moment that I had a sudden resentment for the entire situation from an unexpected part of my mind–I wasn’t upset about the person breaking into my apartment, I was angry with the middle-of-the-fucking-night immediate decision forced on me: I may kill someone, on purpose.
Will I be able to look them in the eye? Their family? Is this the right thing to do? Are they even armed? How many people are out there? It was something I always thought I would have time to think about, or would be able to ascertain easily in the moment. It was certainly not something that I ever thought I’d need to figure out in seconds and live with before the sun comes up.
Over the years I’ve been told to always that the best response was to quickly react to protect myself, my family.
I’ve been told that I have the right to use deadly force to protect myself and my household from violence, and that it’s “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six,” and that anyone who shoots an intruder is doing the world a favor by ending a life that would never be missed. I also heard, and believe, that opting not to shoot the intruder increases the odds of myself or a member of my household being shot with my own weapon.
I’d already announced that I would shoot, but I started to negotiate with myself. I decided if they came into the apartment, and clearly saw me aiming a gun at them and didn’t move, I’d hold them at gunpoint until the police arrived. If they saw I was armed and talking to the police, and they made a move toward me, I would feel confident pulling the trigger. I even drew an imaginary line through the 12-foot square of our loft we had designated The Dining Room.
The other thing I had to think about was what was behind the intruder. There was a courtyard with a high wall and a locking gate, which they must have climbed over to get here. Across the way were offices that weren’t very likely to have people in them at this hour, so in the unlikely event that I missed my target–at thirty feet with no distractions and my marksmanship this wasn’t likely a problem–the chance of injuring someone else in the path was minimal. It was one of the best possible scenarios for using deadly force: a clear path beyond the target, a short distance, and on my home turf if something went wrong. Police dispatch was eavesdropping and recording my call for my upcoming trial for manslaughter or attempted murder or perhaps the civil suit brought against me by my intruder’s family in their grief, the sad tragedy of their family member being shot by a trigger-happy cowboy being too much to bear without some compensation or punishment beyond what I knew I would carry with me for the rest of my life on this planet.
So I was angry. I was angry that I had these absurd anxious thoughts, these imaginary lines and limits on how far I would be pushed in my own home before I felt justified to kill someone. That I was calculating the chances of a missed shot ricocheting off the brick and landing in someone’s head upstairs. I was angry that I was glad they were still outside the apartment and not standing in my living room, where a missed shot would penetrate the wall behind them and risk cruising into the head or heart of one of the nice neighbors on my floor, who were not nearly as annoying as the argumentative angry-sexing alcoholics upstairs.
Finally time snapped back into place.
The intruding shadow’s limbs pulled back from the window, and I thought I heard them run off. I assumed they scaled the wall and ran down the street or into an alley, but I didn’t want to risk sticking my head out the window to get hit with a tire iron. I picked up the phone again, promptly described myself to the dispatcher. I ejected the magazine from my pistol and cleared the chamber as I had done countless times before at a firing range. I had successfully rendered the simple machine impotent.
The sound of silence in the room loudly broke with the sound of one round of Gold Dot 9mm hollow point spinning like a lazy quarter, rolling away from my bare feet on the polished floor.
I was relieved. Not that it was over, and not that the police would soon be there–I was relieved that I didn’t shoot someone. And I was truly ashamed that I’d thought I was ready to do precisely that before being in this situation, because I was naive and didn’t expect it to be so complicated.
Years later I still don’t know if I’m any more prepared for it, and I don’t believe it’s something I can ever know unless I am in that tragic situation again. The circumstances would be different, so there is no way to have a consistent frame of reference or perspective and all of my attempts to do so are exercises in futility.
I woke my wife
I had let my wife2 sleep through this entire ordeal. She didn’t wake in the beginning and she was in the safest room in our home: the most removed and near an emergency exit. In hindsight it was still the best decision to make because if things had gone differently, I wouldn’t have wanted her to see it and relive it the way I would have to. Part of me is afraid that she’d never be able to look at me the same way again if she witnessed me kill another human being while standing in my underwear like Tony Soprano walking down the driveway to pick up the morning newspaper.
The police arrived.
They were professional, courteous, and thorough. They had a suspect in mind but I couldn’t provide an identification so I wasn’t much help. They dusted the windowsills for prints the following day, after it rained. I have no idea if they ever apprehended a suspect or if they’re still popping out windows all over Olneyville. The suspect allegedly climbed into a business through a chimney and robbed the joint, which indicated to me that they believed my intruder was a teenager.
I believe the Second Amendment was written to ensure states or cities would be permitted to maintain a trained militia. I don’t believe it was written to ensure random citizens could stockpile weapons. I don’t believe the Second Amendment is immutable and I believe that even if the intent of the authors of that document was to allow any random citizen to stockpile weapons that the vast majority of citizens have no interest in owning weapons and that we are likely in precisely the situation they would have wanted to avoid: a select minority of armed n’er-do-wells living with a defenseless populace. We aren’t Switzerland; we have no compulsory training and mandate to maintain our well-regulated militia. We aren’t even a nation like Israel with mandatory military service.
We are instead a nation of disinterested voters, content to let loud-mouthed and scared self-appointed mercenaries of freedom dictate how to best protect the country’s interests and promote the general welfare. By the numbers, Americans don’t support the NRA’s refusal to engage in anything that could possibly alter consumer access to guns, yet we don’t act on that and remove their politicians they financially support out of office. Our unwillingness or inability to tell them they’re not acting on our behalf only further fuels their suspicion that liberty hinges on the stooped shoulders of their customers as our nation’s last line of defense against whatever tyranny they’ve bravely been fighting on your behalf.3
I am unwilling to put myself and my own ideology first if it is in opposition to protecting my country. I also believe the status quo is completely unacceptable and I firmly believe that the firearm lobby has been holding a gun to the head of every member of Congress and successfully rebranded their marketing materials as patriotism. It is a travesty, truly, that their hostage-taking is essentially unchallenged, and that even while a considerable number of their own membership is advocating for stricter controls on access to guns they set their crosshairs on opposition candidates and make their rebranded patriotism the sole issue, execute another prisoner, and then have the audacity to demand Americans pay even more.
I still own a firearm. I think I’m like most gun owners in this country and that my care and conscience are not unusual. I think it’s well past time for all of us to stop watching this circle the drain into absurdity day after day and start acting like we are part of a society that looks out for each other.
Expecting more from ourselves and each other may mean we have to go through a more rigorous screening process for purchases. It may mean allowing research into gun violence with public money and it may mean a few gun dealers that cannot comply with conducting background checks and keeping proper documentation go out of business. It may mean that a lobbying organization can no longer sustain itself in the face of a public that doesn’t want their product without their constant drum banging.
If all those things come to pass, I still don’t see the problem. We’d be doing the world a favor.