Shot in the Dark: Deborah Paul on Guns

My younger son and I do not discuss politics or social issues. Our views differ so sharply that when we do face off, it is safer for us to argue about whether you need to brine a turkey before cooking (you don’t), or if it’s hygienic for a dog to sleep under your covers (it isn’t).

Take gun control. He is fervent on the subject and claims the only way to stop needless crime is to limit the ownership of firearms. I’m far from a card-carrying member of the NRA, but I have always held the position that if a person intent on committing a crime wants a gun, he’ll get one, legal or not. I admit to having once attended a gun show with a co-worker who was enthralled by the weapons; however, I found the gathering disturbing, in some part because too many attendees resembled the backwoodsmen from Deliverance. My colleague bought me a bullet key chain as a souvenir, but I never carried it.

As with so many issues, one’s stance—even on volatile subjects—often changes when an event becomes personal. I never thought, for example, that I’d favor same-sex marriage, until I knew friends and family whose unions were more successful than many conventional marriages I’ve seen. Laws on the books and laws in real life are two different things.

When my son, who is normally calm and rational, called one night last summer, shaken, talking loudly and fast, I knew something was wrong. A physician living in Chicago, he had taken his dog for a quick walk in the park adjacent to his townhouse. There, he exchanged glances with an unfamiliar middle-aged man seated on a bench. The person did not look dangerous, just odd somehow, causing my son to stroll off in a different direction. As soon as the dog had done her business, they scurried home.

No sooner had my son shut the door behind him than he heard a series of loud bangs, which he assumed were fireworks exploding. In what seemed like seconds, squad cars roared into the area, a beam of light from a police truck shone on the park, and a panicked neighbor called my son to say she saw what she assumed was a dead body on the ground.

It was a stormy night, and officers gathered on my son’s front stoop for shelter. They informed him that two women had alerted the bicycle cops on patrol that the man my son had seen in the park was acting erratically, causing the officers to approach him. According to later newspaper reports, the man was talking on his cell phone, and when a policeman asked him to put it down, he reached into his backpack, pulled out a gun, and shot the officer in the leg. Other police on duty nearby shot the man in return, killing him. With the help of his partner, the bicycle cop was able to apply a tourniquet to his wound, probably saving his life. He was transported to the hospital for treatment, and occupants of the townhomes watched in shock as an ambulance whisked away the dead perpetrator.

A worrier by nature, I immediately fretted over worst-case scenarios. What if my son had stopped to talk to the man, or even paused to look at him curiously, causing the man to shoot him instead? What if the offender had opened fire on all visitors in the park, or had randomly shot into the townhome where my granddaughters sleep?

He suddenly vaulted from his desk chair to retrieve his open briefcase, which, he explained later, held a loaded gun. What if he hadn’t? What if our kids had discovered the weapon and thought it a plaything? What if?

I am no stranger to what-ifs. Many years ago, my husband and I, with two young children in tow, visited our builder’s office to discuss house plans. The builder suddenly vaulted from his desk chair to retrieve his open briefcase, which, he explained later, held a loaded gun he kept for security. What if he hadn’t? What if our kids had discovered the weapon and thought it a plaything? What if?

My sixth-grade teacher, a stern woman who must have been prescient, required her students to clip newspaper reports on gun accidents. I never could find any, but I think of her now every time I see yet another story about a kid accidentally shot to death by an adult’s gun.

In Indiana today, no license or permit is required to purchase any gun, the state does not require registration of guns, there are no limitations on assault weapons, and no waiting period is required before a gun purchase. We are asking for more trouble than we already experience—more than 500 fatal and nonfatal shootings in Indianapolis last year alone.

My son, a proponent of strict gun laws and a believer that times are different now than when the Constitution was drafted, convinced me through his experience that while such laws won’t protect us from those with murder on their minds, we have to start somewhere. Were things different that summer night, one troubled 50-year-old man allegedly on his way to visit his mother might still be alive, a policeman nobly doing his job might not have suffered trauma and injury, and maybe an innocent 5-year-old, my grandchild, would not have had to be kept from seeing the park where she played cordoned off with crime-scene tape.

And this mother wouldn’t be playing out the scene over and over in her head, picturing an even worse ending.


Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.