I stand sweating and anxious in a downtown Seattle courthouse. I am here to perform the frequently groaned about, but required responsibility as a citizen – jury duty. I am 32 and have reported for jury duty twice, but have never been called in for questioning. For this case, a high-profile gang-related shooting, every single person who showed up is questioned.
Already I’m nervous. Just the word “shooting” has me twitching and looking for exits. The judge asks the group: “Do you have strong feelings about guns?”
“Yes, everyone should have one. I have three,” says one man in a kilt.
“Constitutional right,” says another.
“Be responsible, but yeah. I like guns.”
“I just don’t like ’em,” says one woman who wears a locket holding a photo of her children. She had shown me while we were in the waiting room.
The judge, wanting to parse out those just looking to get out of their civic duty, questions everyone mercilessly.
I don’t want to draw attention to myself. I don’t want to answer questions on my reasoning. Not to all these people, these strangers around me. But this is something I feel strongly about.
Tentatively, I raise my hand. When called upon, I shake. My legs wobble. I try to look past the man on trial – wearing a lovely knit argyle sweater – to the judge’s bench. Behind me, I hear the sharp clicks of boots on the marble floor. A steady rain outside. My breathing. The breathing of the person next to me and the breaths of the man in front of me, of the entire room, in which there are over a hundred potential jurors.
“I don’t like guns,” I say.
“What is the origin of your feelings?” he asks. I have never spoken of this before, even to close friends.
“Do you want me to shoot myself?” My father asked me, thick metal in his thick hand – loaded, I knew. It was always loaded. After one or two drinks, the gun was directed at me. Three or more and he turned it on himself. “Is this what you want me to do? ”
I was twelve. We were in my parents’ bedroom, strewn with papers and empty vodka bottles and an unmade bed. He sat in a ’70s floral patterned chair that, when he got up, held on to a deep indentation of his body. When he sat in it, you could barely see the chair. It was as if he was levitating on his own heft; he was well over three hundred pounds. The blinds were drawn. The television was blaring a “M*A*S*H” rerun – war and helicopters and a dark humor I couldn’t yet understand. My mother was curled in the far corner of the bed, knees pushed into her eye sockets, crying.
“Yes,” I replied. I did want him to shoot himself. Put an end to it, finally. I was over living in a home where all kinds of violence ran rampant at the fat fists of my father. There was always the thought that this would be the time he did it, but like the many other times that came before it, he set the weapon down, gulped his vodka straight, and looked at me equally as straight.
“Who’ve you been talking to?” The honest answer was no one but, finally, at the mature age of twelve, I realized I had some leverage. My word was enough to put him in jail. I could wield it just as easily as he could wield his many firearms. It took me twelve years to stand up to my father. At that moment, I felt my life – even if just tenuously – become my own. Years of all kinds of abuse had shunted me into being a co-conspirator, all silence, no freedom.
“I could say anything to anyone,” I retorted, saucy preteen that I was. He pushed himself up from his chair and gave chase, his gun waving wildly. He could move remarkably fast for an obese man in a messy house. I didn’t even think about running in a zigzag, something I now think about often, as I’ve heard it makes you a more difficult target. His thick footsteps rumbled down the hallway and pushed my heart into my throat. I hid under my bed. Of course he knew where to find me. Somehow, he coaxed me out with a soft voice, promises, and string cheese.
Either his pounding feet or my screams had alerted the downstairs neighbors. It wasn’t long before the buzzer bleated. “Police,” came the muffled electric voice. I pretended I’d been sleeping. My mother’s eyes were ringed with red, but no longer wet. My father, indignant, tucked the gun behind a sofa cushion.
The officers asked: “Does he ever–?”
“No, never,” I said.
So, the police left. Turns out I was in cahoots with my father. Even with my newfound confidence, I was unable to say “yes,” unable to put an end to the abuse my father brought down, even when given the opportunity by the officers, even after their many visits. The tempest was not over. That imperfect storm lasted, for me, until I left for college.
It wouldn’t be the last visit from the police. It wasn’t their first. The police and Child Protective Services came often over the years, responding to the calls of neighbors, shouts and thuds through the walls alerting them to the violence in apartment 6F. Child abuse records were filed.
My father had a temper when sober and was brutally dangerous when drunk. Guns, as well as knives and his own body, filled his vile arsenal used against us, and primarily me. The threats were almost daily; the fear, an astringent perfume I could never wash off. Today, when I hear the growing frisson of excitement from pro-gun advocates, I catch the faint scent again.
My father did not keep his guns locked away. He did not hide them from the little curious hands. Guns in his bedside table, guns under the chair with lost puzzle pieces and lint, guns in the kitchen beside a box of Fruity Pebbles, guns on the desk, guns scattered throughout our apartment, like they were household tchotchkes and not tools that could turn someone’s head into brain confetti.
They were the deepest black. Heavy. Terrifying. They fit comfortably uncomfortable in my hand before I reached my teen years. Their oily metal smell and significant heft, the scent and weight of deadly things. Opening the drawer by my father’s bedside, bullets rolled up and down the wood drawer sounding like a tiny bowling alley. I would open and close the drawer to hear their dense music.
I tremble as I tell the judge: “I grew up in a house where there were guns.” It’s as if a gun is directed at my temple right now. I’m just going to fucking shoot myself. Is that what you want? Click goes the bullet into the chamber. Yes. My father’s bloodshot eyes daring my own to meet them, crimson flames of hatred and fear and love. No.
The courthouse goes black, then violet. I stumble with my words. My knees lock. I think the judge can see the panic in my face, the residual debris of my childhood. I have never experienced this. I have never given voice to what it was like to live in the shadows of firearms. I understood that, mentally, I would always have to live with the legacy of trauma. I never realized how it imprinted on my physical body.
The judge excuses me from the case, giving me a smile that I’m still grateful for. A guard or bailiff takes me gently by the elbow and walks me out of the room. Beyond the metal detectors, on the street, I phone my fiancé. I cry and cry and cry and can’t catch my breath.
My father died from respiratory failure when I was 22, ten years before that day in jury duty, that day when I had to give voice to my story. My voice. When he died, I had been long out of the house. Only hours after his funeral, my two aunts arrived at the house to help. They were shocked and then went into damage-control mode, as if the damage could be controlled, after. They wanted to delete any evidence of my father’s toxic presence.
“So many guns!” they cried. “What do we do with the guns?” Without my father’s erratic guidance, their sudden impotence was startling. (Turns out, in that situation, you are supposed to surrender firearms to the police.)
In my liberal adulthood, I assume I would have adopted an anti-gun stance regardless, but my childhood experience clearly left an indelible mark, a place where a figurative bullet lodged into my temporal lobe.
We hear about the deaths, the unfortunate myriad corpses. We hear about crime-ridden neighborhoods, about war veteran suicides. They are tragic and they are too many. But also this: Bullets don’t have to rip through our bodies to leave shrapnel in our hearts.
As an adult with the gift of retrospection, I understand my father was a quietly unstable cog in the machine of gun violence in the U.S. I say “quiet” because you have not heard of him. He did not threaten a school; he did not shoot a neighbor. He did not commit suicide; he did not kill me. Chekhov’s proverbial gun did not go off.
I’m lucky. Nothing happened. I came out intact. No pieces scattered upon impact. There was no loss of life. But that’s not really true, is it?