the Empathy List #101: A Man in a Wheelchair Gives Up His Guns
Andre Dubus and the Essay that Forever Changed How I think about Gun Control
Hello friend, Liz here.
My kids are home on spring break, which means playdates and library runs and superhero movies and a trip to a nickel arcade in an exhausting and delightful stream, and me, their mother, planning it all with great joy and weariness. :) Basically, I’ve made my own spring break stayvacation for them. Jeremy is still working this week, so as the single member of the party planning committee, it’s on me, and I’m trying to enjoy it.
My children are now eight and ten, in the third and fourth grades respectively. My girl is nearing puberty (or as she once called it “going through sex”), so I’m full of anticipation and attention. I even bought our first family sex talk guide the other day, Sex is a Funny Word by Cory Silverberg and illustrated by Fiona Smyth, a graphic novel that barely covers mechanics, but instead, centers childrens’ feelings and experiences about sex that for them is inescapable in an adult-rated world (looking over a sibling’s shoulder at a “sexy” screen, a kiss scene in a movie, a billboard with cleavage, etc. “Are those things sex?” kids wonder, often not knowing who or how to ask that question). And it comes with discussion questions! Such good ones!1
Anyway, I do not typically write about daily life with my children here, but this week I’m thinking about them and their classmates, and so I wanted to share this bucolic glimpse into my family life before we talk about the BIG STUFF: guns.
The fact is, my kids’ spring break started one day early this year. Their public school district in Colorado offered a “mental health day off” for educators and families due to a SECOND school shooting in two weeks in one of their high schools.
As a writer, I try to stick close to home, so I’m not going to talk about the Nashville private school tragedy today, though it’s on my mind, too.
Instead, I’ll be all eyes on Denver.
The gist: on March 1, a student was shot and killed in the East High school parking lot, shooting one. Then, on March 22, a different student shot and wounded two faculty members with a gun he’d brought to school, shooting two in two weeks.
I won’t go into all the details though they matter profoundly to those most closely connected. (For those who want more, here are those details.)
What I will say is, mass shootings are too common in my state, despite our purple politics. Though most of our blue voters concentrate ourselves in cities, still, the majority of these acts of public violence occur in the most crowded regions so gun control does not seem to be a primary Democratic priority in Colorado.
So it’s a theme I’ve written about before, as it is, unfortunately, a perennial concern for those in my state:
And I’ve laid out my views on gun control here:
However, what I haven’t yet shared here is the essay that changed my mind about guns: “Giving Up the Gun” by Andre Dubus.
I first read “Giving up the Gun” in a creative writing class in college, an assigned reading.
Unlike many in my east coast high school who had ties to the military, my father worked in office buildings in the field of for-profit education. Back then, I didn’t care either way about control or free access to firearms… except that because guns were unfamiliar, I would not have bought one for myself if given the option. I may have shot a rifle at a target at summer camp? Maybe? But we did not have guns at home and, as a family, we had a wariness toward at-home weapons of all kinds.
However, after reading Andre Dubus, I started to think and care very much more. I started paying attention to the news, to the way our country treated guns and gun owners, to the effects of those guns in our society and individually. And I started to doubt whether we’d be better off without them.
But back to the essay.
Before 1990, author Andre Dubus would have taken up the cause of the NRA. A practicing Catholic and a former Marine, he grew up in the South, where everyone owned a firearm. His father taught him to shoot; the Marine Corps taught him to assume a gun was always loaded and to aim for the enemy. In fact, Dubus’s aim in owning guns was even to “protect other people,” a Good Samaritan in every sense.
And he loved his guns, all eight of them. He especially treasured his twenty-two revolver, his thirty-eight-caliber subnosed revolver, and his three-eighty semiautomatic. He obtained licenses in two states, including a conceal and carry license. He wore a holster at his waist; he even brought his smallest gun along in his jeans pocket, always there on his right hip whenever he left the house to run errands, attend Mass, shop or teach, right there jingling next to his coins and keys and cigarette lighter.
He supposed the act of carrying it—of being prepared for the worst—would prevent him from ever needing to wield it.
But even with these best of intentions, trouble found Dubus.
One day, Dubus came upon a drunk white college kid holding a blade to a black man, pushed against a wall, the white man spewing racist epithets, the opened pocket knife flashing. Out went the gun from Dubus’s pocket. He pointed it, threatened to shoot. The drunk cursed at him, dared him, the drunk man was looking for a fight. But the drunk man’s friends arrived and begged Dubus to leave. Both he and the white man walked away in opposite directions, leaving behind the victim and a crowd, everyone safe but shaken.
After that incident in which the gun seemed to have drawn him into conflict, Dubus felt haunted.