When Gun Violence Hits Home

[tw: gun violence, domestic abuse]

When I read about yesterday’s mass shooting at San Bernardino, I was (like most people) horrified and disturbed. We live in a nation where a person dies every 16 minutes by gun violence, where 40% of guns are acquired without a background check, and where national funding for research on gun violence is banned [1, 2]. We sigh, shake our heads, and say that, well, there’s nothing we can do — despite the fact that this pattern of mass shootings is a uniquely American problem. And by staying silent, we implicitly resign ourselves to an unsteady future of senseless violence.

I felt sick too, in a different way from most people, because this shooting brought me back to my childhood. I grew up in California with an older brother in an intensely toxic family: my mom was emotionally and physically abusive to all of us, while my dad was emotionally and physically abusive towards my mom and my brother. When I turned 12, my parents decided I was old enough to be the witness and arbiter of their fights, so now I’m left with many memories I’d like to forget — memories of broken glass and broken noses.

My parents’ relationship reached a low point in my junior year of high school, and after a particularly nasty argument, my dad started looking at guns. It began (I think) as a fantasy, but it escalated. He sent some vague threats of violence to my mom; she responded poorly; and then his search began in earnest. California has some of the toughest gun control laws in America. Among other ordinances, it doesn’t have the “gun show loophole,” where potential customers don’t have to undergo background checks at gun shows. Consequently, when my dad was turned down at a gun store, he wasn’t able to purchase a gun at a gun show or to buy a Taser, which he also attempted.

At the time, I didn’t know that he had been unsuccessful; I only knew (since my mom was very thorough in tracking my dad’s computer usage and phone calls) that he had visited at least one gun store and made some calls about buying Tasers. I was in Massachusetts for boarding school, so for the most part I pushed it out of my mind — until spring break, when, for reasons I still haven’t processed, my mom forced me to come back to California. I spent the two weeks in a strange game of cat-and-mouse. Our house was, obviously, unsafe, especially with my dad’s history of violence, so my mom and I moved almost every night to different hotel rooms and listings off Airbnb in various cities around the Bay Area. I felt like I was suffocating every time the phone rang or somebody knocked on our door. One night, my mom went to our house (I didn’t know why) and took me along, since my dad tended to be less aggressive if I was around. I remember sitting at my desk, pretending to study history but wondering if I was going to die that day.

Eventually, my dad cooled off and presumably lost his desire to buy a gun. In that respect, I’ve been relatively lucky, but sometimes I think about what could have happened. It’s only speculation, but what if we had lived in another state with lax gun control laws? Would he have gotten a gun? The presence of a gun in domestic violence situations increases the risk of homicide for women by 500 percent [3]; in the heat of the moment, would my dad have used it? Would my mom still be alive? Would I?

Of course, someone hell-bent on murder can evade even the strictest of gun laws and, after all, San Bernardino is in California. But as Kristof points out, we have laws and strict enforcement against drunk driving. People still die, sadly, but thousands are saved [1]. Regulation and other policies won’t prevent every shooting, but they’ll prevent some…isn’t that motivation enough? Exactly zero lives are saved by the inaction that we face after every shooting [4]. Even one life would be an improvement. That one life could be your coworker, your friend, your classmate…it could be, well, me.

We can send our thoughts and prayers to those affected in San Bernardino, but prayers won’t protect us from the next mass shooting and thoughts won’t bring back the dead.