A Few Thoughts About Violence

The last time someone pointed a gun at me, and what I learned from it.

When I was about 19, me and the woman I was dating at the time had a mutual interest in archery. We had some nice compound bows, but there’s no place to shoot in Seattle, so we used to drive out into the woods to get some target practice. One day, after one of these archery outings, as we were carrying all our gear from the car to our apartment, we heard a man yelling, “Help! Help! Call 911! Help!”

We didn’t want to scare anyone, so we tossed our bows under a parked car, and ran to see if we could help. When we arrived, we saw the man standing in front of an apartment building. He said, “There’s a burglar in my apartment!” And a guy in a Member’s Only jacket, jeans, and black gloves, came tearing out of the open door of the apartment, and took off down the street.

I didn’t really stop to think. I ran after him. By myself, because I happened to be the only totally stupid person in front of the building right then. I chased him for about a block, and I was surprised to find I was gaining on him. I was always a slow runner, compared to other guys my age, but apparently I was greased lightning against a guy in his 30s. As I closed the distance, I wondered what I was going to do when I caught him. Like that old joke about the dog chasing cars. And here’s a weird thing: I was, at that point in my life, the kind of guy who just carried handcuffs around as a goof. So I had a pair of cuffs in my pocket, which was handy, except that the idea of actually wrestling someone to the ground and trying to force them into handcuffs seemed nuts to me. Like, I’d talked about it as a theory, but in practice, in that moment, chasing an actual human being down an actual street, it suddenly seemed really obvious that you just don’t do that to people.

He saved me the trouble of having to confront that question. As the distance between us closed up, he stopped, turned, and pointed a little black revolver at my face. Everything after that was sheer luck — luck on my part, that he didn’t really want to kill me. Because I didn’t stop immediately. It took me a half a second to process what I was seeing, and I took a few more steps while I was doing the math in my head, and realizing there really wasn’t a single thing I could do to defend myself. There was no cover nearby. We were just a few yards apart. If he pulled the trigger, I was screwed. So I came to a stop, and we stared at each other for somewhere between a second and a year. Then he took off down the street. Obviously I let him go, that time.

That was the fourth time someone had pointed a gun at me. It was also the last. So far.

I’m not very good at violence. I’ve lost almost every fight I’ve ever been in, mostly against people smaller than me. But I have what I guess might be a generational familiarity with violence. I grew up in Seattle, in the ’80s. We didn’t know it then, but statistically that was a low point for the entire country, in terms of poverty, violence, and crime. Seattle’s murder rate was significantly lower than most other cities at the time, but it was about twice what it is now. And the overall situation in the city — in terms of drugs, poverty, homelessness, prostitution, and general street crime — was worse in a way I think a lot of people, particularly millenials, and people who moved to Seattle after the late ’90s, can’t really grasp.

Here’s a thing I feel silly worrying about: I worry that the streets — people’s day-to-day experience of walking down the street in a normal city — have gotten just safe enough in the past 20 years that we’ve lost track of the fact that violence is all around us, all the time, and that each of us has to make a choice about how we’re going to face that fact. Not an abstract choice; a choice with consequences. Because maybe nobody’s ever pointed a gun at you, and maybe they never will. But the odds are good — and they seem to be getting better every day, in spite of how much safer we all are — that you’re going to see violence done to someone else. And when that happens, you’re either going to do something about it or you’re not.

Nobody gets to tell you what you should do in those situations. Nobody. I’ve seen a lot of stories on the Internet, about bullies hurting people, or scaring people, and the person who posted the story inevitably wants to know why the bystanders didn’t jump in there to help. That drives me nuts. The ability to turn off your fear and put yourself at risk isn’t something everyone has. And even people who do have that talent, or ability, or whatever you want to call it — even they can’t make it work all the time.

Nobody else can guess what they would have done in your shoes. Nobody gets to tell you what you should do.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect anything from yourself.

The burglar incident bothered me, afterward. The memory of having to stand on the sidewalk and let that man walk away, after he’d threatened my life. It just ate away at me. I made up my mind that things would go differently next time. As soon as I turned 21, I got a concealed pistol permit.

But I ran into a problem. I’d spent a fair chunk of time over the intervening two years reading up about combat handgun techniques. And basically what I’d learned was that whoever has their gun out first wins. There’s a chance the other person will manage to shoot back, even after receiving a lethal wound. But generally speaking, whoever has their gun out first wins. I had also learned that a significant percentage of people who are murdered by guns are murdered with their own gun; that my odds of committing suicide went up just by having a gun in the house; that there was basically no safe way to store a gun that also made it accessible in the event of a break-in.

I went back and replayed the burglar scenario in my head. Suppose I’d had a gun. When would I have pulled it? When he ran out of the apartment? What were the chances I would have killed him in a panic, without ever knowing he was armed? Stupidly high. And for what? Because he tried to steal someone’s TV? No.

To this day, I’ve never owned a gun. But I’ve never yet failed to come running when I hear someone calling for help.

The idea of doing something I’m ashamed of, in a situation where lives are at stake, holds more fear for me than the idea of dying.

I think, though I don’t know, that Taliesin Myrddin Namkai Meche and Ricky Best might have felt that way too.

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