The gun I carried on the streets of New York City in the late 1960s was a Beretta, similar to the pistol James Bond packed in the early Ian Fleming novels. It was a small, dark beauty that filled me with bravado. I was never afraid when I had it in my pocket, which is why I’m so very afraid now.
I was packing it illegally, but I knew that a white man in a suit and tie was unlikely to be stopped by the police and frisked, even in a city with some of the strictest gun laws in the country — laws that may soon be swept away if the Supreme Court continues what seems to be its holy war on democracy. In fact, its justices are expected to rule this month in a case that challenges New York’s constitutional right to deny anyone a permit to carry a firearm. That state’s current licensing process allows only those who can prove a “special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community.” That means you can’t pack heat just because you want to feel stronger and braver than you are or because you feel threatened by people who look different from you.
It also means that you can’t enjoy the privileges of the past. In his history of gun rights in this country, Armed in America, Patrick Charles quotes this from a piece in a 1912 issue of the magazine Sports Afield: “Perfect freedom from annoyance by petty lawbreakers is found in a country where every man carries his own sheriff, judge, and executioner swung on his hip.”
Sadly enough, carrying such firepower is thrilling, oppressive, and often leads to calamity as hundreds of police officers and the would-be neighborhood defender George Zimmerman, the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, found out. It was something I, too, came to understand. Let me tell you how.
The Beretta was not my first gun. That was a .22 bolt-action Savage Arms rifle that my favorite uncle insisted I needed to grow into true manhood. My dad was against harboring a gun in the house, but the masculinity argument must have swayed him. He had been too old for the Army and not having served disturbed him. Uncle Irving was his best friend and a World War II vet.
I was around 12 years old, about the age most kids in gun-owning families are first armed. I was an avid fan of the Western movies of that era, which were always resolved by a gunfight. The idea of owning a gun, that symbol of manhood, genuinely excited me. Somehow, because there were so many rules and restrictions, target practice became a duty, as well as a guilty pleasure. (Many years later, I spoke with an Army sergeant who described shooting as unlimited orgasms for less than six cents each.)
In my early teens, I enjoyed plinking away in the woods, knocking off cans and bottles (Indians and outlaws, of course) until the inevitable need to actually kill something became uncontainable. I had to test myself. I was a responsible kid and heeded my dad’s ban on shooting at birds and squirrels, even rattlesnakes, but I finally begged permission to go after the rabbit pillaging mom’s vegetable garden.
I got it on the first shot!
And that was the beginning of my conflict.
It just didn’t feel as good as I had dreamt it would, even though my hunting partner, my kid sister, cheered, while my parents appeared both dismayed and impressed. In death, the marauder of our food supply turned out to be just a hungry little bunny.
Was there something missing in the experience or maybe in me, I wondered? Where was the joy I expected in actually gunning something down? Nevertheless, I paid lip-service to what I thought I should have felt, turning the backyard ambush into the equivalent of an Ernest Hemingway safari, a tale told heroically until it became satirical. (Hemingway was my generation’s avatar of toxic masculinity in literature and in life. And, of course, he killed himself with a gun.)
My sister and I skinned our prey and kept those dried-out rabbit’s feet for years. But ever since, the idea of hunting, if nothing gets eaten, seemed noxious to me and, as the years passed, I began to think of sport hunters as the leatherette men, a gang of poseurs.
Though I kept that rifle, I never fired it again.
Covering police stories early in my newspaper career, I found myself regularly around guns that were almost never drawn on duty, weapons worn by men and women mostly discomforted by their weight and bulge. But I found that I was still fascinated by them. It was only the idea of using them for hunting that bothered me then, not guns themselves.
Still, weapons training in the Army in 1961 turned out to be no fun. The instructors were even more restrictive than Dad and I proved to be a mediocre shot at best.
Basic training turned out to be boring and disappointing. I had, at least, hoped to get myself in better shape and work on some of those manly arts that were still on my mind, like hand-to-hand combat. But that didn’t happen. After basic, I was dumped into clerk/typist school, the Army’s numbing attempt to teach soldiers to be all they could be by doing paperwork. The secretarial training drove me so crazy that I went on sick call and started spending nights in the beer garden at Fort Dix, which only made everything worse.
Then, one night, en route to getting wasted again, I wandered into a free shooting range sponsored by the National Rifle Association (NRA). Oh, joy!
Unlimited orgasms, rifles and handguns, jolly instructors. I was still gripped by the fantasy of manly fun. The next thing I knew, I had joined the NRA by mailing in a card from one of its magazines. My mood lifted and, incredibly, I graduated at the top of my clerk/typist class. I then floated through the rest of my six-month active-duty enlistment in the Army information office, trigger happy all the way.
Back in civilian life, writing sports stories for the New York Times in the early 1960s, I discovered that my manhood credentials were unassailable, especially to the guys I now think of as the Bystander Boys. Those were the everyday dudes who genuflect to alpha males, especially the sports heroes they assumed I drank with. Those were specious creds, although it would take me years more to figure that out. Back then, I wasn’t yet paying attention to the various kinds of faux manhood that were around me everywhere. Quite the opposite, I was living my own version of it. Especially when I got my beautiful little Beretta.
My frat house roommate Marty, a naval officer, brought back one for each of us from a Mediterranean cruise. It fit our fantasy lives then. After all, we’d both studied combat judo with a drunken ex-Marine on a tough street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. We were both delusional apprentice bad asses at a time when actor Humphrey Bogart was considered a profile in manhood. We liked the way he smoked and handled a gun in his films. In addition, we had both read the James Bond novels and were proud that 007’s early pistol of choice, the Beretta, was now ours, too.
To say that I felt bigger and harder with the Beretta in my pocket is true, even if it reduces the experience to a phallic cartoon (which, of course, is just what it was). But there was more. It was proof that I was neither weak, nor soft, and didn’t have to feel as vulnerable as I actually did covering stories on the mean streets of the city. It meant I could walk at night in the South Bronx assuming that I’d be able to respond to anything, that I would never have to run or surrender my wallet to some teenaged mugger.
So went my weaponized imagination then. I felt primed for action. I was daring the world, strolling through New York with what I took to be the pigeon-toed rolling swagger of that classic star of so many cowboy and war movies, John Wayne. I even began to fancy that I projected a dangerous aura that would intimidate anyone with bad intentions toward me.
Soon enough, I knew, that feeling of invulnerability would have to be tested. The emotional weight of that gun seemed to demand it. I would have to use it and it wouldn’t be on a rabbit this time.
I felt feverish with the desire for (and terror of) engagement. I suspect that a kind of temporary insanity set in, that I was gun crazy, drowning in testosterone — and the memory of that gives me a feeling for the state of mind of the mad boys now regularly slaughtering people in our country. And here was the strangest thing in retrospect: I don’t remember ever thinking that I didn’t really know how to use that gun, that I’d had no training with it, never even fired it. And in those days, there was no YouTube to show me how.
And then came one lunatic night on Manhattan’s lower East Side. For a magazine story, I was shadowing a young doctor who worked for a non-profit group visiting sick kids in their squalid rooms. Nervous that the drugs and syringes he was carrying in his medical bag might make him a target, he was hugging the shadows of the dark street as we made our way to his car, half a block away. Suddenly, a group of loud young men appeared, drinking beer. The doctor grabbed my arm. He wanted to duck back into the building we had just walked out of.
Filled with bravado, however, I pulled him along, my other hand in my pocket. I was suddenly on fire in a way that reminded me of my teen self and the rabbit. No punks were going to chase me off that street. I glared at them. They glared right back, but then separated so we could walk quickly through them to our car. I promptly flopped into the passenger seat, suddenly exhausted, wiped out by my own stupidity, my own madness.
Just thinking about it now, almost 60 years later, my spine tingles, my muscles lock, and I feel a deep sense of shame, especially for endangering that young do-good doctor. And the possible outcome, had I done something truly stupid? I imagine the gun snagging on my pocket lining as I tried to pull it out for the first time and shooting myself in the foot or, far worse, shooting someone else. I never carried a gun again.
When I gave the Beretta back to Marty, I told him only a piece of the truth. I said I was afraid of getting busted with it in a city with such rigorous gun laws. I promised to visit the pistol in California, where he would soon be living. And I did. I shot it there for the first time at a commercial range, along with Marty’s new .45. He was rapturous, but I was just going through the motions. There was no excitement or pleasure. I had changed.
I was done with guns and felt like a fool for ever thinking differently. But because of my experience I do understand why, in this thoroughly over-armed land of ours, so many others consider such weaponry (and far more powerful and deadly versions) so important to who they are. Having experienced a sense of that identity myself, I don’t look down on them for it. And I understand that behind the mostly male pleasure in being armed can lie complex feelings. As historian Adam Hochschild noted in the New York Review of Books several years ago:
“The passion for guns felt by tens of millions of Americans also has deep social and economic roots. The fervor with which they believe liberals are trying to take all their guns away is so intense because so much else has been taken away.”
Even more troubling is that many of them believe they will need those guns for defense against the rampaging gangs (calling themselves militias?) that would rise after the possible collapse of American democracy as we’ve known it, which any number of armed men don’t trust to protect them anyway. (Thank you, Donald Trump, most Republicans, and, alas, my old benefactor the NRA!)
Is stocking up on AR-15s and thousands of rounds of ammunition paranoia or preparation? While a Beretta would never be enough, it turns out that such lesser guns have done most of the damage to Americans. Mass murders with military-style automatic rifles, especially school shootings, have reaped so much of the attention, but it’s been handguns that have killed far more Americans every year, most often via suicide (which is why it’s so sad to see so many of us increasingly arming ourselves to the teeth).
More than half of the 45,222 gun-related deaths in 2020, the last year for which we have solid statistics, were suicides, while “only” (yes, put that in scare quotes) 513 of them were thanks to mass shootings, defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot, even if no one is killed.
Handguns, not long guns, were involved in 59% of the 13,620 deaths classified as murders that year as well, while assault rifles were involved only 3% of the time. So banning those military-grade weapons, manufactured to kill as many people as possible as quickly as possible, while distinctly a sane idea amid this mounting firearms insanity of ours, would probably have little real effect on our proliferating gun culture. Given the politics right now, it’s hard to imagine any administration attempting to begin the disarming of America.
Unfortunately, it’s easier to imagine a future government eager to build that arsenal to ever more destructive extremes, both at home among individuals and throughout the world as arms merchants, the ultimate in gun culture.
It’s not hard to imagine this country strutting all too manfully toward the apocalypse with more than a Beretta in its pocket.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.