The decision to purchase a shotgun should not have been mine to make.
When I was 21 years old, I moved back home to upstate New York after graduating from college. I felt like the lowest form of life possible for having failed the expectation that I would be able to live on my own. I shouldn’t have been so hard on myself. I’d been suffering from bipolar disorder since I was 15. I hadn’t been able to make the smartest decisions, or to plan for long-term success. I spent my time keeping my head above water.
I still felt shame at the idea of needing my parents to support me again—as an adult—so I walked into a sporting goods store, went to the hunting section, and stared up at the rack of shotguns behind the counter.
I meant that shotgun only for me. I knew precisely where I was going to go, a little spot overlooking the Mohawk River surrounded by tall, green grass. I’d sit with my back against a hill, enjoy looking at the sunlight glinting off the water, and then figure out the meaning of life by thinking about ending mine.
A therapist is allowed to alert the authorities if and when a patient is a harm to himself or others. The police could then arrest that patient, if need be, and place him or her in psychiatric care. I’ve never heard anyone argue that this is not a reasonable curtailment of rights and liberties.
We broadly agree on this principle.
That being the case, shouldn’t we also broadly agree that denying this person access to firearms, a much lesser curtailment of their right and liberties, makes perfect sense?
On May 27, 2014, California State Assembly members Nancy Skinner and Das Williams proposed legislation that would bar a mentally unstable person from buying or owning a gun. Under the proposed law, if someone’s friends, family, or partner called police to express concern over the mental stability of that person, police would be enabled to seek a court order to prohibit them from purchasing or possessing firearms.
This is plainly a reaction to the Isla Vista shootings. It is also a recognition of what ought to be a common sense principle whose application goes beyond the prevention of mass shootings. The proposed law recognizes the no-brainer proposition that someone who is not mentally stable ought not to possess firearms, for whatever reason.
The proposed law makes me reflect on that moment back in 1995 when I stood in front of that counter in the sporting goods store. Someone who is feeling suicidal is not, by definition, mentally stable. The decision to purchase that shotgun ought not to have been mine to make. My family should have had the right to take it away from me.
I shot BB guns quite a few times growing up, but I have only fired real guns once. I bought a “World War II” package at a shooting range while on vacation in Las Vegas. Two magazines’ worth of ammo for a .45-caliber M1911 pistol, two magazines for a German MP 40 machine pistol, a magazine for a Thompson submachine gun, and for a small additional charge, I added a magazine for a British Sten gun.
I mostly remember shooting the M1911 pistol. The gun was a hand cannon. When I pulled the trigger, the bright orange bloom at the end of the barrel looked like it was a foot long. The first time I fired the gun, I was so unprepared for the explosive recoil that the barrel wound up pointing at the ceiling.
After almost 20 years of firing virtual weapons in first-person shooters, however, and watching way too many action movies, I had an idea of how I should steady the weapon properly. The rest of my shots fell in a nice, tidy circle around my paper target’s center of mass, once I’d adjusted to the recoil.
The range master who was loading the weapons encouraged me to fire off long bursts and “have fun with it.” Nonsense, I thought, because I remembered what Corporal Hicks said to the rest of the Colonial Marines in the classic sci-fi movie Aliens. “Short, controlled bursts.” I feathered the trigger on the automatic weapons and landed tight groupings.
Eventually the range master was turning the paper targets upside-down, and pushing the targets further and further down range using the mechanical pulley system, and it didn’t affect my accuracy much. As I finished off the last magazine, he said that I knew my guns. No, I thought. I’ve just played a lot of video games.
Later that evening, when I reflected on my experience at the shooting range, I was shaken and upset. I understood, for the first time, just how scary easy access to firearms really is. Americans see guns being used in our media so often—not just video games but television and movies especially—that it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out how to fire them properly, once you actually have a gun in your hands.
I was able to discern in a single afternoon at the shooting range just how easy it can be to learn how to use firearms with deadly proficiency at close range.
I’d like to think that a seasoned shooter, the type of person who carries an NRA membership card, would understand this better than anyone else. And if they’re being reasonable, I think they would instantly see the wisdom in what Skinner and Williams are proposing in California.
Their proposed law does not intrinsically violate the Second Amendment. Any order issued under this law to temporarily bar the purchase or possession of firearms by an individual could be appealed. There is oversight on whether the state is allowed to temporarily suspend those Second Amendment rights. The law is a temporary, preventative measure, and the thing about mental illness is that some varieties don’t have predictable buildups before the patient snaps out of rationality. Sometimes it just happens, like it used to happen with me.
A blanket, temporary bar from firearm possession might be the only way to prevent some of these mass shootings.
I have a mood disorder. I have, thankfully, had access to therapists and doctors such that my mood disorder is for all intents and purposes latent. It wasn’t treated back in 1988, however, when I was in high school and fell in love with a girl who was beautiful, smart, and sweet. I wanted nothing more in the world than to be her boyfriend.
I remember finally working up the nerve to ask her if she wanted to go to the movies and smelling her perfume while I sat next to her in the theater. I’m still very sensitive to smells. If my wife puts on the right scent, she can basically get me to tend to whatever chore she likes without a moment’s debate.
I remember telling this girl in high school how I felt about her. I was wise enough not to use the “l” word. It didn’t matter. She said she wasn’t interested in me that way. I was devastated. Then I remember how I felt when she started dating a brutish thug on the football team, someone with a reputation for beating up kids like me.
When I watched Elliot Rodger’s YouTube video announcing his day of retribution and his reasons for it, I saw a chilling reminder of how I felt shortly after this girl had spurned me. I felt wronged and angry—but I didn’t feel violent.
I also lived in a much different world than Rodger. I had never seen a news report about kids taking guns and shooting up a school. The idea of walking into a movie theater and opening up on the crowd would have been something I’d have ascribed to the plot of a slasher flick like the kind I’d grown up watching, maybe from out of a nightmare sequence.
What if I’d been that sad, lonely kid in 2014—when mass shootings have become an everyday part of life? Today’s kids have so many examples to choose from if they want to plan a gun massacre. Might that event have planted a seed, given me an idea that I’d keep with me for the rest of my life?
The thing about mood disorders, which afflict around nine percent of the American population above 18 years of age in a given year, is that there’s no rhyme or reason to how the patient feels what they feel. That’s why they’re mood disorders.
Before I was treated, I could go from being perfectly happy to being in a screaming rage within the space of a few minutes. It was exposing my future wife to these episodes, while we were dating, that made me seek treatment when I was 22. I knew that I wanted to be with her, and that I couldn’t expect her to deal with those mood swings for much longer before she left me.
A few years ago, she and I were visiting her family in Florida. I forget why her father wanted to go to the sporting goods store. While he and my wife went off to do whatever they were doing, I went to the gun section. First I geeked out over all the BB guns, especially the ones that were molded like weapons I was familiar with from my video games.
Then I hit the end of an aisle, and was in front of the real guns, at the gun counter. And I took this picture:
Row upon row of pistols under glass, and stacks of shotguns on racks on the wall, and a glass case filled with assault rifles. In Florida, you only have to be 18 years old to buy or own a rifle or shotgun. You can own a handgun at 18 if it’s gifted to you. If you’re 21, you can buy a pistol from a dealer.
I had half a mind to whip out my credit card, pick up a healthy selection of firearms and some ammo, and then go to a gun range. I’d ask a range master to help me load everything up, lay the guns on the counter, and then discharge everything into the targets at a rapid pace. I’d ask my wife to tape the entire event, from the purchases to the firing range on her iPhone. Just to demonstrate how easy it was for me, someone with a diagnosed mood disorder, to pick up a deadly arsenal without anyone even knowing to ask whether or not I was in treatment.
And then imagine someone with an untreated mood disorder with that kind of arsenal sitting around at home. The law that Skinner and Williams are proposing in California, paired with attentive family, friends, and lovers of someone with a history of mental illness, could eliminate our need to ever be afraid of this situation.
As it stands, we have no idea how many human clocks are out there ticking—firearms loaded and ready for when those clocks go off. This isn’t a scare tactic. It’s reality. Elliot Rodger should be our final lesson on this score.
Had the law which Skinner and Williams are proposing in California been the law of the land, I’d like to think that someone, at some point, would have made sure that Elliot Rodger couldn’t purchase or own a firearm. He made numerous YouTube videos that set off alarm bells before the one that immediately preceded the massacre in Isla Vista.
Had such a law existed, the police would have been empowered to enter Elliot Rodger’s home and remove his guns from his possession, pending an appeal from Rodger. The investigation would have uncovered his digital diatribes, turning up solid evidence that maybe Elliot Rodger ought not to own a trio of handguns, just in case his clock went off some day.
There was only one time in my life that I seriously considered violence against someone who had wronged me. It was around the same time that I’d stood in front of that counter in the sporting goods store, looking up at that shotgun.
Some kids had invited me to a party. They’d decided I was a snooty college boy. The party was in a trailer, and they had someone on the roof with a bucket of beer and piss to dump on my head as I walked in. I luckily heard whoever it was on the roof making noise before they could get into position to douse me. I was only hit with a few splashes. I turned around and quietly got back into my car and drove away. That was the last time I ever hung out with those kids.
When I got home, I took a shower and then went to bed, dreaming up revenge fantasies of going back to the party with a can of gasoline, silently creeping up as they all got drunk and unaware. I would douse the ground around the trailer, splashing the walls, and then toss a lighter.
As soon as the thought occurred, I dismissed it as a monstrous, evil thing to do. I’ve read that imagining awful things is how we test our morality. If we think of a horrible thing and think to ourselves I could never do that, that’s how we know we’re a moral person. Once I had the revenge fantasy in my head, I had to walk myself through it.
Get the gas can. Get in the car. Go to a gas station. Fill the can up. And at every step of the imaginary journey, I had a chance to tell myself how crazy the whole thing was, and the revenge fantasy revealed itself as just a fantasy; instead of being vengeful, I was sad. I cried, and I got over it.
Alter the variables slightly, however, and maybe it wouldn’t have been gasoline on my mind. Maybe it would have been a gun or two or ten. What I learned that day at the firing range in Las Vegas was just how easy it would have been to go back to that trailer and shoot everyone, had I felt so inclined, and had I had the weapons in my possession.
I am one of the lucky ones. Inasmuch as mental illness can ever be beaten, I’ve beaten mine. Even if I were denied my meds and my therapy, I’ve had 18 years to understand my mood disorder, to be mindful of it, and to remove its power over me. I get angry and sad like anyone else—but it’s just like anyone else, and I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that.
Still, I would be more than happy to permanently surrender my right to own firearms, forever, if it meant that everyone else with a diagnosed history of mental illness would be in the same boat.
Even if Elliot Rodger hadn’t had any weapons in his possession, he still could have found a way to take his anger out on the world. He still owned a car, and on May 23, he amply demonstrated how to effectively employ a vehicle as a weapon. That wasn’t as easy as just pointing the barrel of a gun and squeezing a trigger, however. Maybe, without such an easy way to kick off his murder spree, it never would have happened.
I never bought that shotgun. There were plenty of other ways I could have chosen to kill myself over the years, but I didn’t, because none of them were as easy as just pulling a trigger.
The California State Assembly law could make it cease to be easy for someone with a mental illness in California to make any decision involving a firearm. Their law wouldn’t end the threat of gun violence on its own, but their measure is a very large step toward recognizing that guns just make it way too simple for people to make bad decisions, ones that don’t just affect them.
Even if I’d been the only person I’d killed with that shotgun, there would have been dozens of people who paid for my decision. As my casket was lowered into the ground, they would have been the ones standing around, trying to figure out how this could have happened.
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