When I walked through glassware sections of stores as a child, my body buzzed with distress and delight. There were only two ways to ease this anxious discomfort:
- Fling my arms out and knock over all the glass to see, hear, and feel the pieces shatter; or
- Keep my arms tightly by my side and ensure that nothing above the soles of my shoes touched any objects in the store.
I always chose the second option. The urge to fling my arms out to knock over crystal and glassware has diminished with time. If I’m honest, though, the uncomfortable thrill persists.
That same uncomfortable thrill pulsed through me when the loaded guns rested in my hand.
It didn’t matter that I received a private didactic (with a white board![1. The white board didactic included four rules: (1) All guns are always loaded. (2) Keep finger off trigger until ready to fire. (3) Be aware of target and what’s behind it. (4) Don’t point at anything you’re not willing to destroy.]) about gun safety from someone I know and trust (who also happens to work as an emergency physician). It didn’t matter that we were at a pistol range where safety was paramount. It didn’t matter that I had close supervision for my first experience in shooting firearms.
The paper target revealed that my initial shots were the most accurate; the subsequent shots often drifted farther and farther from the target. Maybe my hands and arms suffered from fatigue. Maybe my uneven breathing made my body needlessly tense. Maybe my safety glasses got too foggy from perspiration.
Maybe it was the National Geographic article about a young woman’s face transplant due to a self-inflicted rifle wound that I had read just the day prior. Maybe it was the imagery of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the later murder of Lee Harvey Oswald that I saw at The Sixth Floor Museum.
Maybe all the stories I remembered from my work as a psychiatrist freaked me out.
Maybe it was all the stories I never heard or have yet to hear.
It happens so fast: Finger is off the trigger. Finger then rests on the trigger. Finger flexes.
The bullet is gone. My body lurches with the recoil. The bullet casing bounces off my shoe. I only see the puff of pewter smoke when I lower my arms.
- How much time passed between the time she loaded the gun and when she fired it at her chest?
- Did she hesitate before she put her finger on the trigger?
- How many times did he try to pull the trigger before putting the gun down?
- Did he ever put his finger on the trigger before he pulled the barrel of the gun out of his mouth?
- Did she ever touch a gun before the day she tried to kill herself with one?
- Did he imagine what the BANG would sound like within his skull?
The power of the weapons spooked me.
My hands weren’t shaking, but my fingers could not push the 9mm bullets into the magazine. My hands felt weak.
More than once I walked away, pulled the safety glasses off my face, wiped the sheen of sweat off my forehead with my forearm, and then jumped up and down several times.
I never felt any urge to turn the guns on myself, though the uncomfortable thrill reminded me that I could. Others who are unable or unwilling to resist that uncomfortable thrill could indulge that urge, whether against themselves (more common) or against others (much less common). The uncomfortable thrill may not feel so uncomfortable when one is intoxicated. Or angry. Or hopeless.
It could happen so fast.
Yet, I quickly recognized the appeal behind shooting. Guns are tools. The anatomy and mechanics of firearms are interesting. Learning how to aim and hit targets with high accuracy is satisfying and rewarding. Achieving mastery over such powerful tools is thrilling.
I am grateful that I had the opportunity to learn how to shoot pistols. It was fun, though I must confess that it was not as fun as I had anticipated. Thoughts of death and injury from suicide rarely left my mind, which added elements of stress and sadness. Jumping up and down and taking deep breaths could only do so much.
The power of guns freaked me out. It was only the next day that my body finally stopped buzzing with distress and delight.