A Few Reflections on Guns

(As he did last year, The Curmudgeon is taking off the rest of August for a little R & R. While he’s gone he’ll fill this space with encore presentations – okay, reruns – of some of his favorite past posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He’s doing this so you won’t forget him because despite all the bravado and bluster he’s one pretty insecure fellow.  During his absence the serialization of Taking Care of Business will continue every Sunday. The Four-Eyed Curmudgeon will return the Tuesday after Labor Day.)

(Despite how prevalent they are in our society, most people, The Curmudgeon suspects, will never see or hold a gun.  The Curmudgeon has, and he thought it was worth writing about in this March 2014 piece.)

No, this will not be a curmudgeonly, left-wing rant about gun control.  The Curmudgeon’s position on guns is simple:  the constitution in no way guarantees anyone’s unfettered, unregulated right to own and use guns.  Americans are insane on the subject of guns:  there were more than 9000 gun deaths in the U.S. in 2009 and that same year, England, Canada, Australia, Japan, Germany, Israel, and Denmark combined had 466 such deaths, which means Americans either are inherently more murderous than other people or the easy availability of guns leads to their easy use and abuse.  That being said, there are already about 300 million guns in private hands in the U.S. today, or about one for every man, woman, and child in the country, which means the cat is pretty much out of the bag and attempting to “control” guns now is a matter of too little, too late.  Pass all the laws you want but you’re not going to get people to turn over the guns they already have and the bad guys are always going to find a way to get their hands on more.

You see?  As promised, not a curmudgeonly, left-wing rant about gun control at all.

Instead, The Curmudgeon would like to share personal observations about the three times in his life he came into contact with guns.

The first time was a very long time ago:  1968, to be precise.  Martin Luther King had just been assassinated, a few cities had erupted into riots, and there were rumors – there are always rumors – that such riots would be coming to Philadelphia, where The Curmudgeon lived.  Worse, it was rumored that the riots would come to the community where The Curmudgeon lived.

In hindsight, the whole idea was preposterous.  Even if riots spread, even if they came to Philadelphia, there was virtually no chance they were going to come to the 99.8 percent white community in which The Curmudgeon lived.  There were no black people in the neighborhood to riot, and for black people to riot in northeast Philadelphia in 1968 they would have had to get in cars and drive a half-hour or, more likely, take a bus, then a train, and then another bus to get to where the white folks lived.  It just wasn’t going to happen.

But that didn’t prevent The Curmudgeon’s father from feeling a paternal need to protect his family.

So one evening, dad asked his eldest son to bring the desk chair from his bedroom into his parents’ room.  When The Curmudgeon arrived, chair in hand, dad closed the door behind him and instructed his son where to place the chair:  in front of the left-hand side of his closet door.  Dad then opened the closet and directed his son to stand on the chair.

“Okay, raise your arms until you feel a shoebox.”

A moment passed.

“I’ve got it.”

“Good.  Now carefully pick up the shoebox, bring it down, and put it on the bed.”

Son did as told.

gun“Now take the lid off the box.”

Again son did as he was told and beheld a small handgun with what looked like a blue plastic handle.

And then dad turned to his son and explained, “There may be things going on around here in the next few weeks.  If I’m not home, you’re the man of the house.”

And son, all of ten years old, just nodded.

What else could he do?

Fourteen years later, protection again was the concern, but this time, it was familial:  The Curmudgeon’s parents’ marriage was on the rocks but they were still living together until they could sell their house.  The Curmudgeon, a recent college graduate, still lived at home.  His younger brother had been gone from the house for years, a refugee from fatherly wrath, and baby sister was away at college.  Dad was showing signs of potential violence against mom, and he was always predisposed to violence anyway.  If The Curmudgeon knew one thing, it was that if dad got violent, there wasn’t a whole lot he would be able to do about because dad was much bigger, much stronger, and much tougher than his son.

So what to do?

On a dreary November Sunday afternoon, at halftime of an Eagles game, son put on his shaggiest coat and went off in search of a gun.  He figured that the best way to do it was to go someplace where it looked like a young guy was trying to buy some marijuana.  The Curmudgeon had never actually purchased marijuana, or even smoked any, for that matter, but he had a reasonable idea of where to go:  a place that was a ten-minute drive from the house.  (For readers who know Philadelphia, he went to Frankford Avenue, outside the old furniture store that, to the best of his recollection, was between Rhawn and Solly but closer to Solly, if not on the corner of Solly itself.)

He waited about ten minutes, as snow flurries began to fall, until, sure enough, someone approached him and asked him if he wanted to buy some grass.  No, he replied, but he was looking for a gun.  They settled on a price, and a half-hour later, The Curmudgeon returned to the same spot, completed the transaction, and returned home with gun in hand (well, in the trunk of his 1980 Ford Pinto – and cut it out, he saw you smirk), in time to catch the fourth quarter of the game.

Fortunately, dad never became violent and there was no need for the gun, the house was sold, and the day after dad moved out, The Curmudgeon gingerly picked up the gun, which he had never removed from the brown paper bag in which it came, and took it to the local police station, explaining that he had found it on the ground outside his house.  Now wearing a jacket and tie, The Curmudgeon was a very clean-cut-looking young man, at twenty-five already starting to go a little bald and a little gray, and the police asked no questions and seemed grateful for the little gift he presented them.

Flash forward thirty years, to The Curmudgeon’s father’s death last September.  As The Curmudgeon has already written, he and his sister had the unenviable task of flying 3000 miles to clean out their father’s apartment.  The plan was simple:  forget about “stuff,” except for anything that might have any sentimental value, and focus on finding important papers to ship home for more careful scrutiny under less stressful, time-constrained conditions.  Amid that searching, brother and sister knew there were three things in particular they needed to look for:  cash, because dad always believes in keeping a decent-sized stash around the house (he used the Yiddish word “puskah” to describe it); the title to his car, because he had designated someone to whom he wished to give the car; and a gun, because it was perfectly reasonable to assume dad still owned one because when he moved to California his place of employment was in Compton, a notoriously dangerous city.  After working most of his life in north Philadelphia, dad must have felt right at home in Compton.

You know the old joke about how you found something in the last place you looked (the joke, as the comedian David Brenner always told it, was of course it was in the last place you looked because after you found it, you stopped looking).  Well, this really was a matter of finding something in the last place searched:  The Curmudgeon and his sister made a systematic sweep of the tiny apartment and found an unlocked strong box with two guns and a box of bullets in the last place designated for searching.

Neither was the blue gun of 1968.  One was like what Johnny Carson always joked was the “teeny tiny” gun that Nancy Reagan was reported to own; the other was, for lack of a better term or any knowledge of firearms, what The Curmudgeon would call a “real gun,” a serious weapon.

So, what to do with these guns?  Leaving them behind was not an option; that would’ve been irresponsible.  The Curmudgeon and his sister had already dumped many things down the trash chute, but dumping the guns seemed reckless:  they may have been loaded and the trash eventually might’ve been compacted, and if that were the case, the bullets could go off, potentially harming something or someone.

To take them to the police station or call the police and ask them to pick up the guns, that was the question.  Instead of answering the question themselves, they decided to leave it up to the police, to call them and ask them what to do.

“Oh, we’ll be right there.  Thank you for calling,” the police dispatcher said.

And a few minutes later they were there, as promised:  a young Latino officer whose arms were about as big around as The Curmudgeon’s (rather considerable) thighs.

He was cordial and efficient and knew what he was doing, but there, in the heart of conservative Orange County, California – although Cypress, where dad lived, is definitely the ‘hood of Orange County – Officer Hernandez absolutely could not understand why anyone wouldn’t want to keep a perfectly good gun.  While describing the process the town used to dispose of guns – it ships them to a facility in Long Beach to be melted down – he wondered why the two outsiders to whom he was speaking wouldn’t want to keep the guns, even if all they did was sell them on eBay.  He clearly was one of the good guys, but he was a good guy in a culture that values guns, that tolerates the havoc they wreak on people, on families, and on communities, and he doesn’t understand the role they play in so many of the law enforcement activities he undertakes every day.

Okay, so it was a little bit of a curmudgeonly liberal rant about guns there at the end.

If The Curmudgeon is fortunate, though, these three encounters with firearms will be his only encounters and he can live the rest of his life without touching, seeing, or being confronted with one again.

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