We ran out of milk this morning. We need milk–for our coffee, for my shredded wheat, just in case I feel like making crepes.
“Where should I go?” my husband asked.
I knew what he was asking, but didn’t answer.
“Do you think anyone will be carrying a gun this early in the morning?” he asked.
“That’s not the point,” I said.
“I know,” he said. “I’m joking. Whole Foods is open.”
Kroger is the closest grocery store to us, and the cheapest too. Whole Foods will require we use more time, more gas, and more money. But Kroger is currently in a showdown with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a group we both belong to, because the corporate food-seller is allowing customers to openly carry guns in their stores. The statement they issued last week read,
The safety of our customers and associates is one of our most important company values. Millions of customers are present in our busy grocery stores every day and we don’t want to put our associates in a position of having to confront a customer who is legally carrying a gun. That is why our long-standing policy on this issue is to follow state and local laws and to ask customers to be respectful of others while shopping. We know that our customers are passionate on both sides of this issue and we trust them to be responsible in our stores.
I know where I stand on gun issues. And I have an opinion about the pathetically paltry–even cowardly–nature of Kroger’s official statement. I know that while some people carry weapons, I’m carrying an unborn child whose body I’m obligated to protect, and I do not feel I can fulfill my obligation in a place where people brandish weapons. But I don’t want to sermonize about my position: preaching won’t work. The two sides are speaking from such psychologically different places, and the argument–it seems to me–is not so much about policy, but about symbolism. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “We are symbols and we inhabit symbols.” For the gun skeptic, like me, the gun symbolizes aggression, particularly male aggression; it symbolizes my grandfather’s early death; it symbolizes distrust and a lack of community; the gun is lead and steel where I want stem and root; death where I want life. For the gun enthusiast, I cannot say what guns symbolize, except that I suspect the gun stands in for the illusion of control, for agency and utility, and I’m sure, for some people, guns are beautiful as aesthetic objects as well, the way books are for me beautiful things first, before their usefulness and power even come into play.
Instead of sermonizing, let me offer literature.
Writer Andre Dubus wrote an essay in 1990 for The New Yorker called “Giving Up the Gun,” where he attempts to understand his decision to give up guns after years of collecting and carrying guns. For 13 years he had a license to carry in Massachusetts, and since his boyhood in Louisiana he loved guns, many of which he found “beautiful…their shape and balanced weight pleasing to hold.” For him holding a gun was an aesthetic experience; he held “the tiny twenty-two as another person might hold a pocket watch or a ring, a hammer or a golf club. To me, that gun, like all my guns, was somehow alive, with a history or a future; with a soul. I loved it, and bought it.”
He collected guns like I collect books.
Dubus also wanted the illusion of safety–to protect his kids and family, and then later, himself when, after losing his ability to walk in a devastating car crash, he felt newly and profoundly vulnerable to the violent world.
Ultimately, however, Dubus was foremost a spiritual man, even before a gun enthusiast or master writer. And on a train in 1990, he decided to give up all his guns. His decision was not political or practical, but spiritual. I want to let his words be the sermon today.
I have written all this to try to discover why, sitting in my wheelchair on a train, I gave up my guns. But I do not know. Eight months after that Thanksgiving in Baton Rouge, I was driving home from Boston, armed with a pistol, and I stopped on the highway and got out of my car to help two people who had driven over an abandoned motorcycle. Then a car hit me, and I have been in a wheelchair for over nine years. My body can no longer do what I want to do, and it cannot protect my two young daughters, and my grandchildren, from perils I used to believe I could save people from. I have not learned the virtue of surrender–which I want–but I have learned the impossibility of avoiding surrender. I am also more afraid now. For the three years and eight months after my injury, until those moments on the train, I believed I needed a gun more than I ever had. Alone in my house, I kept a small twenty-two Beretta semiautomatic in my shoulder bag, its loaded magazine in one of the bag’s pockets, and for the first time in my life, the gun was to protect myself.
I only know this: on the train images came to me: I was alone in my house, on the couch, watching a movie on video, and a man kicked my door open and came in, to steal, beat, kill; and I shoved the magazine into the pistol and worked its slide and aimed the gun, but he kept coming at me, and I shot his leg, but he kept coming, and I shot his chest, again and again, till he stopped coming. Then, as I looked out the train window at snow on the ground, one sentence came to me: With my luck, I’ll kill someone.
That was all. Luck was not the accurate word, and I do not know what the accurate word is. But with that sentence, I felt the fence and gate, not even the lawn and porch and door to the house of sorrow I would live in if I killed someone. Then I felt something detach itself from my soul, departing, rising, vanishing; and I said to God: It’s up to You now. This is not the humble and pure and absolutely spiritual love of turning the other cheek. It is not an answer to turn someone else’s cheek. On the train, I gave up answers that are made of steel that fire lead, and I decided to sit in a wheelchair on the frighteningly invisible palm of God.