My Family’s Gun Wounds: A Tale in Three Acts

I used to find humor in the stupid mishaps that plagued my family. But I don’t laugh anymore.

An illustration of a gun.
Helen Robertson

For years, I laughed off guns. They were part of the scenery where I grew up in Chicago. Street gangs fought each other with switchblades and brass knuckles and sometimes you heard the pop of gunfire at night. I shrugged it off. Made jokes about the situation. Closed my eyes and went to sleep.

In America, we “go ballistic” when we get angry. We “shoot from the hip” when we talk out of turn. We have “trigger warnings” in the classroom. Guns and gun culture are everywhere in our lives.

Living with gun violence can desensitize you. Humor was our coping mechanism, designed to keep complex emotions at bay. I’m ashamed to say that I made fun of family members who were shot and lived to tell the tale.

Yes—family members, plural. Three of them, to be exact.

The first was my grandfather. He shot himself in the foot, in rural Michigan.

The second was my cousin, who got shot in the stomach in Chicago.

The third was my little brother. He was shot in the head, in an alley in Denver.

My grandfather was maimed in a hunting accident, long before I was born. He meant to shoot a rabbit or a squirrel, but shot himself instead. The bullet took off his big toe. I remember when I was little he’d walk around barefoot in the morning, in pajamas with his coffee, a pucker of scar tissue where his toe should have been. I made fun of him, as I got older, because he was an alcoholic. I did it out of earshot. I snickered with my friends. What kind of fool shoots himself in the foot?

My cousin was shot when I was a teenager. It was a revenge shooting, according to my father. He said Carl, my cousin, was fooling around with a married woman. The husband came home one day to find the two of them together and shot him. Carl was married himself. The man shot him in the stomach. As the story goes, he managed to drive himself to South Shore Hospital, at 75th and Stony Island, and survived. My father turned the incident into a joke. He even embellished the story, describing Carl being shot as he exited his lover’s boudoir. Just what story did he tell his own wife when he called her up from the hospital? he asked. We laughed.

My cousin denies this story when I ask him about it. He says he was the victim of a stickup.

“To this day, that bullet is still there. If I get an X-ray or go through airport security, I still see it. They left the bullet in. It hadn’t hit any vital organs.”

I ask him how he feels about gun violence today.

“America has lived so long with guns, it’s damn near impossible to get rid of them. Only way we can stop it is to ban firearms—but I want mine. I’m 80 years old. I’m not as strong as I was … I’m damn sure going to use a firearm if someone breaks into my house. ” Carl owns three guns: a .22, a .38, and a Glock.

My brother was shot when he was 24. I was pushing 30. Chris was living in Denver. He was going home, after a late night at a gay bar, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. It was after 2 o’clock in the morning. He was drunk. The bars had closed. He came across a couple—two gay men—arguing in the street, and stopped to listen. A stranger, behind him, started talking to him. The stranger was muscular and good-looking. He was wearing a denim jacket, which was odd because it was a hot summer night.

“The reason why that’s important is that’s where he had his gun,” my brother says. “I’m thinking I’m going to get picked up, but I was staying with friends, so he said we’d go to his place. Then he pulled the gun and cocked it, too. He made me go into the alley. He robbed me. He said, ‘Give me your money. Faggot this, faggot that. You’ll know better than to flirt with straight men.’”

Chris continues, “He made me get on my knees. And then he started banging the gun against my head. I started to cry. I kept trying to reason with him. ‘Are you done?’ I asked. ‘You’ve got my money.’ He kept hitting me. He wouldn’t leave me alone.

“Then everything went black. There was this really high-pitched sound. The black went away and I could get up. Someone came. I was in shock. A complete stranger saved my life.”

I flew to Denver when it happened. Chris was hospitalized for more than a week. He had two black eyes and his head was swathed in bandages. The doctors said there was no brain damage. They said he couldn’t work for a year. It was the mid-’80s. They didn’t talk about hate crimes then.

Today, Chris is trim and muscular and laughs easily. You don’t notice the scar on the back of his head at first. In fact, you forget it’s there. Only when he turns around do you see the yellow stripe of flesh on his skull.

I ask him what it’s like to live with a gunshot wound.

“People ask you questions,” he says. “Normally I say exactly what happened, because if I lie about it, I’m feeding into shame.”

I close my eyes and think about him—my little brother—and what he has been through and the shame he once felt. I think about my cousin and the fears that keep him armed. I think about my grandfather and how lucky he was, and how much worse it could have been. And I think about all the other families in this country of guns, families who no longer have their fathers or sons, mothers or daughters. I think of all the losses stretching across the land and back in time. I don’t laugh about guns anymore.