My Father’s Gun

Americans have turned weapons of war into consumer goods.

A man looks at a semi-automatic rifle during a gun show in Las Vegas.
Steve Marcus / Reuters

I own a gun. It’s under a couch in my family room, which is a weird place for a gun, but maybe not for a gun owned by an American. How many stories of children who find a gun and accidentally shoot themselves or a sibling report the odd location where they picked it up—on the edge of a bathroom sink, on a kitchen counter, on a parent’s bedside table? Our country is so full of guns that we’ve run out of places to put them. There can be one safely stowed in a lock box, with the ammo removed, another one half-forgotten in a linen cupboard, and a third one underneath the front seat of the car, loaded and ready to go. Guns have a lot of meaning to many of us, and I am no different. Last night my husband was out of town, and when I heard a strange sound—probably a squirrel or a rat in the tree near my window—my first comforting thought was of the burglar alarm and the second, illogical one (encoded deep in the preverbal brain of earliest childhood) was of the gun.

My gun is a bolt-action Arisaka long gun, one of the “last ditch” rifles Japan produced quickly and cheaply near the end of the Second World War. There is a 16-petal chrysanthemum pressed into the metal of the receiver, indicating that it was made for the Imperial Japanese Army, and that it was the property of the Japanese emperor. The guns Japan surrendered after its defeat had the chrysanthemums ground off, perhaps as a face-saving gesture, or perhaps on General Douglas MacArthur’s orders. But the ones American servicemen brought home from the war—like this one, which my father brought back to the States from, I believe, Okinawa—were taken from battlefields, and the flower is still there.

My father was a writer, and everywhere he lived the gun was always hung up over his writing desk. He was one of those people who never talked about the war, at least not about things you wanted to know. But the rifle was there, silent and somehow deeply connected to the idea of my father, to something important that had happened to him before I was born. God knows he had his demons, and it seemed to me as time went by that some of them might have been connected to the war. The gun over his desk made writing seem like life or death. He went through a long period of writer’s block when I was growing up; that he had writer’s block was a known and anxiety-producing fact of my childhood, like knowing you had a parent with cancer. But he’d sit there, hour after hour, under the gun in front of the typewriter. He had made it back in one piece and he was going to be a writer.

I started to be afraid that someone could break into our house when I was 7 or 8 years old, the age when children stop being afraid of imaginary things and begin to be afraid of real ones. But my father and the gun always made me feel safe. Mixed bag though he was, I never for a second doubted that, should the occasion ever demand it, he would put himself between me and danger. My father had a lot of physical courage, as I observed several times, a strange trait for a man who had grown up an only child without a father, who moreover hated sports and never learned to drive a car. I think that courage had something to do with the war, but what do I know? One time I told him that I didn’t feel scared at night because we had the gun and he laughingly explained how useless it was, but it was too late—the gun was my father; my father would keep us safe; the gun would keep us safe.

The gun under my couch is a weapon of war. The Japanese empire manufactured millions of them in the years before Pearl Harbor and they were used to kill tens of thousands of American service members, young men who left their jobs and colleges, their wives and children, to go and save the world. It can hold five rounds in the magazine.

The gun Connor Betts allegedly used in the Dayton shooting was not a weapon of war. It was a consumer item, an AR-15-style firearm purchased legally and augmented—again, legally—with a “double drum” magazine that holds a staggering 100 rounds. Miraculously, the Dayton cops took him down within 30 seconds, during which time he murdered nine people and shot and injured as many as 20 others. The gun Patrick Crusius allegedly used in the El Paso massacre was also not a weapon of war. It was an AK-47-style rifle, also purchased legally, and he carried with him additional “banana” magazines, so called for their curved shapes. Some of these magazines are sold in bright yellow with blue banana stickers on them, a visual pun. They hold 30 rounds each.

The police arrived six minutes after the 911 call and quickly apprehended Crusius, who had not been spraying bullets but stalking victims through the aisles and shooting them in a systematic way, sometimes after cornering them. One of them was a young mother who saved the life of her two-month-old baby by protecting her with her own body. No one knows how long the baby lay there with his dead mother, before being lifted up into his new life. In an El Paso hospital, a 10-year-old girl is recovering from a gunshot. In Ohio there is a newborn baby who will never know his mother, because she went out for a night of fun and will never come home.

My Japanese rifle is the grandson of the musket: a wooden long gun that needs to be loaded by hand. The guns used in the Dayton and El Paso murders are to 18th-century weapons as a jet is to a buggy. There is no conceivable way that the Founders could have imagined weapons of mass death like these guns in the hands of millions of Americans. Separate from this private arsenal, the nation has a well-ordered militia by which it can protect itself: the largest and most lethal military in the history of the world, with a $700 billion budget. Gun owners who make a constitutional argument for the insanity of this parallel standing military will tell you that the people need to be prepared to defend themselves from a state that becomes tyrannical. Bernie Sanders is sometimes mentioned. Socialism. And to protect ourselves from this lunatic possibility, the merchants of death have put an arsenal in the hands of the kind of people who want 100-bullet magazines and the machine guns with which to fire them. The merchants don’t want us to call these weapons machine guns. They prefer the term sporting guns or, better yet, the cool shorthand of AKs. They are machine guns, and some of them are near the playground where your children play and the movie theater where you go on the weekends.

Thirty-five years ago, I walked into a college activities fair and signed up at a table that said Handgun Control. That’s what the effort was called all those decades ago. Ronald Reagan had been shot and almost killed the year before by a schizophrenic with a Saturday night special, and it seemed like we had to get those things under some kind of rational control. Here I am now, with college-age children of my own, and the effort I joined in good faith and with the intention of making the country a safer and saner place has been a complete and abject failure. The National Rifle Association won, and we’re all in danger of losing the people we love the most because there is good money to be made in selling the machinery of mass murder.