A First Gun Encounter, With Lifelong Consequences

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

It’s not often we can cross-reference a personal anecdote from a reader with Google News archives reaching back 40 years. John Poirier’s first experience with guns—the theme of our new reader thread—was noted in the newspaper of his hometown of Lewiston, Maine, following his interview with the Boston Globe. Here’s John’s story in his own words:

I was 23 years old, a newly minted pharmacist living in the South End of Boston, which was beginning the process of gentrification in 1976. I was an idealistic young white gay man, who having witnessed the racially charged effects of forced busing, believed that it was better to integrate the neighborhoods instead of the schools. So I had just moved into a refurbished old brick building on Pembroke Street.

One dreary winter afternoon 40 years ago this January, I returned to my apartment to find the door jimmied open by a crowbar. Not thinking that the burglar might still be inside, I entered and went to the phone to call 911. Within a few seconds of picking up the receiver an armed black man appeared behind me and demanded all my money.

I had never seen a real gun before in my life, and the Saturday night special he was pointing at me looked too small to be real. I threw a five dollar bill at him and while he was distracted I ran out of my second-floor apartment and down the stairs. The burglar shot me in the back, leaving a .38 bullet between my second and third vertebrae of my spine, paralyzing me from the chest down for the rest of my life.

I was in the ICU of Boston City Hospital a couple of days after the bullet had been surgically removed when two reporters from the Boston Globe came to interview me. Still on a high dose of morphine, I spoke openly about the incident, without thinking of the consequences of what I said. A day later the Boston Globe published a long interview with me on page three, including quotes about being gay. Since most of my family did not know this, I was outed to the world by the newspaper. Ten years later, J. Anthony Lukas would write about this burglary and hate-crime in his Pulitzer-winning book Common Ground.

It is now almost 40 years to the day since that fateful encounter with a gun, and I am profoundly disappointed that gun violence has greatly increased since then [CG note: Research indicates the rates of non-fatal firearm crime and firearm homicides have in fact fallen since 1993], and that no progress in mitigating this epidemic seems possible. While most media focus on the lives lost to gun violence in America, little attention is paid to the thousands of survivors.

I am now 63, retired in Davis, California, alone as usual, and in much neuropathic pain, among other complications of having lived this long as a paraplegic.