The Damage Done by an Unfired Gun

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

This reader’s first experience with a firearm seems unimaginable to endure:

I felt it before I saw it. The gun was metallic, and it was hard. It pressed my T-shirt against my back and looked just exactly like a handgun always does in the movies. The man who held it had run up behind me before I could even see where he’d come from. We were on a dark street corner, and that was pretty much like the movies as well.

I was 15, female, in a quiet residential neighborhood in a liberal city on the West Coast. People didn’t own guns where I lived. We thought hunting was barbaric. We thought the NRA were nut cases. Half the girls in high school were vegetarian.

He pushed that gun in my back and shoved me through alleys for half an hour. He raped me.

It’s important to note, in this story, that the gun never went off. The gun may not have been loaded. The gun may have even been a fake. All it needed to do was convince me that he could kill me at any moment. Guns do that better than anything. This crime was reported—even prosecuted—but the man went free. He can buy a gun whenever he wants to.

This crime doesn’t show up in gun violence statistics. Those only cover shootings. I think it’s important to remember, in our conversation about firearms, how much damage they can do without ever being fired.

This next story of an unfired gun isn’t nearly as traumatic but traumatic nonetheless:

It was the early 1980s and I was 12 or 13, reading a magazine in my dentist’s waiting room in Brooklyn. I suddenly became aware of someone standing in front of me just as I heard another patient say “Oh my god.”

I looked up and into the barrel of a 9mm Browning, cocked. There were about two or three other patients in the waiting room. I remember thinking, “Please don't anyone try to be a hero.” We were all marched into an exam room—I was last in line and, therefore, had the pistol in my back.

The guy relieved the adults of their cash and jewelry (I kept my mouth shut about the couple hundred bucks in my pocket, meant to pay off an outstanding treatment balance for my older brother). The thief closed the door and proceeded to ransack the office for money and drugs.

Happy ending, if you can call it that: I read in the paper a month or so later that the guy killed himself when the cops finally caught up with him at the motel where he was living (which is why I know the pistol make and caliber). He’d robbed a dozen or so doctors and dentists (and their patients) over a few weeks after serving  prison time for similar robberies.