When Child Abuse Involves Guns

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

It’s been a year since we ran this reader series, which included a wide range of first encounters with guns—from fond memories of family bonding and summer camp to dark memories of domestic violence, burglary, and rape. A reader discovered the series this morning and shares a traumatic story from her childhood:

While sitting on the floor playing Monopoly with my older brother and younger sister, the game dragged on and on, and my sister and I wanted to call it quits. But my brother was winning, and wanted to win more, so he insisted we keep playing.

We didn’t hear our dad enter the house (because we automatically froze whenever he came home because no matter what we were doing, we pissed him off). He grabbed a rifle from the gun rack, held it to my sister’s head and screamed: “You want her dead? Will that make you happy?” We screamed for him to put the rifle down, but he wouldn’t stop until he shoved it up against all our heads, repeating his same lines, while our mother begged him to put the gun away.

“You damn kids!” he screamed. “Your mom is dying of cancer and you sit here fighting over a damn game!” Then he kicked my brother, slammed the rifle back in the rack, and drove back to the bar.

Another reader’s stepfather actually shot at his kids while drinking. This next reader, Josh, also had a father with a “truly frightening” approach to guns—though Josh wasn’t nearly as abused as the other two readers:

My earliest memory with guns left me feeling rather ambivalent towards them. My dad was a trophy-winning rifle marksman. He decided one day to introduce me to duck hunting, when I was 13. Without any training, he stuck me out in a swamp with a 12-gauge Winchester pump and laughed as I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do.

Near the end of his life, I had to encourage the removal of guns from my parents’ home as my dad slipped into mental illness and poor health (brain cancer). His attitudes around guns were truly frightening, as he still kept a loaded handgun in the house, and a shotty was in easy reach for anyone.

Years later, I became an avid bird and big game hunter—but not because of him or any bonding experience.

Update from another reader with a traumatic childhood:

My father physically and emotionally abused my mother, my brother, and me.  At his worst, when I was in my early teens, during an argument with my mother, he walked away, returned with a handgun and held it to her head. He told her to shut up and forced her outside into our backyard where he had her sit outside in silence, I think, until nightfall. I remember my mother trembling in silence. I remember the look on her face. I remember my father standing with the gun to her head.  I have no idea if that gun was loaded. I just remember thinking that she was going to die, that we were all going to die.

A few years later, we were on a family vacation, and I watched as my father casually used the air rifle at the carnie game to shoot out the center of the target, even adjusting for the weakness in the toy. I suppose it truly hit me at that moment that he knew exactly what he was doing anytime he touched a gun. My father had previously served in the Taiwanese military.

I can never forget that a gun’s purpose is a first and foremost is to kill. But by the grace of god, a person with a gun in hand chooses not to harm someone with it. Our gun laws should be focused on keeping weapons out out of the hands of people who are shown to be incapable of responsible use—abusers, the mentally ill, children. Our gun laws should be focused on common-sense safety and educational measures. I don’t understand the desire underlying the feeling that a background check or a waiting period somehow violates a constitutional right. What’s the true irreparable harm? A brief delay in their desire to kill something more quickly? Self-defense is such a stupid argument.

As an attorney and as an officer in the U.S. Navy, you’ll forgive me for having little faith in Joe Schmoe with his concealed carry and his ability to protect me. I know the training and education that our own military personnel receive, and the fact that in many states, any idiot with a pulse can purchase, possess, and use a weapon with none of the stringent requirements that we have in the military is insane to me.