He's sitting out on his front porch in the late afternoon with a can of beer. Bothering no one.
We speak to him as we walk by; we always do. He has complimented our dogs before; we know each other by sight, but we've never had a conversation of consequence before.
But today he has something to say. "They shot up my house, you know."
We didn't, and I guess our faces expressed some surprise.
"Yeah, the other night I was sitting there in the front room, where I work on trains, and one came through the wall to the left of me and another, higher, to my right."
It was the gangs, he said, who park in the alley alongside his house and play their music loud and smoke crack. He says they've been doing that since the alley was opened up. When it was a dead end, he didn't have the problem.
"They hide back there so the cops can't see them," he says. "Like the cops look for anything besides donuts around here."
But the police responded to his call. Found the brass casings in the street.
"They weren't good shots," he says, meaning, I guess, that they didn't hit him. "I told the cop I was going to get a gun. And that when they came back I was going to kill them. He said, 'You have to defend yourself.' "
Our friend seems to take the police officer's words as an endorsement of his plan. I think the officer may have been warning him that there had to be a reasonable threat present for him to employ deadly force. But I wasn't there, so I refrain from offering any legal advice.
We commiserate for a few more moments, then continue on our way. As we start to walk off, our neighbor wryly observes that some people just think they're safe.
I don't disagree with him.
Bad things happen in our dangerous world all the time. If you live in it, you're going to catch your share of flak. Sometimes it's cancer, sometimes it's a stray bullet. No matter what precautions you take, there's still risk. Sometimes the ways we defend ourselves are inadequate. Sometimes things just break wrong for you.
Still, it's prudent to lock your doors, to wear a seat belt, to mask up and to be vaccinated. To wear a bike helmet. Some people think having a handgun and a concealed carry permit make them safer, though statistics don't seem to bear this out. It's a choice you have to work out for yourself.
Most of the gun owners I know are highly responsible; they lock their weapons up in safes and only take them out when they mean to give their full attention to the activity involving their rifle or handgun. They don't harbor fantasies about taking out bad guys, they don't post looney paranoid screeds on Facebook.
Most of them understand that what passes for the gun-rights debate in this country is hyperbolic silliness. No serious person wants to take away their guns; the Second Amendment probably doesn't give everyone the right to own a grenade launcher.
Even most NRA members favor background checks and more stringent enforcement of existing gun laws. That's because they're adults who understand that most of the noise about so-called gun control is generated in the service of fundraising.
In a way, America's gun problem is like climate change. There's not much we can do other than nibble at the periphery of the problem. We're not rolling back the years. Guns are like the poor; they'll always be with us, fundamental totems of our culture for better and for worse.
Sometimes I think that if I didn't fool around with golf clubs and guitars, I could really get into guns. I admit that I'm fascinated by the tech and have a weakness for tools that are machined to close tolerances. If and when this pandemic ever lets up I might sign up for a woodworking class, to learn to use routers and how to allow for the kerf.
I like gear and avoid standing too long before the showcase counters in the sporting goods stores. I could be drawn into the .357 Magnum versus 9 mm revolver versus semi-automatic pistol debate; I am nerd enough to care about the nuances of gunsmithing.
But then, more than most, I've seen what damage people can inflict on one another, and how that damage is multiplied by weapons. I've seen people who have been shot dead and know how it feels to be shot at. (It was nothing personal, the bullets were meant for the undercover detectives in the car.)
And I know how erratic and misguided people can be, and how we all are susceptible to trusting our fallible instincts. The best of us will at times fail to do what we ought to do, and we all struggle to live with our mistakes. I understand why my neighbor whose house was shot up would want a gun, yet am not sure that his having one will solve anyone's problems.
But he has to defend himself.
Some police officers will tell you that, despite the slogan, their job is not to protect the public. They don't proactively prevent crime; they interact with victims. Their visible presence on the streets might or might not deter a criminal. It depends on whether the criminal is able and willing to be rational.
We understand some crime is committed by desperate people without much hope of recovering their place in society. Encountering these people is dangerous, and maybe the best we can do is to stay alert and hope our luck holds. But crimes of opportunity can and are prevented by the rational measures we take. We lock our doors, we encrypt our files. Some of us buy a gun and hope we never have to use it.
Some of us buy a gun and just hope somebody tries us.
I don't mind people having guns. But I don't delude myself into thinking it makes the world safer. It just adds another variable. People think it clarifies things when it just further complicates the world. Five pounds of pressure pulls the average trigger; if you hot-rod your weapon maybe it only takes two pounds.
You don't have to be strong to pull a trigger.
You don't have to be right, either.
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