Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A History of Guns: Part Seven

This is the seventh in a personal history of guns in my life. Previous entries: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five and Part Six.

I have been trying to write this story about Larry for several weeks now, but the words just haven’t flowed. I sort of thought that the closer I got to present day, the easier it would be to write because my memory would be fresher, but that hasn't been the case. In fact, it has been the opposite. Because there is not as much distance, the events are actually harder to write about. But this story is an important part of my history of guns because it rolls together the themes of God, guns and Americanism. I don't think it is a coincidence that guns, religion and patriotism get all mixed up together. Guns, for better or worse, are like a religion in the U-S-of-A.

Larry was married to my wife’s oldest sister, Roxanne. I first met them after my wife and I had been dating for about a year. We were visiting them in Oklahoma City when we passed through on our way out to New Mexico. Larry and Roxanne wouldn’t let us stay at their house because they didn’t want an unmarried couple shacking up in front of the kids.

Larry and Roxanne belonged to one of those evangelical faiths somewhere to the right of the Baptists –- which is my baseline for how wacko I think any particular denomination is. Quite honestly, since I parted ways with the Baptist church about 20 years ago, I’ve taken a rather dim view of these folks out to the right (which is a whole other post). Snake-handlers and mouth-breathers is how I think of them. I’ve told myself I ought to be more respectful of their beliefs, but I never found these people to be respectful of others, so I didn’t see a need to afford them that courtesy.

I bring this up to explain how Larry and Roxanne viewed the world. Larry was the head of the family, the breadwinner. Roxanne took care of the home and the children. They believed that they were locked in spiritual warfare against Satan. The kids did not celebrate Halloween. Personal problems were moral failings that could be solved by prayer. Gender roles were to be aggressively enforced: boys did boy things and girls did girl things.

Part of what boys did was hunt. If you have been following this series, then you know that isn’t that different than my experience growing up. But Larry took it to a different level. He was an honest-to-goodness gun nut. When it was hunting season, he and his son went hunting. When it wasn’t hunting season, he and his son went to gun shows and worked on their deer lease to get ready for hunting season.

And Larry’s fascination with guns actually led to problems with Roxanne. Time and money went into his hobby rather than his marriage. Inevitably, these tensions led to turmoil with Roxanne. Divorce, of course, was unthinkable. There was a lot of faith-based counseling and prayer – and I actually have nothing against either one of those things – except that they didn’t seem to work in this instance.

Unfortunately, Larry and Roxanne had their marriage problems worsened by another seemingly unrelated factor -- the Y2K problem. Yeah, I know WTF? But, see, I told you Larry was a gun nut and he was also one of those black helicopter guys who believed that all of those crazy UN, one-world-government-conspiracy-to-take-away-your-guns stuff. The Ruby Ridge and Waco stuff didn’t help matters.

So Larry started working on turning his deer lease into a refuge from the impending collapse of society. He started storing food, guns and ammunition so he would be ready.

But one day in the summer of 1999, he realized there was too much left to do. He realized that he would never be ready in time. So he went out to his lease, put a .44 magnum to his head, and shot himself.

I don't believe that his inability to prepare his apocalyptic hidey-hole was the reason he killed himself. I believe he was a very sick man. He suffered from Depression and probably bipolar disorder. But also, he was a true believer. He was one of those All-American guys – football player, Vietnam vet, family man, pillar of the church – who did everything they were supposed to do. Larry always followed the rules, but life doesn't always go by the rules, does it?

And while I feel a lot of empathy for him, I also feel relief that he didn’t kill everyone in his family before he killed himself. That was always my wife’s secret fear, and I always thought there was something to it.

But the real tragedy is seeing the wreckage left behind. Roxanne married again and her new husband seems like an alright guy. But the kids have had a harder time. His son is a very angry, pissed off guy. My wife talks about what a sweet boy he used to be, but I haven’t seen that side of him since before we married. Now he's grown up, and he’s a Marine officer, and that frightens the hell out of me. All I can think of is Neidermeyer -- not a guy I would want to be in a foxhole with.

And Larry’s daughters are even sadder. His older daughter doesn’t seem to miss him at all, but she's already in a marriage that looks oddly like the one her mother and father had. And Larry's younger daughter was had a pretty tough life because of her father's absence. She's already had a pretty rough time with men who take advantage of her insecurity and need for love.

So how did all this shape my opinions about guns? In Larry's case, guns became kind of a religion to him that ended up feeding his sickness and paranoia. And, in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, we realize more than ever how dangerous guns can be in the hands of sick and fearful people. Now everyone feels that we need to take steps to keep guns out of the hands of unstable, mentally ill people. But how do you identify those people? Larry certainly looked like an upstanding citizen. The darkness inside of him was hard to see, except for a few people closest to him.

When I look back on this still-unfolding tragedy, it's hard not to think it would be better to live in a world without guns. There. I've said it.

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