I was five years old the first time I fired a gun, and it scared me so bad I pissed my pants. It happened at a dusty construction camp not far from the Mexican border town of Matamoros, where my father, a civil engineer, and his crew were building a road. The gun belonged to my father, who wanted to introduce me to shooting. It was a huge, long-barreled revolver of a sort I’d much later learn was a top-break, a .45 caliber, as my father would recall. He’d received it as a gift on his fifteenth birthday from his tío Julio, a military officer, and it was an old model even then. It was too big for me to shoot without help, and he knelt at my back with his arms around me, his hands gripping my own over the gun butt and trigger guard, and tried to help me line up the front sight with the target, a large green bottle propped against a mound of dirt. It seemed to be at a great distance, but it was no more than ten feet away. Some of the workmen were looking on from a tractor and shouting encouragement, but they only made me more nervous. My father told me to squeeze the trigger, not jerk it. And pow. I flinched at the blast and recoil, and if he hadn’t been supporting the gun, I would have dropped it. I missed the bottle. And I wet myself.
Years afterward, whenever the story came up, my father always insisted I’d spotted my pants only a little, and he wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t pointed it out. At the time, however, I was so ashamed that I couldn’t bring myself to look over at the men on the tractor. It took a lot of coaxing to get me to try again. Then he once more braced my grip in his own and helped me to sight on the bottle and . . . pow. It burst into shards and the onlookers cheered. I laughed and looked up at my father’s grin. He would later say he’d never forgotten the sheer thrill on my face.
Thus did my acquaintance with firearms begin with a mixture of fear and euphoria.
In my elementary school years, my family lived in Brownsville, on Zaragosa Street. Our neighbors were Anglos and Mexicans in roughly equal numbers. Every family had handguns, and “house gun” and “car gun” were routine distinctions.
The neighborhood abounded with gun stories. My tío Rafael loved to tell of the time he lost the key to his clothes trunk and decided to shoot the lock off, as he had seen done in the movies. To guard against ricochet, he lugged the trunk outside and set it on open ground. It took four shots before he hit the lock just right to break it open, but one of the bullets pierced the trunk, and he was dismayed to find that it had passed through the jacket of his white linen suit, his favorite. He wore it to a dance that night anyway, and so many girls were curious about the bullet holes in his breast pocket and his back, and so impressed by the lies he told of how they’d come to be there, that he chose never to get them mended.
There was a story of a young married couple on the block who at times fought so loudly that neighbors had to shut their windows against the clamor. The man was a lout given to beating his wife and to terrifying her with his handgun. One night, during yet another thrashing, she ran to the bedroom, retrieved the gun, and shot him dead. She was acquitted on grounds of self-defense, and the neighborhood regarded the incident as simple proof of the adage that Colonel Colt, not God nor the laws of the land, was the foremost agent of human equality.
The most enduring of Zaragosa Street’s gun stories was about a Mexican neighbor of many years earlier who had hosted a party at his house and—to the horror of his wife and guests—thought to amuse everyone by producing his six-shooter and playing Russian roulette at the dining table. They all swore he was sober and quite calm, smiling while he removed all the bullets from the gun but one. His frantic wife phoned the police, and the guests pleaded with him to desist, but no one tried to stop him for fear of getting shot. On the first try, he clicked on an empty chamber. He laughed and then horrified everyone all the more by putting a second bullet in the gun. He again spun the cylinder, again smiled, again put the muzzle to his temple. Click. Then he jovially inserted a third round. The way the story went, the gun held five bullets and was cocked and at his head when a cop came through the door and yelled for him to put it down. He winked and pulled the trigger. Click. He was away for several weeks at a psychiatric clinic in Houston, and when he returned he apologized to everyone for his behavior. A few weeks later, in the middle of a drunken row with his wife, he retrieved the fully loaded revolver, spun the cylinder, raised the gun to his head and blam.
That episode gave rise to the Zaragosa Street opinion that, in addition to Russian roulette, there were two other kinds—Mexican roulette, in which you took out one to four bullets, depending on how macho or mindless you were, and Drunk Mexican roulette, in which you didn’t take out any. Some preferred to call it Drunk Tex-Mex roulette and had their own stories to support the name.
Dark humor informed many of the gun tales of my Texas boyhood, but even the funniest of them never failed to remind me of a gun’s lethality.
My familiarity with guns was greatly expanded when I was a young soldier stationed at a small, remote camp near the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Because nobody else wanted the job, I became the company armorer, though I was hardly qualified. I lived alone in the arms room, a Quonset hut at the far end of the camp, and I passed my days studying gun manuals and acquainting myself with the workings of the different firearms. Besides the company’s general-issue M14 rifles, the arms room contained a number of weapons of World War II vintage, and one of the job’s duties was test-firing them at the battalion range. Garand M1 rifles, M1 carbines, the M3 submachine gun—the fabled “grease gun,” whose power thrilled me to the bone—I had the pleasure of shooting them all.
But no gun caught my fancy as much as the .45 semiautomatic pistol, which I’d read about in countless novels and seen in many a movie. It was said a .45 could knock you down if it hit you in the little finger. I pored over the gun’s manual and was soon able to fieldstrip and reassemble the weapon faster than anyone in the outfit. Even the company’s oldest vets were impressed by my adeptness. The first time I test-fired one at the range, I yelled in elation, and the range master laughed and said, “Feels like God’s own fist, don’t it?”
In basic training, I had earned a rifleman’s Sharpshooter badge, but in Korea I scored Expert with the .45 and felt quite special for it. My shooting proficiency with the gun reinforced my conviction of being its master in every way.
One late night during a fierce thunderstorm, and after a few beers at the enlisted men’s club, I slogged back to the arms room and found a .45 lying on the check-in counter of the small foyer, which featured waist-high concrete walls on either side. A sergeant who’d been on gate duty had come to return the gun, not found me in, and simply left it. Cursing his negligence, I picked up the pistol with such arrant and beery incaution that I inadvertently triggered a round. The gun blast was gargantuan in the confines of the metal hut—and I heard the split-second wap-wap-wap of the ricochets between the foyer walls flanking me. I gingerly set the safety lever, laid the gun on the counter, and just stood there awhile with my heart trying to come out of my mouth. I was sure the whole camp had heard the shot and a mob would come charging in at any second to find out what happened. Nobody came. The thunderstorm obviously muted the report. The ricochets had pocked the concrete blocks, and I found the bullet mashed into the junction of the foyer wall and the floor. I thought of going to the sergeant and berating him for having left the gun there with the safety off and a round in the chamber, but I didn’t. Because then I would’ve had to confess to the even more severe stupidity by which I’d almost shot myself.
The sergeant in question was from San Angelo and had grown up with guns. He’d been in the infantry more than twenty years and had seen combat in the Korean War. He had handled every variety of firearm. And I was a recognized expert with the .45 pistol. Yet both of us were proof that no degree of familiarity with a gun is ample warrant against careless error and horrible accident. For many years afterward, I kept the misshapen bullet as a reminder of that grim truth.
I wasn’t really aware of the prevalence and casual acceptance of firearms in Texas until after we moved to Florida, where most of the people I came to know, even though chiefly Southern in their traditions at that time, were less personally familiar with guns and more uneasy about them than the Texans I knew. This regional difference was made clear to me during my sophomore year of college, when my cousin Juanito visited us from Houston. He was stopped by a traffic cop for a broken taillight and got mouthy, so the cop searched the car, found a .38 revolver under the seat, and charged him with carrying a concealed weapon. Juanito was represented in court by our family lawyer, John Dooley, a die-hard Texan we’d known since our Brownsville days. John was from Harlingen, and I never knew why he relocated to Miami, but the geographical remove had not lessened his passionate love of Texas. “There are two kinds of people in the world,” he liked to say. “Texans—and all those poor bastards who aren’t.”
I went with them to court, where we lucked out with a sympathetic judge who appreciated John’s presentation of Juanito as a dean’s list University of Houston student who had never before been in trouble with the law, who would never have stored the gun under the seat had he been familiar with local ordinances, and who had written the arresting officer a sincere letter of apology for his inappropriate attitude. She sentenced Juanito to sixty days and suspended the sentence. John thanked the judge for her understanding but felt compelled to add, “After all, Your Honor, we’re from Texas, and in Texas everybody carries a gun.” The judge stiffened and said she very much doubted all Texans carried guns, and that in any case we weren’t in Texas now, and it would behoove the lot of us to henceforth bear that in mind. John bridled, and for a moment it seemed he was going to say something imprudent. But he checked himself and said, “Of course, Your Honor. We certainly will.”
As we exited the courthouse, John mimicked her in a low mutter: “ ‘You’re not in Texas now.’ ” Then he looked at me and Juanito and said, “She’s telling me?”
Some years ago, I taught a young woman how to shoot. She had professed a fear of guns but was determined to know what it was like to fire one, so I took her to a makeshift range at a friend’s farm. I demonstrated the workings of an unloaded .32 pistol, emphasized all the safety procedures, and then handed her the gun and had her repeat the operations. I loaded it, we put on our earmuffs, and she watched me shoot cans off a fence rail. She shrank at the first shots but quickly got used to the reports, and when I handed her the gun, her mien was resolute. She reloaded it as I’d shown her, and I positioned myself close at her back as she aimed with both hands. She jerked the trigger, flinched at the recoil, and swore at having missed. “Squeeze,” I reminded her. She did, and missed again but didn’t flinch. Her next shot sent a can flying, and she shouted, “Yes!” She whanged a can off the fence with each of the remaining rounds and whooped in triumph. I told her she was a natural-born deadeye.
For the next hour she couldn’t stop grinning or talking about how grand it felt. How powerful. “But, you know,” she said, suddenly a tad sheepish, “just thinking about it, well, it still spooks me a little.” I said I was glad to hear it and hoped it always would.
The feel of a loaded gun in your hand is a singular sensation, and shooting one is an intense physical experience. Even if you never shoot at anything except paper targets at a range, you can’t help but be aware of the weapon’s profound power and fundamental purpose—which is, of course, to kill. Which is, of course, what you might do with it should you come under deadly attack. If there’s a “natural right” at all, it’s the right of self-defense, and a handgun is particularly well suited to the purpose. It is difficult to argue with the cliché that it’s better to have a gun and not need it than to need one and not have it.
I own but one handgun today, a 9 mm Browning semiautomatic. Periodically, I remove it from its case and check its action, fieldstrip it, clean it, oil it, reassemble it, and wipe it down. I sometimes do this even though I haven’t fired the weapon since the last cleaning. I do it because I enjoy the process and because I like the feel of the gun, its heft, its smooth blue finish, its checkered grips. Like many firearms, it is both a marvel of fine engineering and, in some ways, a remarkable work of art. Yet there are very few other implements or works of art that so widely and intensely evoke such awe, in every sense of the word—reverence, respect, wonder, and dread—as a gun. Which is why, even as I admire its craftsmanship and beauty and perfection of purpose, a gun can still scare the piss out of me.