My friend Mike is a gentle soul with a quick sense of humor. We met when we studied journalism at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Center and worked endlessly on the school newspaper, Seawanhaka. I still see Mike once in a while, when a few of the old Seawanhaka gang get together at a diner.
Mike would joke as always on those afternoons over lunch, and regale us with stories about his latest trip to Italy, where he and his wife have relatives. Our conversations also took place online. Mike has always been with us on the issues of the day — our disbelief and fear at the rise of the radical right and the demise of what was once the Republican Party, our dislike of the gun culture, our deep sympathy with the people in Ukraine, our disgust with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But after the back-to-back mass murders over the weekend of May 14-15, in Buffalo and Orange County, Calif., I received an unusual email from Mike.
“If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he began. He wrote that a cousin from Italy had been visiting, and went to a local gun range. He described the costs involved — $25 for a short “first time” course with an instructor, renting a gun for $25 per hour plus the cost of ammunition and the use of a target.
He continued, apparently with some excitement, “They have all different kinds of pistols and some rifles.” His cousin had tried out a pistol, her friend had shot a rifle, and then they switched.
She had urged Mike and his family visit the range. Then his note became alarming: “I’ve never fired a gun in my life,” he wrote, “but I think I may stop off at this place sometime this week and get my feet wet.”
And then: “Maybe after learning how to shoot, I pick up a small but lethal handgun. I could get one legally, but it’s a huge hassle. I could always travel one weekend to a state with no gun laws and buy one there. I’m just getting spooked by knowing that so many wackos in New York may have a gun.”
I quickly wrote to ask if he was serious. His response was heartbreaking. “I’m serious about going to the range for some fun shooting,” he wrote. “Just for the experience. I am semi-serious about the gun.” In the back of his mind, he concluded, “I see myself shooting some a-hole who approaches me on the street asking for money.”
Maybe that shouldn’t have been a surprise. America has become the gun capital of the world. In 2021, Americans bought about 19.9 million firearms, the gun industry’s second-busiest year on record. Our country has also become the mass-shooting capital of the world. The shooting in Buffalo was the 198th such incident this year. And the year isn’t half over.
Mike watched the coverage of Buffalo just like the rest of us. He reads the newspapers the same as we do. But he seems to have come to different conclusions. He may, he thinks, need a gun. The rest of us old college newspaper guys don’t think we do.
We all have different thoughts and different reasons for thinking the way we do. And that’s fine. But I can’t helping wondering what happened to the Mike I’ve known for so many years, the guy who wrote funny columns for the college newspaper and is still funny after all these years.
What is it he is afraid of? And why?
Many others have the same feelings and fears, and I have the same questions for them. I have no desire to own a gun. Why do they? Why do they see the senseless killing of Black shoppers in Buffalo, worshippers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh or a mass shooting in New Orleans, and think the solution is to arm themselves?
The National Rifle Association has always preached that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.” But the proliferation of guns has never seemed to me a solution to the proliferation of guns.
Mike is a good guy who may well want a gun. The trouble is, how many other good guys are out there who feel same way? And why?
James Bernstein is the editor of the Long Beach Herald. Comments about this column? JBernstein@liherald.com.