In the New York Times this morning, I read an op-ed in which a woman, Wendy Button, who is prone to depression, says, “Please take away my Second Amendment right.” I am very reluctant to speak to this question because of the nature of my personal experience with it, and my small readership is unlikely to make much of a difference pitted against the overwhelming media power of the New York Times. But I feel that a commitment to the common good demands it.
Yesterday, I noticed that an old friend of mine (his name, like mine, is Kevin) hadn’t been posting on Facebook lately. Since I had been playing with my filtering and privacy settings off and on lately, primarily to avoid the incessant links to commentary on Newtown, the Second Amendment and gun control, I thought perhaps I had inadvertently hidden all his posts. So I went to his wall to see if there were posts that didn’t appear on mine, and instead I saw posts from his family that included the rhetorical “why,” descriptions of being sad and the like. It took me about two seconds, like the cliche scene in a movie where the character drives to somewhere only to see police cars already there: instantly you know. Like a punch in the gut I knew two things: my friend of twenty-seven years was dead, and that he had shot himself with his handgun. I honestly hadn’t given a single thought to our “national conversation” since, until I saw Ms. Button’s piece this morning.
The story of our friendship in brief is this. When I graduated from college in 1985, I moved to San Francisco and started working in the title insurance business, initially as a messenger. Eventually I was promoted to a customer service desk, and once I was indoors, I came to Kevin’s attention as someone perhaps too bright to be merely answering the phone; at one point during a lull I was seen at my desk reading Ogden’s Real Property out of sheer boredom. So he took me under his wing and started training me to be a title examiner, which requires an ability to search public records, interpret legal documents and draft title insurance policies. We quickly became friends, and in addition to mentoring me in the business he became one of those people you know who turns you on to obscure music and art. I would say that he was the original hipster except that he was completely unselfconscious and genuinely loved the things that he turned up and shared with me. He was the kind of guy that would save up his money for a vacation that involved road trips to hilariously bizarre tourist attractions like the Cabazon Dinosaurs (featured prominently in Pee-Wee Herman’s Big Adventure). He was into the kind of 1960s pop music we now associate with Quentin Tarantino soundtracks. He revered Robyn Hitchcock, J. G. Ballard, early David Cronenberg films, and, unsurprisingly, Hunter S. Thompson. These things gave pleasure to a soul that obviously viewed the world through the lens of great intelligence, but also a kind of quiet fear, sadness, and I think, horror. Before we are too quick to judge such people as instances of pathology, we should turn our attention to the world itself and ask if they are not peculiarly equipped to see aspects of it the rest of us fail to notice or turn our backs on. I imagine him as the only person I know who wouldn’t have been surprised by 9/11, because it was the kind of thing you’d expect from a world that increasingly resembled a J. G. Ballard novel.
After a few years I decided to go back to school in the Midwest, and we lost touch with each other for a long time. Our friendship was renewed in 2008 when my sixteen year old son committed suicide by hanging. Like shooting a distress flare into a darkened sky, I sent an email to literally every email address I knew, telling everyone that Tristan was gone. I received many kind responses, but Kevin and his wife were unique (among non-family members) in that they hit the road and drove from Nevada City to Portland to be with us, and this after a long period of being out of touch. For the four years after that, we were good friends again, frequently interacting on Facebook.
Kevin owned a handgun. I had known this for awhile. I stupidly imagined that this was just something of a homage to Hunter S. Thompson’s lived, Dionysian madness. We talked about it a bit after Newtown, and he was my only progressive friend who also insisted on his right to bear arms, and the sophistry of many gun control arguments. Back in October, however, he had a close enough brush with nothingness that he reached out to me, as if begging me to talk him down from the metaphorical ledge, which I did as best as I knew how, building on my own all-too-intimate understanding of the consequences of suicide for survivors that my son gave me. I again stupidly forgot then that he owned a gun.
When my son died, it goes without saying that I made no attempt to ban belts. I did not think of his death as an expression of his autonomy; adolescence is the slow, often painful period of the birthing of autonomy, and the task of family and community is to guide a child to it, not instantly confer it. No part of me “respects” Tristan’s choice, and I tend to think of it as more akin to a terrible accident than anything else (there was no indication of depression, no warning whatsoever, and there was absolutely nothing that could’ve been done to prevent it). When he died, I faced a few days that were the darkest I ever faced, and a part of that was facing whether I myself now had anything to live for. I have tried many times to explain this to others, and the experience subliminally colors almost everything written on this blog, but I will try again: I started to slip into a kind of self-pity long familiar to me, and I knew that it was a road downward, ultimately, to death. But now, instead of whatever fantasies had accompanied thoughts of my own death in the past, I instead had the image of my son’s body as a kind of testimony to the concrete reality of death as the radical destruction of the most precious thing, a living human being. I had an immediate understanding of the infinite agony suicides create in the survivors who love them. And for the first time, I realized that self-pity is the foreshadowing of that ultimate assault on all that is good, on life and joy. It was like a rough epiphany: self-pity is an agent of death, death is the ultimate enemy. And it is up to us to choose sides in that war: are you on the side of all that is good, or the nothingness that surrounds, challenges and consumes it? I made my choice. This was in some ways not an easy choice to make, not because of a desire to die, but, ironically, because of a desire to keep Tristan alive in memory. This common, human desire is itself ambiguous. If we feel no impulse to remember the dead, and make no effort to preserve that memory, it shows that we ultimately do not care that they died, that we do not love their aliveness itself to want to perpetuate it in some fashion. But at the same time, the yearning for the dead blends so insensibly into self-pity, and a turning our back on the present and future, on the living, and so animates and perpetuates our pain, that to become absolutely committed to remembrance of the dead to the exclusion of all else is to ultimately prefer a shadow to life, and to be pulled, horribly, to the dark side. In the end, the only consummation possible for that is to join them, and become memory oneself. This is the paradox of grief.
Had I been less prone to depression myself, I might not have seen with such clarity how dangerous all this was. But this is precisely the thing: I know how dangerous depression is. And that is why I choose not to own a gun. I do not ask that someone take away my autonomy; I don’t need to. And thus I protect my life every day, because that is my choice.
In retrospect, I know that Kevin kept a gun by his side for precisely the opposite reason. He wanted to make sure, when the time came, that the means of his awful deliverance were available to him. That too was a decision he made, day after day, in moments bright and dark. We might have, as a society, made it impossible for him to shoot himself, in which case, like my son, I imagine he would’ve hung himself. I have learned from these experiences and others that there is nothing in this world more powerful than a will committed to its course.
Ms. Button wants her rights taken away from her. This is, of course, absurd if taken literally. No right is simplistically absolute, as the proverbial cry of fire in a crowded theater illustrates, nor would reflection on that kind of scenario induce a writer to beg that we take her freedom of expression away from her. Rather, we understand that rights involve and are always subject to reasonable regulation. The Supreme Court itself has said that the Second Amendment right is subject to reasonable regulation. This involves certain obvious implications: if a convicted murderer on death row attempts to purchase a handgun for his personal use, we do not tie ourselves in knots wondering if denying them this in some way obliterates the right more generally. Similarly if an institutionalized, violent schizophrenic attempted to purchase a handgun for personal use. But while there are reasonable regulations that all reasonable people can agree on, what is reasonable is often something reasonable people can differ on. The life of the law is all about what restrictions harmless people should be burdened by to protect them from the harmful few.
Was it too easy for Kevin to buy his gun? I don’t know, and neither do you. I have no idea what hurdles he had to jump to satisfy the state of California that he was a safe gun owner, and I have no idea whether more burdensome restrictions for everyone could have saved his life. I know that if he wanted to die he probably would’ve found a way, but perhaps more thorough background checks for mental illness, longer waiting periods, etc. might’ve slowed him down some. If that had been enough to save his life, it would’ve been essentially random and meaningless, just as my son’s death without access to a handgun was essentially random and meaningless. But I do know that Kevin’s decision to buy and keep a gun was not an impulsive one, because it was a decision he renewed by inaction every single day, from the day he bought it to the day he used it for the last time. Regard his last moments as the product of “illness” if you like, but to regard his entire life as nothing but an illness is to regard him as less than fully human. That he made a choice, I understand all too well, for I have made, and every goddamn day continue to make, the contrary choice. Words cannot express how deeply, profoundly wrong, evil even, I regard the choice that he made. But, as we used to say, about belief and its expression, I would defend to the death his right to make it.