A couple weeks ago, as a Black man who committed no crime was lying on his back in the middle of the street, with his arms outstretched upward and his palms clearly empty, North Miami police shot him in the leg. When Charles Kinsey respectfully asked the officer why he’d shot him, the officer’s response was a simple “I don’t know.” In an apparent clean-up attempt, it was later reported that the police sharpshooter had instead missed a shot that was actually aimed at the autistic guy who was sitting in front of the reclining man and holding a toy truck in his hands.
The following is not yet another in the seemingly endless stream of commentaries about the current climate of abuse of power and lack of accountability on the part of authorities; unfortunately, the incidents that evoke them are themselves occurring at a frightening rate. Instead, it’s about something a bit more basic — and within each person’s power to effect: the necessity to remain mindful and present in the moment, particularly in times of distress.
In the mountains of West Virginia, it’s not uncommon to hear the sound of gunfire. Police aren’t immediately summoned to the scene to investigate a potential homicide. It’s deer hunting country. With the prevalence of gun ownership, the limited manpower of police forces in the smaller towns, and the relative remoteness in which many people live there, one is well-advised to have access to a firearm. Of course, when I bought a home in Berkeley Springs, I wasn’t quite aware of these dynamics.
My cousin Phillip was a gun enthusiast like none I’ve seen before — or since. He had a gun for every occasion: shotgun, AR-15, long rifles, short rifles, an impressive array of handguns, small and not-so-small. He was also much more acquainted with the subtleties of country living than I was. Upon hearing the news of my purchase of a house in the hills, he visited me at my home on the west side of Baltimore with a house-warming gift. His eyes lit up with glee as I unzipped the case to reveal the Civil War-era black powder .44 revolver that he knew, better than I, might come in handy in the mountains. Having never handled a gun before, I took it out in the backyard and fired it once into the ground while he was there, just to get an understanding — hurrying back in the house before someone called the cops.
I don’t quite remember the first time I shot a full load. However, before too long, I’d grown accustomed to standing on the deck of my house (which was in the middle of the forest) and firing a smokey six rounds at a target that was nailed to a tree in the back. The tree was of a modest girth, probably a good five or six feet around.
Excited to share in the relative freedom I enjoyed, Phil visited there fairly often — and he always had a few choice weapons from his arsenal in tow.
Although the .44 I’d been given was sufficient for sporting purposes, it was messy and somewhat unwieldy. And with the build-a-bullet nature of black powder weapons, I’d have to keep it fully loaded for it to be of any use as a home-protection implement. In spite of my increasing comfort with guns, I didn’t want that beast lying around ready-for-action; so, I decided to buy a rifle. The guy at the gun shop recommended the Ruger 10/22 carbine as the perfect rifle for starters like me. Ever one to encourage, Phil brought me a scope for my new rifle on his next visit to the forest. Over time, I became a pretty good shot with the .22; but there remained a certain romance to blasting away with the .44.
There’s always been a relatively high degree of stress in my life; intensity is the stuff of which I was made. But this period was more intense than any I’d experienced previously. Perhaps it had something to do with the beginnings of some form of midlife crisis. My marriage was rocky, there were other long-standing pressures within the family — and most importantly at that moment, I was getting a significant amount of heat on the job. One day, instead of going home to Baltimore after work, I gave my wife a call and told her I was going to head out to the mountain and probably spend the night there. I needed some time to clear my head.
When I awoke the following morning, I was filled with a sense of dread about having to go back to the job. So, I decided to relieve a bit of my stress by taking Mister .44 out back and firing a load. There’s just something about the smell of gunsmoke in the morning! My intent was to release my anxieties with each squeeze of the trigger. I had really had enough.
I wasn’t standing in my usual spot on the deck, but rather on the grass on the other side of the house. Cocking the hammer, I began my release, counting the rounds in my mind: One… Three…Four…Five…Six. Earlier, I’d developed the dubious habit of cocking the gun and squeezing the trigger after the last round, knowing that the gun was empty — just to ensure that the gun was really empty. It was a sort of double-check. Well, on this day, after firing the last round, I dropped my arm to my side, still filled with anxiety about having to go to that job. The observant reader might have noticed that “Two” was missing from the round-count above.
As the gun was pointed toward the ground, with the end of the barrel hanging just a few inches above my ankle, I cocked the hammer and mindlessly squeezed the trigger. I think I might have felt the heat of the round blasting its way into the soil beside my foot even before I heard the report of the gun. Or maybe the heat was from the fire that leaps out the barrel as the pyrodex explodes. Now the gun was empty! And I had come just a few fractions of an inch from blowing my foot off at point-blank range. I just stood there, suddenly mindful…and of course, somewhat in shock.
A few months later, having replaced the target on the tree at least a couple times, I went out on the deck with the .22 and took aim. The scope was perfectly tuned. I’ll never know how close to the bull’s-eye I actually came with that last shot though; the tree split and fell over. My marksmanship skills had improved. But it occurred to me that I might have introduced a bit too much lead into my little slice of the forest.
Introducing too much lead into the environment? Hmmmmm. Perhaps this is one of those commentaries I was speaking of, after all.