Why I Don't Own a Gun...


… I never have and I never will.  In fact I don't own a weapon of any kind.  I've never felt a need to.


However, I did purposefully shoot a man once. 

And then I apologized to him. 


My intent here is to pass on what I learned from this singularly regrettable—but fortunately not fatal—time when I was, as they say, "a good guy with a gun".[1] 


Prior to serving in Vietnam, I was trained to fire many different types of weapon, from pistols to rifles to machine guns to anti-tank weapons.  It turned out I was exceptionally accurate with all of them.  On two occasions, at 50 meters firing an M14 rifle from the supported prone position without a scope, I put five out of six rounds through the same hole.[2]  The point here is that I usually hit whatever I aimed at.


I was Officer of the Day (OD) for my battalion on February 5, 1970, in Quang Tri Combat Base, Vietnam.  OD was usually my favorite duty, spending the night as the officer in charge.  But this was Tết, the first day of the Vietnamese lunar new year—the traditional time when the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Viet Cong conducted their most aggressive attacks on US forces.  We had received word that our base was to be hit hard by the NVA that night, possibly harder than we had been hit to date.


For two days previously, I and one of my sergeants had overseen the stringing of many coils of razor wire along our perimeter, and we set a continuous line of trip flares and Claymore mines.  When we were done we congratulated ourselves on creating what appeared to us to be an impenetrable defense forward of our line of bunkers and observation towers. 


Communication between bunkers and towers was managed using field telephones over wire lines.  The wire was laid in a trench connecting all the bunkers, well behind the line, and it led back to our battalion's command bunker.


As OD that night I, along with a radio operator, was stationed away from the line in that command bunker.  Starting around midnight we began receiving occasional reports over the wire of harassing probing along our perimeter.  It went on for about an hour and then several bunkers reported something about dogs in the razor wire, and we could hear the Claymores going off amid gunfire and other explosions.


Then silence from the bunkers… the phone line had gone dead. 


I sent the radio operator to get the colonel while I monitored radio signals from other units along the perimeter of the combat base.  Marine units adjacent to our line were reporting significant penetration of their defense.  I went outside the bunker and could hear gunfire all along the combat base's perimeter.  On our line I could see swarms of both white and red tracers flying in all directions.


The colonel arrived, relieving me of command, and I headed toward the line. 


At the first bunker manned by soldiers in my platoon I stopped and asked what had happened.  I was told the NVA had sent dogs through the razor wire which set off all the trip flares.  That caused soldiers in the bunkers to fire the Claymores.  Once the Claymores were spent the NVA ran Bangalore torpedoes through the wire and blew large gaps in our lines of defense.  They came through in several places and managed to cut the phone wire between bunkers.  There was heavy automatic weapons fire in several places inside our line.  The fighting was close in and intense.


Since communication between bunkers was cut off the soldiers were isolated, confused and apprehensive about what was happening up and down the line.  I felt I needed to figure out our best move in a hurry.


I ran to the nearest tower and climbed up.  Inside was one of my troops looking through a large starlight (night vision) scope set on a tripod.  Against the wall was an M16 rifle with a smaller starlight scope attached.  I used it to scan the line.  While it was a cloudy night and visibility was poor, through the scope I could see that the NVA was beginning to pull back from many points of their attack.  Closer in I saw two figures in the wire about 75 meters from where we were in the tower.


I asked the soldier next to me in the tower, "Do we have anyone out there?"  He said, "No Sir."  I asked again, "So we have no one out there at all?"  "That's right, Sir."


In the days afterward, analyzing and re-analyzing that moment, I came to realize that the soldier must have been looking out across the river while I was looking closer in.  In the darkness and in the intensity of the moment, I assumed he and I were looking in the same direction, which was a terrible mistake on my part.


I flipped the M16's selector switch to ‘semi-automatic', took careful aim at the nearer of the two bodies, and squeezed the trigger.[3] 


While we had been ordered to keep all M16 selector switches on ‘full automatic' that night, for no reason I could later explain I ignored the order and as a result fired only one round when I pulled that trigger. 


Immediately after I fired, the soldier next to me yelled, "What are you doing?!!!"  Simultaneously I heard cussing in English coming from the direction of the bodies.

The soldier in the tower told me that one of the two below was the sergeant who had worked with me setting up the lines of defense.  I learned later that when the dogs had set off all the flares, the sergeant had run to company headquarters to get more.  He encountered a soldier who had just arrived and had signed in for duty.  In all the chaos he was just sitting in the orderly room waiting to be told what to do.  The sergeant ordered him to come with him and assist in resetting trip flares along the line.  It was a reasonable and remarkably courageous thing the sergeant did, but with the communication wires cut I didn't know he was out there doing it.


The bullet I fired had hit the soldier who was with the sergeant.  I almost literally flew out of the tower and joined the sergeant as he was carrying the soldier back through the line.  We shined a flashlight on the soldier to determine where I'd hit him.  He said his right leg was numb and he couldn't bend it.  I found an entry hole on the outside of his knee and looked for an exit hole but couldn't find one.  I was certain that the bullet was in his knee and that I had shattered the bones.


Time became a blur after that.  We somehow got him into a jeep and I drove him to a MASH (mobile army surgical hospital).  I stood in the operating room as a surgeon examined an X-ray which showed the bullet lodged in the soldier's outer thigh near his hip.  The surgeon explained to me that the bullet must have tumbled completely so that it hit the knee blunt end first, bounced off the bone and traveled up through the striations of thigh muscle.[4]


The surgeon incised the outer thigh, removed the bullet, cleaned out and disinfected its path from the knee, and closed the incision, all within about 20 minutes.


I intended to wait for the soldier to recover from anesthesia, but I was called back to the line.  I did visit him the next day.  He was most gracious in accepting my apology and then confused me when he expressed his gratitude for what had happened.  He said he had just been told that he was being transferred to Tokyo for rehab, after which he would be sent home to receive an Honorable Discharge and the thanks of a grateful nation.  And there was no permanent damage to his knee.


Here's my point: as a result of this experience I know first-hand how easy it is to pull a trigger and shoot someone.  It takes no brains at all.  As a matter of fact as this makes clear, even if a brain is functioning well and its owner seeks clarifying information, he can still get it all terribly wrong.


To be clear here, I'm not talking about the incidental thrill of a video game or paintball or target practice, but a real and immediate threat to life.[5]   If life is suddenly and imminently threatened, which is the rationale many gun owners use for owning and carrying, typically the prefrontal lobe reacts way too slowly.

At the first hint of deadly peril the right amygdala fires off, causing a rush of adrenaline and cortisol 195 milliseconds before the cerebral cortex begins to process the first bits of sensory data about what's going on.  Heart rate increases, veins and arteries constrict, muscles tremble, hyper-ventilation and tunnel vision ensue. 

This all makes for a primitive hormonal stew meant for last chances.  The large muscles are given an all-or-nothing jolt to flee or to fight off that leaping saber-tooth tiger.   In a for-real, life-threatening crisis a normal human is simply incapable of conducting rational, steady-handed operation of a firearm despite what gun rights advocates might claim.

You needn't take my word for it.  Here's a pair of videos by experts on the subject: Part 1 and Part 2.

Still not quite sold—or rather unsold—about owning a gun?  Here's another tale.


In July of 1967, Kathy and I were living on the north side of Detroit.  The neighborhood we were in was originally intended for auto industry executives and was aging gracefully; we were living in a carriage apartment over our landlord's garage.  Michelle had been born just two months earlier.


On the morning after the start of the 1967 Detroit riot a neighbor who was a good friend of our landlord stopped by our apartment with an armload of rifles, shotguns and pistols, all loaded.  He insisted that I choose one.  He reminded me it was my responsibility as a man to protect my wife and baby daughter.  "The blacks are out to kill us all."[6]


I declined his offer.  He shook his head in disgust and said, "Don't ever say I didn't give you a chance to save your family."


That night when he and his wife went to bed he placed a loaded shotgun between them because, as everyone knows, when seconds count you have to have that piece loaded and within arm's reach. 


At around 2 AM he heard footsteps on the stairs leading up to their second floor bedroom.  He then heard the bedroom door creak open in the dark.  Without hesitation he fired both barrels of the shotgun in the direction of the sound.  His wife, startled out of deep sleep, couldn't catch her breath.  She gestured that she had a searing pain in her chest.


The police and an ambulance arrived almost simultaneously.  Paramedics treated his wife while the police took his statement.  Upon inspection the security alarm hadn't gone off and there were no signs of forced entry anywhere in the house.  And there was no body.  It was all simply a figment of his fevered imagination.


The cost in 1967 dollars to repair the intricately carved wood paneling in the bedroom and replace the custom four-panel door was $5,000.  Today that would be roughly $75,000.  Difficult to explain to an insurance agent.

And the rioters?  They never came within two miles of where we lived. 


One blessing of not owning a gun: you'll never have to regret using it. 


[1]   The only purpose of a gun is to discharge a projectile, at greater than the speed of sound, to pierce flesh, shatter bone and destroy vital organs. Any other rationale for owning or carrying is either dishonest or naive.

[2]   To put that in perspective, if you stood at the goalpost on a football field and held up a silver dollar and I were to position myself on the 50 yard line, over 80% of the time I could pierce the coin without doing any damage to your fingers.

[3]   The account of my shooting contains a goodly bit of detail.  I find that when a crisis occurs that results in something regrettable, it's instructive to review the circumstances in depth to ensure that the root mistake won't happen again, even under very different conditions.

[4]   The 5.56mm M16 bullet is the same size as a .22 caliber: a small, light, high-velocity round.  After 25 meters the bullet slows and becomes aerodynamically unstable, beginning to tumble.  For an ‘assault weapon' that's not a critical design issue since, by definition, fighting in an assault is assumed to be close in, much closer than the 75 meters my one bullet traveled that night.

[5]   This 15-minute TED talk by the neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky is look into the immensely complex problem of the biology and psychology of violence in humans.

[6]   At the time, I was working for a subsidiary of the Ford Motor Company. On Friday July 21st, as I was leaving work I was given a task for first thing Monday morning before coming in to work.  I was to stop by an engine dynamometer lab in the southeast quarter of the city, pick up some test samples, and bring them to the office in Southfield, a northwest suburb of the city.

The riot started in the early hours of Sunday in the Virginia Park neighborhood in the inner city.  Although the news stations on Sunday evening reported that order had been restored in the neighborhood, in reality the death and destruction was just beginning.

Taking the news from the night before as authoritative, at 6:30 Monday morning I got in my car and drove down the Chrysler Expressway to the lab. On my way I saw smoke on the horizon, and I heard faint popping sounds—since this was Detroit in the 60s I recognized the sound of distant gunfire. There wasn't another vehicle on the freeway, and I remember telling myself, "I should take this route to work more often because the traffic is so light this time of the morning." If I had turned on the radio I'd have gotten a whole different picture. I found out later that figures I saw on the overpasses were snipers, and the shooting was a whole lot closer.

When I got to the lab the gates were locked and guarded by employees with shotguns. I told them I was there to pick up the samples but they wouldn't open a gate for me. They threw the box of samples over a fence to me and wished me good luck.

When I arrived at the office in Southfield my boss was amazed I'd made it all the way down the east side alive. By noon the rioting had spread northward and everyone in the office was told to go home. As I drove into our neighborhood, I passed a white Cadillac with four of the biggest black men I'd ever seen, bigger than Detroit Lions linemen I had met. It was shortly after then that our neighbor showed up with all his weapons.