My own private body count


Whenever I Tweet or write about guns, I get trolled by dozens of people asking me whether or not I shoot ’em ( I don’t) and if I have a right to write about areas of my ballistic ignorance, like  skeet shooting (I do).

Emily Miller, and Washington Times editor and a former Tom DeLay staffer who loves to post Facebook-y snaps of herself with handguns and assault rifles, went down the Truther trail on Saturday when the pictures of the president skeet shooting were released. Miller suggested that the low angle of Obama’s shotgun blast implied a fake. Many, many conservatives are diving into the same rabbit hole, to the delight of the White House.

I pointed out how self-defeating the enterprise was.  She shot back: “[W]hy are you opining on what shooting skeet looks like with zero information?”

That got me to thinking. How come everybody is always asking me about my marksmanship chops, and nobody ever asks me if I’ve seen someone get shot? Seems like the latter question is considerably more germane in the wake of Newtown.

It’s a serious question: After all, Obama didn’t release a photo of him visiting an ER with gunshot victims, did he?

So, how many people have I known or seen with gunshot wounds? A lot, as it turns out. I was shocked by the number. I did stints as a big-city reporter, spent a lot of time covering low-income areas of New York, and grew up in Brooklyn during the crack-epidemic 1980s. But the list was a real eye-opener.

Here it is, with approximate dates. It’s a useful exercise. I encourage everyone to do it.

1. 1980:   One of my friends was visiting the home of another buddy, found a revolver in a drawer, and shot the other kid’s 8-year-old sister in the head. She survived, more or less intact.  I was about three blocks away.

2. 1981. I was walking on Ave. U, a bustling Sheepshead Bay shopping strip — my mother sent me out of get a sleeve of Italian bread —  when I heard the screech of tires. A crowd had formed a couple of blocks down, under the El. In the middle of the street, under the clattering D and Q trains, was a rolled up brown carpet, with a red stain on one end. You could see one shiny black shoe sticking out. The other had fallen off, baring a sad, pale foot. Low-level mafia hit.

3.  Circa 1985. A Mexican kid we called “Fuji” — he looked like one of the wrestlers from the “Fuji and Saito” WWF team — was gunned down selling weed at Kelly Park near my house. He was a sweet, squat, quiet kid who had a really good outside jump shot, more of a hop shot really, but it would go right through the metal hoop, nothing but air.  Seventeen years old.

4. Circa 1989-1990. I was sleeping one night in my parent’s semi-attached house on East 17th St., when I awoke to the sound of what I though was someone hammering on the other side of the wall. I went back to sleep, but was awakened by the sound of sirens a few minutes later. My next door neighbor Jeffrey, who I’d known all my life, had been shot through the Adam’s apple by another of my friends, Randy, with a .22 they had “found” in the park. Jeff was about 18, and now paralyzed from the neck down.

He had always been a bit of hell-raiser, a wiry, combative kid who loved to gamble — first with baseball cards, then on horses. His mother, one of my mother’s best childhood friends, built a nice little ramp to the front door, and took it down a few years later when Jeff died of complications.

5. 1992-93. My father always kept a loaded .45 automatic in a drawer next to his bed, his sidearm for the 1950s Navy. He had taken the grips off, and left one bullet in the chamber, because that’s what they guys on his ship did. I knew it was there but hardly ever went near it. One time when I did, I was about 15, he literally kicked me in the ass, and shoved it back in its little “USN” bag.

One night,  he was closing up the family ice cream shop on Brighton Beach Ave., when a guy wearing a suit and tie pulled out a .45 of his own, pointed it at Richie’s head, and cleaned out the register. Out came my father’s .45 from storage, into the briefcase he used for papers and payroll. A few weeks passed. Richie was taking the day’s cash out of the briefcase in our kitchen when the gun fell out, butt smashing on the tile and discharging. A tired, nearly-spent 40-year-old bullet grazed his forehead, leaving a bloody gash like cat-scratch. The slug, a crumpled brassy cigar butt, lodged in the ceiling. One floor up was a mother, our tenant, who was feeding her two young children dinner.  My dad got rid of thing, I don’t know how or where.

6. 1993. I was a cub reporter for the Birmingham Post-Herald in Alabama — my first daily job, working Sundays and nights, tasked with monitoring the police scanner and writing short obits when things got slow. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but an editor handed me a scrap of paper: A 16-year-old preacher’s son shot in the head in the parking lot of a nightclub. I had an address, so I scanned the reverse phone book and came up with a number. His father picked up the phone. “I’d like to offer you my condolences…”

“What? Why?” he asked.

I told him the details.

7. 1994. Birmingham, again. Sleeping, again. Pop-pop-pop. Commotion outside my door. Then the sounds of a police radio. I opened the door to find bloody hand prints smeared up and down the hallway wall. My upstairs neighbor, a lawyer who worked at big frm downtown, had gotten drunk and invited his country cousin, a teenage boy from Georgia, into the shower with him. At some point, the kid — god know’s what really happened — picked up a gun and shot his naked cousin four times in the gut. I watched them carry the man out on the gurney, white as the walls. He somehow survived.

8. 1996. My godfather Gerry, my parents’ best friend for 30 years, was known as the “Egg Man.” He was a solo operator, driving his panel truck into neighborhoods throughout Brooklyn, delivering eggs, milk and cheese to small grocery stores and bodegas. One day he was making a stop in Ft. Greene. A guy in a hoodie popped out and demanded he hand over all his money. Gerry — a veteran and blue-collar tough-guy Jew — a “starker” — told the kid to fuck off. One shot to the stomach. He died in the gutter and never got to meet his grandchildren.

9. 1997-2001. I was obsessed with the New York City hospital system, a teeming 24/7 city-within-a-city that attracted pathos, anecdote and drama like a massive magnet. For the a few years, I covered inner city hospitals and emergency rooms, hanging out in them whenever I could get permission from a friendly source.  I embedded myself at several ERs for days at a time — the longest stint was for a story on Kings County Hospital, the most active ER in Brooklyn, with Gene Richards, the legendary photographer. I spent a few nights at Bellevue, with the legendary ER director Louis Goldfrank, a bearded eminence who looked like Abe Lincoln in a white lab coat.

In there course of these forays, I saw many, many gunshot victims — to many to count —  most of them young, most of them lying silent and stunned, as if they couldn’t quite image such a thing could happen to them. I remember one teenage kid, a black pool of blood staining the white sheets of an exam table, repeating over and over “Shit, man,” with a little smile — not in pain, but in bemused disbelief, like he had just gotten off a new Six Flags roller-coaster that had lived up to all the hype.

There are others. My late father-in-law spent most of his adult life in the 82nd Airborne and made many jumps into live-fire situations. He was shot twice, both in non-combat situations. The first took place in a Gulf Coast Mississippi barroom, when he was barely out of his teens, when a friend winged him. The guy was showing off a new pistol — “Hey Bill! Look what I got!”

The second time happened in Vietnam, when he was scrounging through a buddy’s foot locker. A loaded Derringer went off and hit him in the leg. He was sent back to the States, convalesced in a New Orleans hospital, where he was introduced to his future wife and my future mother-in-law, who lived over the canal in Jefferson Parish.

That particular gunshot had the biggest impact on my life.

7 Responses

  1. Eric
    Eric February 4, 2013 at 4:59 pm |

    That’s an amazing recount. I suppose it all depends on your environment. Being thirty five myself, I’ve never known of anyone in my immediate network or vicinity that suffered a gunshot wound.

    I don’t think I want to be anywhere you are, seems like you’re sporting some bad gun Karma. :)

  2. === === popular today February 4, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  3. pat
    pat February 4, 2013 at 5:37 pm |

    this was a really nicely written and thoughtful piece. thanks.

  4. Andrew
    Andrew February 4, 2013 at 7:39 pm |

    Thank God I live in Canada. I know of zero gunshot victims, and have never seen a hand gun, nor hope to.

  5. Jake
    Jake February 4, 2013 at 9:04 pm |

    sounds like you should find a different part of town to live in and your friends should’ve had some firearm safety classes.

    I’m not really sure the point of this post…If you’ve never be shown how to properly handle and shoot a firearm and you’re simply writing about it based on your past experiences then you should really look into some training and take a class and come at it with a fresh perspective..

  6. Jeff chamberlain
    Jeff chamberlain February 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm |

    The way I read this commentary is that it’s rally people you know who we’re shot, or people near you who were shot. Ask a soldier, I think they might have higher numbers and I bet they are glad to have their guns.

  7. Alvin B.
    Alvin B. February 5, 2013 at 2:37 am |

    Thankfully I’ve not had near the experience with gun violence that you’ve had. Grew up in a rural area, everyone had guns from an early age, but nobody I knew or heard of locally had any accidents or crimes.

    Then I worked in Houston doing graveyard shift at convenience stores in bad neighborhoods for a few years. Always feared getting robbed, had several guys tell me I was the “craziest honkey” they ever met for working some of the places I did. Never once got robbed or saw a gun crime there…

    There’ve been guns around somewhere much of my life, but thankfully never had to deal with the violent end of it. I keep mine in storage away from where I live, because honestly, they’re just a part of my past life. Despite never having _personally_ experienced any gun troubles or knowing anyone who has, I know that stories like the ones you relate are all too common.

    In fact I have one mentally ill friend in his 30s who lives at home, whose father has suddenly taken up gun collecting. Pistols, shotguns, rifles, AK47, AR15, the works. This friend (who has never committed a single violent crime or even been close to any) has been suffering greatly trying to recover from lifelong drug abuse, and his father decides to start collecting guns? Needless to say, last month, the friend took a loaded pistol and almost used it on himself. I don’t know the details (wasn’t given them) but it just seems STUPID to me to keep weapons around in the first place, let alone when there’s a mentally unstable person around.

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