Lock and Load

The first mass shooting I remember happened in 1984, at a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, California. It was far from the first mass shooting in America, it is simply the first one that I remember clearly. I remember being so distressed by the news coverage that I felt nauseated and near tears. The shooter, 41-year-old James Huberty, killed 21 people and wounded 19. I recall trying, in vain, to relate to my mother how deeply it distressed me. Years later, in 1995, when I was attending the U.S. Army Airborne School, at Fort Benning, Georgia, we would sing a cadence about that particular massacre that made light of the dead children. I always felt grubby and ashamed, chanting along to those verses that turned a heartbreaking and distinctly American tragedy into a joke that its troops used as a marching song.

The second mass shooting I remember happened in Stockton, California, in 1989, just before my 16th birthday. I’m sure that, America being what it is, there was at least one more mass shooting in between the two, but Stockton is simply the next one that I recall vividly. Patrick Purdy shot and killed 5 children and wounded 32 others at Cleveland Elementary School. For years, I couldn’t hear “Stockton” without thinking of the tragedy.

Somewhere in between the two, I began to have a recurring nightmare that plagued me for years. In the dream, I was standing on the cement pad that had passed as a playground behind the Christian school I attended. Somewhere beyond the chain-link fence that surrounded the lot, a gunman would open fire, and I would watch in horror as kids and teachers were mowed down around me. In some versions of the dream, I was able to make it to a dumpster in the corner of the lot, behind which I would cower. In other versions, I could only stand, leaden-footed, on the spot as people were cut down around me. The dream became so pervasive that I would often daydream about it while I sat on the playground where I dreamed about it happening.

Even after I left school, I would have the dream at least a few times a month, startling myself awake when it became too intense and terrifying for my sleeping brain to handle. I might have been able to leave the dream behind, but America kept providing fuel for the nighttime fire: Luby’s Restaurant in Killeen, Texas in 1991; The Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993; the Fairchild Air Force Base shootings in Spokane, Washington, in 1994 –to name but a very few that I remember well.

I suppose I might have continued having the dream had I not been assigned to the 4th Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment after I left Airborne school. I arrived at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in August of 1995, not long after the unit had returned from a deployment to the Sinai. My platoon leader was still telling stories about a paratrooper he’d had in his platoon that he called “Crazy Kreutzer”. I’d never met him, but I remember my PL finishing a story one day with the words “If I had to vote for the most likely guy to shoot up a McDonald’s, it would be Kreutzer.”

He was far from the only person with this opinion.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a McDonald’s, it was a football field, and it was scarily similar to my dream.

Before dawn, on the morning of October 27th, 1995, my unit lined up on a football field at the bottom of a bowl that had been dug into the earth, waiting to start a unit run. It was called Towle Stadium, and there were about 2,500 troops there that chilly morning. Lurking above us, dug into a wooded hillside in a well-camouflaged position, was William Kreutzer –heavily armed and burning with hate.

He waited until we finished all of the military formalities that accompany large formations and unit runs, and had begun to file down the running track toward the stadium exit, before he opened fire. I happened to be standing in the largest group of soldiers wearing the gold-and-black t-shirts that identified us as members of his unit. He was targeting soldiers wearing those shirts, so within seconds we were pinned down, retreating into a dark corner near an equipment shed.

As I watched bodies drop and heard bullets zipping past me, I heard someone behind me say, “It’s gotta be that fucking Kreutzer!”

I was lying prone in the cool grass among a group of maybe two dozen soldiers. The longer I lay there, the more exposed I began to feel. I was watching the medics run out and retrieve bodies a few dozen meters in front of me when I decided to make a break for a low retaining wall behind me, thinking that if I could get on the other side of it, there was a lip of a few inches that might provide a scant bit of cover, which felt better than the black expanse of nothingness behind which I was currently hiding. When I flopped down on the other side of the wall I immediately heard rounds zipping around my head, so I jumped up and dove behind the aluminum equipment shed to my left.

As soon as I got behind the shed I was looking directly into two pairs of very large, very white eyes that belonged to two lieutenants who had ran over from the bleachers. I had just enough time to wonder if that was what my eyes looked like, before two rounds spit through the back of the shed in between us, so I dived back down to my original position in the dark corner. There was a platoon sergeant on my right who’d had enough of my shit at that point.

“Stop fucking moving, Airborne! You’re drawing fucking fire!”

So I dug my fingers into the turf and waited for whatever was going to happen next.

I honestly don’t know how long I was pinned down –almost certainly no more than 15 minutes– but it felt like hours. In those few minutes, William Kreutzer shot 19, killing one. There would have been many more fatalities and casualties had it not been for two things: a thick fog that had rolled in just minutes before he started shooting, dropping down into the bowl and providing a kind of concealment; and a group of Green Beret students and instructors from the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School that happened to be running by his firing position and took it upon themselves to stop him, sustaining two casualties in the process.

Stephen Badger had been among a group from the 325th Regimental Headquarters that were assaulting Kreutzer’s position from the front when he was shot in the head and killed instantly. He left behind a wife and five kids. He was posthumously promoted to Major. Many of those wounded that day had their lives changed forever and suffered grievous and gruesome injuries that they carry to this day. Not a one of them deserved it.

That night, myself and two good friends who had been in the thickest part of the shooting went out to a bar in Fayetteville. For whatever reason, we didn’t go to one of the normal hangouts close to post, but instead opted to drive all the way downtown to a bar in a hotel. All of the TV’s were tuned to the local news which were playing a videotape of the shooting, taken from a barracks window across the street. On the tape, thousands of paratroopers are running up and out of the basin, pouring across Ardennes street, literally running for their lives. We three had been pinned down early and hadn’t been able to run, but certainly didn’t begrudge those that had been able to.

A fat civilian at the corner of the bar made some joke about all the “pussies” running, and rather than murder him in the bar of the Adam’s Mark, we opted to leave. An hour later, we had a twelve-pack of beer and were cruising the black back roads of Cumberland County, drinking and decompressing, talking over the events of the day. Before long, we’d drank enough beer to require a rest stop, so we pulled to the side of a lonely county road, near a cluster of mailboxes, across from a mobile home set fifty meters back from the road.

As the three of us relieved ourselves, there came loud back-to-back cracks that sounded like fireworks. I was infuriated. I thought my friend Rick (whose car it was) had decided to play a joke. I tucked myself in and spun around to read him the riot act, only to see rick and my other friend Julian diving for the car doors. I made my way into the back seat in a few long strides and a dive, and Rick gunned it and got the hell out of there as more gunshots rang out from the front yard of the mobile home.

About a mile down the road, Rick stopped the car at an intersection and we all took turns swearing furiously at the idea of being shot at twice in the same day for no good goddamned reason. Somehow, Julian (who was a military policeman) convinced Rick to let him drive, and Julian flipped a U-turn. A few minutes later, we were sitting in the middle of the road in front of the trailer, screaming obscenities at the front door. When the owner came out a few minutes later, Julian took off, and I listened to more gunshots echoing in the receding halo of the front porch light.

I’d had enough of being shot at for one day, but Julian –who had been standing in a group of 8 paratroopers that had been shot that morning, and had left the field covered in his friends’ blood– was operating on some other level. He made U-turns two more times, until the local called for reinforcements and we ended the night speeding down a lonely North Carolina road, being chased by a truckload of locals, firing at Rick’s Z-24 over the cab of their pickup, as I lay in the back floorboard, reciting a prayer to a god that I wasn’t even sure I believed in any more.

As the months went by, I struggled to come to terms with that day. About six months after it happened, I tried telling my new wife about how shaken I still was by that morning; tried to tell her about how it felt like that childhood nightmare coming true.

“Jesus Christ! Just get over it!” She barked. “It’s not like you got shot!”

And, of course, she was right. I hadn’t sustained any injury. Years later, in the far-flung provinces of Afghanistan and Iraq to which my comrades deployed, those rounds that zipped out of the darkness would barely have even been notable enough to remember. A mildly exciting Tuesday morning, maybe.

So why did it dig at me?

For years after, I pondered the question. I think the answer is that it was the betrayal.

You’re not supposed to have to worry about being shot down when you’re just going about your normal day, jogging down a track, or peeing on the side of the road. You’re not supposed to have to be on guard against your co-workers, your neighbors, or your countrymen.

Yet here we are.

That is America.

We prove it over and over and over.

We proved it in Jonesboro, and Columbine, and Murfreesboro, and Sandy Hook, and Aurora, and Fort Hood, and Charleston, and Las Vegas, and El Paso, and Buffalo.

We proved it again today, with another Sandy Hook in Uvalde, Texas.

I’ve been around firearms my entire life. I grew up shooting and hunting with my dad and his friends. We lived in a rural area where gun racks were as common as bumper stickers, and seeing rifles in car windows –even on my high school campus– was wholly unremarkable.

Until just a few years ago, I still owned an AR-15 (with high-capacity, 30-round magazines) that I could disassemble and reassemble blindfolded. Like many people, I chose the AR-15 frame because it was what I was intimately familiar with from the near-decade that I spent in the Army. It was the weapon platform that I was most confident that I could reach for in the dark and not have to fumble with anything, because I am intimately familiar with it and its workings. If I ever need a firearm for self-defense, I want one that I don’t have to spend precious fractions of a second trying to remember how to operate.

I sold it (and my other firearms) in 2017, for two reasons: I was moving aboard a boat, and space was at a premium; I was deeply depressed, despondent, and suicidal, and I simply didn’t trust that I wouldn’t get a load on one night and end my life. It’s the same reason I sold my Harley-Davidson Dyna the same year.

In 2018, I moved to the Oregon coast, to a miniscule little town called Rockaway Beach. It has maybe 1,500 full-time residents, and not even so much as a stop sign on the one main street through town. Crime in Rockaway is nearly non-existent –I’m not sure if there’s ever been a murder in the 100 year history of the town, but in the four years that I lived there, there wasn’t a single violent crime that I am aware of. It’s the kind of idyllic little American town everyone is thinking about when they pine for a simpler, more peaceful time in this country.

I didn’t miss not having a weapon in my closet, and the idea that I might someday need to be armed for my safety would have struck me as a little ludicrous. Then 2020 happened.

It wasn’t just the riots, or the truckloads of vigilantes, looking to plant anyone they perceived to be antifa in a shallow grave on the back forty –it was the complete and total breakdown of the supply chain and the abandonment of social norms that followed: the hoarding, the greed, the selfishness, the complete lack of regard for the needs of your neighbors. It wasn’t hard to extrapolate from that what would happen in the case of a real collapse of the social order.

Then, the police left my little town. The force just disbanded. Whereas we’d had four full-time officers before, in 2020 the town found itself completely without any local police officers in case of emergency. One night, someone who’d recently moved to town and operated a restaurant right across the street from me, got spun up and tweaked out then decided to ram his truck repeatedly into my next-door neighbors vehicle at 10:30 at night. I heard her and her kids screaming in their driveway. I was tied to my oxygen concentrator and couldn’t make it further than my front porch. As I stood there, helpless, he roared past me, inches from my front steps, and tore north on the 101, high out of his mind, aggressive, and a danger to every car he passed.

It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever called 911. It took 30 minutes for them to arrive because they had to come from three towns over.

Isolated, rural Americans argue that they need firearms for self-defense, and unless you’ve lived in a very remote area, far from law enforcement, it’s hard to understand how valid that argument is. Disabled people (like myself) and women argue that they need firearms for self defense, and until you’ve been disabled or felt the menace of someone against whom you are powerless to stop, it’s hard to understand how valid that argument is.

Furthermore, whichever side of the political aisle you are on, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which you are left at the mercy of a hostile or ineffectual government. You can try to cast gun-ownership and the desire to defend oneself against tyranny as the sole province of the paranoid Right, but the Black Panthers went armed for a reason. For myself, were I still able-bodied, I would not submit to living under Christian theocracy without an armed and bloody struggle –even if I knew it to be pointless.

‘If you go far enough left, you get your guns back’, the saying goes –and it’s true.

I say all of this to say that “…the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” is still relevant today, and I won’t demonize those who want to keep theirs. They are invaluable tools of self-defense against myriad threats, large and small, organized and individual.

But the status quo is not worth all of the dead children in Jonesboro and Columbine and Aurora and Sandy Hook and Uvalde.

We have to find a better way.

We have to find a compromise.

We have to stop ignoring the fact that there is a huge chunk of important English language before those ellipses up there that precede “the right of the people…”. In fact, the language in that sentence make it clear that they are qualifying the rest of the sentence; “the right of the people” is dependent on the first part of the sentence that those who argue for unrestricted access to unregistered and unlicensed firearms like to ignore: “A well-regulated militia…”

Argue over what “militia” means all you want, but “a well-regulated” is crystal-fucking-clear in its meaning.

“Regulated” would be clear enough, but the Founders decided to emphasize even that, with “well-regulated.” Not “sort-of-regulated”; not “kind-of-regulated”; not “regulated by individual discretion” –“well regulated.”

If we are going to be Originalist in our interpretation of the Constitution, then let us by-god be so. We have to stop ignoring the fact that the first part of that sentence is there.

If more laws won’t help, then more laws won’t help stop abortion. If more regulation won’t help, then more regulation won’t help curb abortion. If allowing the government into your gun-safe is too much overreach, then so is allowing the government into your uterus.

If this is all about saving kids –if this is all about saving innocent lives– then lets start saving innocent lives, because I am sick-to-fucking-death of having to flash-back to that morning of October 27th, 1995 while I try and fathom the unimaginable pain a family must feel when they get told their 3rd grader isn’t coming home from school today, because they’re lying dead, in a pool of their own blood, with their tiny intestines blown out onto the floor of yet one more schoolhouse.

It is time for sanity in America. In fact, it is long past time.

But it won’t come.

We won’t do anything.

Nothing will change and nothing will get fixed, and in a few more days we’ll have forgotten and moved on, and in months, there will be more dead school-children, or more dead shoppers, or more dead pedestrians, and we will shrug and move on and continue to pretend that all these corpses are just the cost of living in the Land of the Free, where the solution is always more and more guns. Guns in schools, and churches, and grocery stores, and workplaces.

The fact is, the pro-every-gun-everywhere-all-the-time crowd simply doesn’t care. They’re willing to trade your kids for their guns. That’s the long and short of it. They are willing to sacrifice someone else’s kids for their perceived rights, and if you happen to gunned down in aisle 6 reaching for some salsa some day, that’s just your own fault for not being Billy-The-Goddamned-Kid and faster on the draw than the other guy.

But you’ll never convince me that, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” trumps a kindergartner’s right to LIFE.

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