Bang bang, he shot me down
Bang bang, I hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, my baby shot me down
I’m wrote this, last October, with a brain that was a bit addled, and definitely altered, from opiate painkillers and actual pain. I had a torn meniscus in my right knee – surgery took place a week after I wrote this – and I had a stress fracture in the same foot.
We were supposed to write a didactic dialogue – an unemotional exploration of a serious issue. In my case, I had an idea for a dialogue on gun violence and gun control, and while the piece wasn’t meant to be fiction, I was going to use my recurring android character Basil and his actress partner Zoe to illustrate both sides of the article, because moving things into the future, setting them in a world a bit separate from our own, often makes them easier to process.
And I use horror and science fiction to process.
But then I woke up that October morning to the news that nine people had been shot at a bar in Kansas City while I was sleeping.
At that writing, my country had gone zero days without a mass shooting.
As of today, it’s been 50 days, unless you count a family of five in Milwaukee, but that was inside their house, and I think from a member of the family, so I’m not counting it. And anyway, the only reason it’s been fifty days is because schools are closed and most people have been on stay-at-home orders.
But I was heartsick then, as I become every time I hear about such an event in the news.
And I was – am – incapable of writing a dialogue. Because I can’t see another side. Oh, I know my own nephews have hunting rifles. I know that they are good fathers and responsible young men, and I know they store their ammunition separately from their actual rifles and would never let their children touch either until they were old enough to be trained and responsible themselves.
But they don’t need to hunt to eat.
They do it for sport.
And this nauseates me.
I also know that my brother is a cop, and carries a gun, and that, as far as cops go, he’s one of the good ones. He’s not overtly racist or intentionally misogynistic, and he genuinely believes he’s helping people. (Actually, he has a bit of a hero complex, but a lot of cops do.) Like my nephews, my brother does not treat his gun as a toy, but sometimes he jokes about it. “Oh, don’t worry, I’m strapped,” if we’re in a sketchy neighborhood.
And I don’t find this funny, or reassuring.
Because to me, if a cop has to draw a weapon, they’ve already failed. The situation has already deteriorated.
You’ve already lost.
And if your first reaction to being in a neighborhood that isn’t upper middle class and white is to be glad you have a gun, I think that says something about you, not the neighborhood.
It’s easy – so easy – to believe that if you haven’t felt a bullet whizzing by your cheek that you haven’t been affected by gun violence. But if you live in America, as I do, you have been affected, whether you admit it or not. You’re affected because every year there’s a ballot measure about open carry, or allowing guns on university campuses, or adding or eliminating restrictions on who can purchase guns or what kind or how.
It’s equally easy to believe that Columbine was the first school shooting in the United States. It wasn’t. I know of a woman who was held hostage in her high school in 1985 – 14 years before the massacre at Columbine – and I was witness to a shooting at my own high school in 1987.
In my case, we were lucky. There were no hostages. There was no lockdown. It was one kid targeted by his girlfriend’s brother. The shooter was a member of a gang called SKB – the South Korean Boys Club, and he didn’t like that his target was dating his sister. So, he pulled his car to the curb outside our school, took aim, and shot Phong Nguyen at 3:15 PM on Thursday, December 17th. It was the second-to-last day of classes before our winter break, and the day of all the winter concerts (we were a performing arts magnet school).
If you’ve ever seen an episode of the television show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, you know that California high schools are not the enclosed, prison-like structures that the rest of American students are stuck in. Rather, we have a few buildings connected by breezeways. At 3:15 on a Thursday, the regular students were heading for their cars or their buses, but the performing arts students were crossing the breezeways for a final class. (In order to meet our academic requirements, and still fit in our arts classes, we had one extra hour of classes every day.)
I was standing not far from Phong when the gun was fired.
A friend of mine from the drama class we were heading to, a friend whose name is absolutely not Julian because I’m only naming the names in the news articles, pushed me to the ground when it happened. When we stood up again, Phong was on the ground, and his blood was on our shoes. Julian and I were seniors. Phong was not in the magnet program and was a freshman.
Before that day, neither of us even knew his name.
Before that day, we were typical American kids, who sometimes pretended we were holding rifles or pistols when improvising scenes or re-enacting favorite bits from action films.
Before that day, I had no problem playing video games that involved blasting alien ships out of the sky.
The first change was to the orchestra program… we deleted the “March to the Scaffold” from our set; it would have been in extremely poor taste. Instead, we played the Ode to Joy, offering it as a song of peace and hope.
The second change came with the nightmares. Real gunshots don’t sound like the bang-bangs you hear on television. They’re more of a subtle pop. For weeks firecrackers and backfiring trucks spooked me, and I had nightmares about being shot, or being in the way, or what would have happened if my friend hadn’t pushed me down.
In the years since then, I’ve developed a strong distaste for guns. I do not allow them in my house. I have to state this on invitations, because I live in Texas, where open carry is lauded and almost every native has a pistol in her purse. Even my most rational, liberal, friends cannot explain why they feel the need to carry. They just do.
I feel assaulted, sometimes, walking into stores. Not by the Bubbas with their guns on their hips – mainly because most of the businesses I frequent don’t allow open carry – but because of things like a display I saw in Target during last fall’s back-to-school shopping period. It was for bullet resistant backpacks for kids, and the price tag on them was about $100.
I was horrified, putting myself in the place of a parent who couldn’t afford that kind of expense: the kind of parent – a single mother or father, maybe – who can barely keep a growing kid in shoes and make sure there’s healthy food on the table. How would I feel if I were that mother, having to choose between a backpack that might keep my kid alive, or putting gas in the car for a week? How would I feel if I were that father, unable to buy it, and finding out my kid was the next victim?
I grew up in a world where our school safety drills included marching out for fire drills and warnings like, “If there’s an earthquake that destroys the stairs, don’t use the stairs.” (I’m not making this up.) My youngest nieces and nephews, and my grand-nieces and nephews, live in a world where they practice hiding in closets and using textbooks as shields and cowering under desks to avoid gunfire.
It’s so easy to think that if you’ve never felt blood spatter your skin, you’ve never been touched by gun violence.
But you’re wrong.
Just by reading this, you have.
And I have.
And I’m sorry, but I can’t find it in me to write a dialogue about it. Not then. Not today. Not ever.
Bang bang, I shot you down
Bang bang, you hit the ground
Bang bang, that awful sound
Bang bang, I used to shoot you down