#EndOfTheWorldConfession / Chris Cramer
December 21, 2012

There's been a lot of talk about guns, lately, thanks to the horrific events in Newtown, CT, on December 14, 2012. As a parent myself, I felt enormous sorrow for the families of those who lost loved ones. Every parent saw his or her worst nightmare unfold for others, and I suspect that we all briefly closed our eyes to avoid imagining that it might have been we.

Meanwhile, on Twitter this week, a much less tragic topic had a trending hashtag associated with the purported Mayan apocalypse: #EndOfTheWorldConfession. Like most things Twitter, it was an ironic revel, being in this case an opportunity to admit to your sins, real or imaginary. Chemists (like me) posted a few #EndOfTheWorldChemConfessions, too, but that's not what I want to talk about here.

Instead, the convergence of these two events leaves me wanting to tell a story. I'm an educator, so I find it hard to resist telling stories, but this one is pretty important to me, and maybe it's sufficiently relevant just now for me to suggest that others may find it worth reading.

When I was 17 years old, I was at a party somewhere outside Eau Claire, WI. The year was 1979, I was a senior in high school, and the party was attended by the theater crowd. I can't recall if it was associated with a particular production or just a chance all to get together, but together we got.

The nominal "host" of the party was another senior. She'd had a baby the year before. Oddly, I remember the baby's name (Tanya) but 30+ years leaves me searching for her name, although I can see her face in my mind. No father of the baby had ever been revealed. In any case, for purposes of narrative, let's call her Melanie.

Let me set some additional context. Wisconsin in 1979 had a drinking age of 18. So, it was fairly trivial for all of us to arrive at the party with considerable quantities of alcohol. At the time, the drink of choice for my crowd was a mass produced, sweet wine called TJ Swann.

However, this story is not about my irresolute youth, it's about guns, so let me get to the point.

Somewhere around 11 PM, Melanie and I found ourselves in her older brother's bedroom (no sex here, sorry--I think the room was where people's jackets were being kept, it being winter in Wisconsin). She said to me, "Do you want to see my brother's gun?"

Guns? How cool for a teenager. I said, "Sure!" and she pulled it from a shoebox sitting on a shelf in the closet.

She handed me a pistol. I can still see it. Small caliber. The grip was hollow. Now, I'd actually had training in shooting .22 rifles years previously, as part of a group called the "Boys Brigade" (not making this up) in Neenah, WI; so I'd put my share of bullets downrange, but I didn't know much about pistols. Nevertheless, I knew, somehow, that the hollow grip implied that a clip would normally be employed to supply ammunition to the pistol, and that the absence of the clip meant that the weapon was "safe." Right?

When Melanie handed it to me, I looked at it, I felt its weight, I rotated it in my hands, I admired its blunt sexiness. And then I pointed it at Melanie's head, 'cause that's what you do with guns: you point them at people. I considered pulling the trigger to hear it click, and Melanie looked at me with a raised eyebrow, but, in the end, I didn't like the idea, and I turned the gun in another direction.

I then noticed that the top of the pistol was clearly designed to slide on the body, and I pulled the top backwards over the trigger. With well oiled action, the slide ran back on the body, made a satisfying "snick" sound... and smoothly ejected the shell that had been in the chamber, sending it flying into a corner with a metallic ring as it bounced against the floor and wall.

So, older and wiser, I can now say that there was "one in the pipe." Older and wiser, and having spent several years in the Army, I've shot rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, antitank missiles; hell, I've pulled the lanyard on a 155 mm self-propelled artillery piece.

But that night, I had no idea. That night, the sight of that bullet in flight, the sound as it hit the floor and skittered to a stop in the corner, remains etched in my mind. That night, I nearly shot a friend in the head at point blank range. She almost certainly would have been killed. I spent the rest of the night drinking, hard, until my hands stopped shaking...

It's 33 years later. I have three children; I'm an educator who has touched the lives of thousands of students; I'd like to think that I've done what I can to contribute to the common good, whatever one may take that to mean.

But, if I had pulled that trigger in 1979, assuredly none of that would have happened. Instead, Tanya would have been raised by her grandparents, and my life would have followed a course that I've never been able to imagine. My mind still recoils from following that worldline, spooling out in some quantum universe I dare not contemplate.

So, should we do more to advance a culture less devoted to guns, guns minimally regulated and maximally available? I would say, yes. All but the most rabid pro-gun advocate admits that there is some weapon so outrageous in its capabilities that it should not be available to civilians. Since we essentially all agree that there is a line, now let's discuss where the optimal line should be, and how to encourage safe storage, handling, and employment of those weapons that are deemed salable.

And me? I'll spend time this holiday, as I do every so often, wondering where Melanie and Tanya might be now. I'll hope that their lives are rich, and full. And I'll be eternally grateful that I didn't end the one, and forever change the other.