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I bought a gun

Published April 22, 2007


Two days after the worst shooting in American history, I took possession of my first gun, a 9mm Taurus that holds a baker's dozen of bullets and weighs just over a pound. This weekend, my gun-owning neighbors and I went to the shooting range to practice.

I don't like guns. But I feel I need one. Before buying my first house in St. Petersburg, I had never feared for my safety.

Growing up in Chicago and St. Louis, I had many close associates who had been the victims of crimes, some serious. But I can't name a single person I knew who owned a handgun. Period.

I trusted my street smarts to handle most situations and the police to handle the rest.

* * *

I am young, age 25. To afford my first home, I bought a house west of Tropicana Field in Palmetto Park, which I knew had its share of crime. To stretch my pennies, I decided that despite knowing the neighborhood wasn't secure I could wait several months to install an expensive security alarm.

Not even two months later, my home was burglarized while I was at work. My roommate who worked nights was home sleeping.

The robbers took nearly everything of value from my home, down to rum from my freezer and a case of beer left over from my housewarming party just the weekend before.

Then they tried to enter my roommate's bedroom. Luckily, he'd locked the door before going to bed. When the door knob jiggled he assumed it was me wanting to talk about his dirty dishes or late rent. He called my name and the burglars fled. What would have happened if they had opened that door?

That question bounced around my brain until the police came.

* * *

Within months, I was reeling from another incident. Good friends of mine - a real estate agent who coordinates the neighborhood crime watch and his partner - woke one night to chunks of concrete being hurled through their kitchen window. Panicked, the real estate agent, another reluctant gun owner, emptied his 9mm into his back yard and garage. No one was hit, but the assailants who had jumped his fence, fled.

Another neighbor - also a crime watch coordinator - had his house firebombed. We were caught in a neighborhood battle between drug dealers and people who wanted to clean up the neighborhood.

I invited our community police officer to my house to discuss what additional security precautions to take. He said that after the burglary, I had really made all of the reasonable changes, including installing a security system and changing my door and window locks. He encouraged me to buy a gun.

I have very little experience with guns. My grandfather, a veteran of World War II, took pride in teaching my brother and me, his only two grandsons, some marksmanship.

When we visited him at his Wisconsin cottage with its long hallway, he'd line up cereal boxes several deep and draw a target on the last box. We'd shoot a BB gun from the other end of the hallway. When we got slightly older, he took us to an outdoor range and coached us with a .22-caliber rifle.

But the destructive appeal to a teenage boy of shooting soda cans off tree stumps long ago waned. I would have been content never to shoot a gun again. My brain knew that statistically, a gun in the home is more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. And even in the hands of a well-intentioned citizen, a gun can be stolen and used to commit another crime. The fewer guns on the street, the safer we'd all be.

So instead, I improved the lighting around my home so that it was lit like a night game at a minor-league baseball stadium and I adopted a black dog - 97 pounds of muscle and a bit intimidating. I got involved in our crime watch, started aggressively calling in suspicious activity into the police nonemergency line.

Every single time I have expressed concern for my personal safety, the police response was the same: Buy a gun and let your neighbors know you're not afraid to use it.

Instead, I redoubled my efforts to communicate with my neighbors and coordinate nonviolent means to enhance our safety.

Then another one of the new residents was robbed and assaulted in the alleyway behind my home as he cut through an abandoned lot next to mine.

His answer was to buy a .50-caliber revolver and get a concealed weapons permit. I started to feel some of the pack mentality and phony machismo that seem to have a strong influence over our cravings to own guns. Still, I resisted.

Slowly, though, I watched as my neighbors and I checked off our security precautions, and last resorts seemed increasingly inevitable.

Then one night in December, I was jolted awake by gunfire. Not unusual in my neighborhood in the northwest corner of Midtown, but these shots were right outside my bedroom window.

I hit the ground and couldn't find a phone, so I used the panic button on my alarm. Finally I found my cell phone and dialed 911 and reported possible gunfight erupting outside my house.

Living in fear makes it difficult to separate perceived danger from actual. It felt like eternity lying on my belly, waiting for police to respond.

My roommate moved out because he didn't feel safe. I started to research buying a gun. I wanted to have another option other than praying that the police would arrive in time.

I spent hours and hours over several months researching guns. Family, friends and co-workers tried to convince me it would be better to simply move out of the neighborhood. And they're right. But where can I live?

The reality is, my neighborhood is a rare affordable option for myself and many others. And if residents willing to invest in their communities abandon these areas, the criminals who are accustomed to controlling these places win. A small minority of residents has been able to intimidate others, who hide in their homes. Those who can afford to, move at the first opportunity.

I don't want to contribute to a dangerous Wild West dynamic that has been created in the neighborhood, where outlaws largely operate in the open and emotionally drained neighbors have been encouraged to take up arms.

But I have to do something to protect myself. When you're scared, issues that once seemed simple, aren't anymore.

* * *

On the advice of a couple of gun shops, I went to a shooting range and fired a .357 Smith & Wesson revolver and a Glock 9mm.

The revolver's recoil was more up and down rather than front to back, which made it harder to keep the weapon on target and group multiple shots.

I actually surprised myself with my accuracy with the Glock. Shooting it dissolved some of the tension I had built up about owning a gun.

Yet, I flinched every time someone around me shot their gun, and I felt like I was tiptoeing on an emotional bed of pins and needles, torn between a feeling of empowerment and fright.

Finally, about 10 days ago, I decided to buy a gun. After the waiting period, I picked it up Wednesday and fired it the first time the next day.

I'm really not comfortable having it in my house, but I promised myself I'll keep the weapon locked in a safe and will get as much training and practice as I can. I may apply for a concealed weapons permit.

Still, it's still hard to imagine that owning a gun offers anything but a false sense of security, which comes from the sheer power of the weapon. Sometimes, though, even a false sense of security is enough to keep a person from coming unglued.

I can just hope that I never actually have to use my gun in self-defense.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 19:30:03]

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