G is for Gun

From a horrible childhood mishap to his time spent as a doctor in conflict zones such as Cambodia and Sudan—a man’s reflection on what guns have meant in his life.

James Maskalyk is an emergency physician, and author. His book, Six Months in Sudan,...

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I shot my brother in the eye with a gun.

He was seven, I was ten. I told the story to a psychiatrist I worked with, professionally, one busy day in our inner-city emergency department, the caterwaul of a confused, psychotic person behind us.

“I’m going to be nauseous for the rest of the day”, she said, and stood up.

I lived in the country, and had a little gun. An air rifle. With it, I was allowed to shoot only two things: targets and varmints. There were three forms of varmints in the fields where I lived: gophers, whose holes could break a horse’s leg, magpies who strewed garbage from our burning barrels all across the lawn, and moles, who blindly ate the roots in my mother’s garden. The latter, I didn’t shoot, but trapped in their dirt tunnels. They were the only ones I got paid for: a dollar each. It’s possible I never got permission to shoot the magpies, but I lumped them into the varmint category on my own after listening to their laughter, high in the trees, as I scooped up their slimy trash.

It didn’t take long for me to discover that what allowed me to discharge my responsibility as varmint sheriff was a puff of compressed air that pushed a lead pellet down the barrel. I emptied the gun, and saw the ripples it made in a puddle, then worked up the courage to hold my hand over it, wincing as I pulled the trigger. A discovery is best shared. A little brother, best experimented on.

I spent an hour convincing him to look down the barrel of the gun. I can’t recall my young logic. A test of trust. Bravery? Perhaps I even did it first. I don’t remember.

He bent over the rifle whose stock I had pumped three or four times, and put his face over the barrel.

I shot mostly soft, lead pellets. They were the most deadly, because on impact they spread so the hole they made was bigger. They had to be loaded one at a time though, so for targets I poured hard BB’s through a hole in the action.

I was sure the gun was empty. I’d tested it. I didn’t want to shoot my brother in the eye. Mom would take the gun away.

A bright, copper BB was stuck in the magnetic chamber, and when I set the gun on the ground, stock down, it clattered into the chamber. I didn’t hear it.

Sang Seuhn, a Korean zen master, says that the problem with the world is that there are too many people, and that we eat too much meat. The problem isn’t the diet, it’s the killing of so many animals without looking into their eyes. How can you know what you do, when you sit so far away from the weight of your actions? There is no exchange between the hunter and the hunted, where each recognizes that one day they will be on the other side of the equation.

I was having lunch in a small town in Cambodia, near where I worked with a starving group of Khmer Rouge. Next to me, a man sat with an AK-47 leaning against his table. A friend bumped his table, and the gun slid, clattered to the ground, the barrel facing me. Its owner smiled sheepishly and picked it back up. A week later, someone threw a grenade into that place. I went to the nearby hospital to help, and bodies were lined up, stiff, out the door.

“Penance,” a medical student said, when I told him the story about my brother, knowing where I worked. Yes, I answered. The other side of the equation.

Sudan bristled with guns when I was there. More are on the way. Libya had one of the largest stocks of light arms in the world, and after its recent civil war those weapons are now moving across its long borders into the hands of its neighbours.

One afternoon on an airstrip, I watched two young boys get beaten with a stick as they crawled on the hot ground using their elbows, dragging gun sized pieces of wood.

In Cambodia, a friend asked a Khmer Rouge commander how many men, women, and children lived in his valley. Ten thousand, he answered. And how many soldiers? Ten thousand.

America has created a viscous army for itself. Convince your people that it is not only their right to bear arms, but a duty, and then convince them there is something to fear. How many soldiers? One-hundred-and-fifty million. In Connecticut, people are counting their tiny graves.

A colleague of mine was once held hostage in our emergency department. A sniper’s rifle killed his captor. We rushed the hostage-taker to the trauma room and tried to save him, but failed. Snipers make few mistakes.

My grandfather makes bullets. He loads the powder in, grain by grain. He says they are more reliable than the ones from the store.

I nestled my rifle onto a coat that lay on the hood of my grandfather’s truck, and angled it towards a target in the woods. The crosshairs danced. Bang. The gun recoiled and the scope hit me in the forehead. I wiped away the trickle of blood before my grandfather could see. Bullseye. Later that day, I shot a deer through the eye. It fell like a stone. It’s blood steamed in the snow.

Guns. Since I was a young boy, they’ve occupied my daily thoughts. They are my default dream. The finality of their bang and a world transformed. The power. The powder. Each grain a plus sign in a deadly equation, giving us a velocity we don’t have the wisdom for, letting us live on the same borrowed time as the carbon we pull from the ground and use to light on fire. The power of gods, in the hands of children.

I pulled the trigger. Brother’s head bounced back and he fell. His hands flew to his face. My heart. My god.

Letmeseeletmesee. A pearl of blood on his lower lid. Danny? I’m dizzy. My heart’s in my ears. Open your eye. Open it.

A red dot on his white sclera. He blinked. He must have blinked at the exact right time, and the pellet bounced off his lid. Can you believe it?

He never told. He wanted to keep the gun too.

These days, we don’t need guns to feed our family, only to kill people from far away. As such, between humans, they bring only misery, never salvation. Not in my dreams, not in the world. Until then, we live diminished by the exact distance their might affords.


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