OVER THE YEARS, I have more than once -- as a victim of periodic depression for which I have been treated psychiatrically and pharmacologically -- considered killing myself.
In January this year, I went to visit a friend in D.C. During the visit, I went to see a former therapist -- one to whom I had become much attached. Not only did he refuse to see me, he dismissed me summarily, with the threat of removal from the premises by a guard.
For me, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Something inside me snapped. What had I done to deserve such treatment? I went immediately to Alexandria and bought a gun. With the white hot fury of insanity, I intended to blow out the therapist's brains, my mother's, my husband's, and that of anyone else who had ever hurt me and whom I could take along with me before I turned it on myself.
Fortunately -- not only for the other people involved, who never knew my furious thoughts, but also for my own sanity -- once I actually had the item in my hot little hands I turned into a pile of silly putty and gave it to my present therapist, who turned it over to the police.
This is all rather personal (and rather sad), but necessary to the point. In New York City, where I live, I would not have been able to purchase the gun with such ease. The New York gun-purchase form is long and complicated, requiring cool-headed sanity and clear thinking. Also, it's months before you're cleared to purchase the item in question, and even then you are allowed to purchase only a certain, specific gun.
The ease with which I purchased firearms in Virginia is frightening. I happened to have a valid Virginia driver's license, and I used my old Virginia telephone number, which belonged to someone else. There were no questions about psychiatric history on the short form I had to fill out, though I'm sure I would have lied if there were one. Nor was I asked if I knew what I was purchasing or how to use it or, more pertinently, why I was buying a used .38-caliber police revolver. For target practice?
As I had stood at the foot of the stairs leading to the Prince Street entrance of the Potomac Arms Corp., also known as "Hunter's Haven," I had wondered how my suicidal fantasies of past years had materialized into a dire reality which I felt, now that I actually was here, compelled to follow through to the end.
As a victim of depressive episodes, I often had thought of suicide and had often considered the pros and cons of various methods, as most eventual suicides do. Pills were out -- I had tried that and failed. It was not a sure method, though an easy one. Hanging? Too messy, and the graphic details of the hanging scene in "In Cold Blood" made my stomach queasy.
As recently as a year ago, a close friend of mine had jumped off a building to her death. But to me the thought of free-falling onto a sidewalk in a bloody heap of crushed bone was even less appealing.
Somewhere, suicidal thoughts were always dangerously close to the surface of my mind, ready to burst forth, involuntarily evoked by random external events.
Gun suicides played over my mind with increasing frequency. There were the famous suicides, such as the dramatic one of comedian Freddy Prinze, and then there were the ones often reported in the newspapers -- for example, those who had gone on a shooting rampage that then ended with their own deaths.
My husband had often commented in discussions with friends, one of whom worked at the National Rifle Association in Washington, on the laxness of some of the gun laws in the Washington area. I investigated by searching almanacs for listings of gun laws in various states, as I once had investigated marriage laws. As far back as 15 years ago, I remembered, my husband had commented on our first visit to the waterfront-warehouse section of Alexandria on the wide trade in guns there. A friend of mine owned a store in Old Towne Alexandria, and I had often noticed firearms stores there when I visited her or we lunched or shopped in the lower King Street area.
They were only thoughts, whims, fantasies then. I would never have the guts to actually buy a gun, let alone use it, I had thought sensibly.
So, what changed? They call it "transference" in psychiatric circles. I called it plain obsession with someone -- of the John Hinckley-Jodie Foster type. It was fixation on an unobtainable object, my doctor in Bethesda.
As my anxiety over the evolving situation had grown, I took to perusing the Virginia Yellow Pages under "Guns & Gunsmiths." I chose Potomac Arms because its ad sounded the "friendliest." I "cased" several places in my Volkswagon, and Potomac Arms looked more inviting somehow.
So here I was at the foot of the stairs. My courage sagged; I was overwhelmed with despair, anger and humiliation. I said to myself, it must be done. What can they do to me, anyway? I am only going to look at guns. I don't have to buy one if I decide not to.
Inside, it was, as I expected, dark and musty-smelling. Only male clients presented themselves, examining the merchandise as if the items were earrings on a jewelry counter.
Slowly, I circled the room, hoping to appear casual, knowing equally that I would fail. I acted as though I was browsing, although I saw nothing and probably would not have recognized what I saw anyway.
Fortunately, no one noticed me or seemed surprised that I was there. The clerks were youngish, in their mid-20s. I approached the most pleasant, youngest-looking one with my rehearsed story: I was buying a gun for my husband's birthday (which had been six months ago, I thought wryly) because he had been talking about having a gun "for protection." (In truth, my husband would no more have a gun in the house than a pet puma.) Someone in our neighborhood had been robbed, I added.
The clerk, to his credit, was kind, sympathetic and very helpful. He singled out the used .38, reciting its advantages by rote. This, I thought, must be the one. He acts as though he's given this spiel many times to ignoramuses like me.
Without hearing any of the details he rattled off, I agreed to the purchase. As I signed, a cooler voice inside warned: "You can still back out."
As I remember it, the form contained three lines and required a signature. I didn't even read what I was signing. It was that simple. As I walked out, I felt relieved and satisfied.
Nor did the salespeople ever express any curiosity or surprise at the desire of a 35-year-old housewife to buy a pistol. They had just told me to come back in a couple of days to pick it up.
Now, I don't think that I am that unusual a person in some respects. If someone like myself, fairly well-educated and mostly reasonable, can feel driven by impulse to do such a thing, what about people even more unstable and unbalanced than I was at the time? (Not to mention the wily, sane criminal who has planned all his moves and knows exactly how to acquire a gun.)
This is not a question of protecting one person's life; it is a question of protecting society. A person hell-bent on self-destruction will probably eventually reach for a bottle of pills or jump off a bridge or hang himself -- sad, surely, but unpreventable. But at least the hapless one has no chance to physically harm others in his family or society.
I do want to specify that the firearms I am discussing are handguns, usually the cheaper, "Saturday Night Special" sort. I think a sporting gun could be abused by its owner or someone in his family, too, in the heat of passion. But despite my wariness, I am willing to concede that you can't prohibit people from having them altogether or prevent people from wanting and enjoying participation in gun sports.
What I do say is that society must be protected as much as it can be from people who just aren't really aware of what they're doing or from people who are aware, but with malicious and criminal intent. And Virginia's law doesn't do that.
I'm sure that one could find statistics on New York's and Virginia's rate of crime involving guns -- although I'm not sure what that would mean, since my Virginia-purchased gun was brought into New York City easily with my own little hands. Anyway, I haven't done so because my own experience has convinced me that stricter handgun laws are not only desirable and necessary, but mandatory.
Now that my "cooler" head prevails, it also seems only reasonable that society be protected from people like me.