In the wake of last week’s mass killing in Wilkinsburg, there’s a lot I could write about.
I could talk about the need for an assault-weapons ban and the need for stronger background checks, but we all know that stuff and have pretty much resigned ourselves to the fact that the gun lobby will always win. Do we do what the NRA wants and accept defeat and just stop fighting for gun control?
I think a lot of people are feeling that way. Our heads are bloodied, battered and bruised from banging them against the wall in frustration. Why should we keep fighting? The next mass shooting or even single-victim killing is right around the corner. Why should we keep fighting a battle that we believe we’ll probably never win?
I can’t answer for you. All I can do is explain why I keep fighting and speaking out.
On Sun., June 8, 1952, in Wellsboro, Pa., a drunken madman with a rifle was moments away from killing my then-5-year-old mother, her siblings and their mother.
The man lined the children and their mother, who was pregnant with her ninth child, in front of a wall. My mother’s memories of the night are both vivid and a bit confusing. She says she remembered feeling like a deer being trapped by a hunter, a dream she has had continually throughout her life. She also says, that there was no doubt in her mind she was going to die.
The man with the gun was no stranger; it was her father, Charles Robert Hill. She felt so certain of her death because she only knew him as an abusive monster her entire young life. Her siblings, the oldest in his teens, had dealt with it much longer. The fact that this was her daddy made her even surer of what was coming.
At some point during the standoff, my grandmother lunged for the gun and fought for the life of her children against a man who had no problem putting the boots to her in the past. There are varying versions of what happened next. The version I first heard as a teenager was that the gun discharged during the struggle, killing my grandfather.
An account I got later in life, the account I’m inclined to believe, is that she got the gun away and took her shot. My grandfather, a World War II veteran and inveterate drunk, was dead; my grandmother was arrested; and six months later a grand jury, who heard the first version of events, ruled the shooting self-defense, according to a news report from the time.
Now some will say, of course, and I’m just waiting for the emails, that a gun actually saved my mother’s life back in 1952. And who knows, maybe that’s how you might think of it if you’re not a 5-year-old with a rifle in your face or her 44-year-old son who sometimes thinks about how close he came to not existing so someone else could exercise his Second Amendment rights. But I don’t see it that way, and most rational people wouldn’t see it that way either.
This is a story my family doesn’t talk about. Being the offspring of someone who would do such a thing to his own family is a hard thing to face, so most choose not to. In fact, many of my uncles and cousins, and even one of my brothers, own and use firearms.
One man with one rifle nearly ended our entire bloodline in one night. Maybe it’s too much for them to comprehend. Sadly, the guns they own probably make them feel safer.
I also can’t imagine the tremendous toll this incident took on my grandmother. I talked to her about it only once. She was 87, and I was visiting her in a nursing home a few months before her death in 2004. She wasn’t melancholy. She was resolute and unashamed about what happened.
“I hope you never have to go through something like that,” Grandma Lizzie told me. “No one should have to go through that.”
That’s why the fight for gun control and prohibition is a windmill that I’ll never stop tilting at. Today’s gun violence doesn’t just affect those of us living now. It affects generations. My grandmother was right. No one should have to go through what she went through. But what if she hadn’t fought that night? I’m only alive today because she killed her husband 64 years ago. That’s one sacrifice that deserves to be paid forward.