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Like most people who grew up in rural Iowa, I am a gun owner and a supporter of the Second Amendment. As a hunter, farmer and former meat packer, guns have been a part of my life since I took “Rifle Range” at YMCA camp when I was 5. The course, sponsored by the National Rifle Association, focused on gun safety (this was the NRA of 1964, a much different NRA than we have today) and how dangerous guns could be if misused. In fact, it was so frightening that I decided to quit Rifle Range to focus on something much less scary: the bull-riding course.
Needless to say, I grew up with a healthy respect for guns and large, angry animals. Hunting was something we did to clear the fields of crop-eaters, but mostly to spend time with my grandpa. After he died, I never hunted again, but most of my friends still did. Where I come from, the start of hunting season is as big as the start of football season. When hunting season ends, the guns are cleaned and put away until next year. That’s how it used to be.
Just having visited and entertained in war zones like Afghanistan, I have a good idea why we are now dealing with a PTSD and gun-suicide epidemic in this country. I know how hard it is for actively serving military to ask for help. It goes against every bit of training we give them and behavior we demand of them. It’s seen as a weakness, the opposite of heroic — which of course makes asking for help the bravest thing our servicemen and women can do.
Because I’ve had personal demons, I worried about those who would come back as heroes to everyone but themselves, and now might find themselves alone, without their team, sitting in their basement with their drugs and their guns.
Every day, 20 veterans commit suicide. (It’s not just veterans; 44,000 Americans committed suicide in 2015.) I’m involved with several groups (including Got Your 6) that help get vets working or serving their communities as soon as they can. No group of people gets more out of being of service to their communities than these folks, and work and service keep them out of their head and out of their basement. That’s how it works for me, too.
My nephew Spencer was a sweet boy, but he was small, and I’m sure he was picked on. He was kicked out of the Army after attempting suicide. He was diagnosed as chronically depressed and unsafe around weapons. Yet he was able to get a concealed weapon permit from the state of Iowa and buy five guns. Like me, Spencer was a substance abuser. He refused my offer for help with that as well as his mental illness, so I was very concerned. Last fall, when I saw on Facebook that he had joined a crazy, racist, neo-Nazi (I’m Jewish, as is my mom) gun group and videotaped himself showing off, drunkenly shooting his assault rifle and calling President Obama the N-word, I headed to the airport to go see him.
I don’t think Spencer was a racist. I think he joined that group because he was tired of feeling small. He wanted to be a part of something dangerous and cool. Most of my family agreed I’d overreacted. And this was America, so Spencer got to keep his guns whether I liked it or not. Whether he was healthy or not.
On May 2, Spencer said good night to his roommate, said he was excited about going back to college and getting his future going, finally. Then he called a woman he’d been seeing for a couple of months, and they had a little disagreement, so my handsome 24-year-old nephew reached over and grabbed one of the five loaded guns on his nightstand and shot himself in the head.
I was sad, I was angry, and I was frustrated. I had to do something because I knew that before the weekend, Spencer would just be a statistic, and my family would never discuss what really happened. Sure enough, there’s a great picture of Spence on the local paper’s obituary page mentioning his service to his country, but not why it ended.
I took all my feelings, and I reached out to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. I wanted to honor my nephew and the other vets and people with mental illness who can legally purchase guns. I want to protect them and my 3-year-old boy and 7-month-old girl when they grow up and I’m not here. Spencer having five loaded guns next to his bed every night is like me sleeping next to a dresser made out of chocolate cake and filled with cocaine. I will probably be totally cool forever, unless someone says something that kinda hurts my feelings and … f— it.
I met with the Brady folks, including president Dan Gross, and my timing was perfect. They had the very bill I wanted before Congress, as well as a bill fixing the gun show loophole. The Brady Bill was great, but gun shows and the internet have changed the picture since 1993, so we just want to update things. No guns for the mentally ill until they are treated (the last two cop killers in the headlines were former military with PTSD; once you serve this country, you deserve follow-up mental and physical health checkups every year for the rest of your life). No guns for domestic abusers, violent felons or people on the terrorist watch list, and background checks for everybody. No more buying 40 handguns in a day and selling them to your “cousins” in the parking lot.
I wish I could wave a wand and make Congress fearless. Then they wouldn’t kowtow to the NRA so easily. Same for a lot of my fellow Americans. The NRA has convinced people that a home with a gun is safer than one without a gun. That is a lie. Not even close, and the odds are about 8-to-1 that if someone does get hurt with that gun, it’s not going to be a bad guy. It’s going to be the owner or a friend or family member. The NRA has all the politicians scared and doesn’t “let” Congress research gun violence anymore, but fortunately scientists do it anyway, and these are the facts.
I give away two full-ride writing scholarships every year to Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, Iowa, because that school changed my life. I went from being a factory worker to a factory worker who went to community college and that felt good. This year’s application essay theme was about overcoming adversity (apparently I came up with it right after my father died last fall). I read the top 100 and it was brutal. Inspirational but brutal. First of all, every single one of these students has suffered more and come farther than me. And they all had more grace and gratitude. I was also blown away by their honesty. But there was a disturbing theme. These essays came from all over the world but 20 percent of the American kids had lost a parent to suicide. That was the burden they had to overcome. And another 20 percent of the American kids had lost a sibling or friend to suicide.
It’s weird because I could tell a bunch of these were from near my hometown in Iowa. It’s a small place and yet I wasn’t aware of the suicides because, like my own family, people don’t talk about it. They tell these kids, “He’s in a better place. He’s in God’s arms with Dad and Mom” or “You and your family are in my prayers” and never, ever mention it again — and those are the religious, the spiritual ones. We have to talk about it if we want to figure it out. There was not even one mention of suicide among the students from Europe, Asia, Australia, South America or Africa. A couple girls in Africa had walked hundreds of miles through a war zone, no food, no water. Eventually their parents had to sell them into slavery to feed the rest of the family, sometimes sexual slavery but no suicide. Happily they were adopted by nice American Christian families. Let’s all pray that they are careful around the guns. Because if you believe everything really is a part of God’s plan and He’s made sure those girls survived everything they did to end up at your place for a happily ever after, I’d double-check everything cause you don’t want to piss Him off. Got a gun case? Safety working? Loaded? Barrel clean? Trigger lock? That’s a lot of pressure.
I asked Spencer’s dad to take my nephew’s guns to the police station to have them destroyed. He was outraged. He was taking them home to use. It was his way of honoring his son. We are different. Doesn’t make me right. Doesn’t make him wrong, but it reminds me there are people in this country who consider guns to be living, breathing things. They represent liberty to some people, and the Constitution itself. Some even equate guns to religion. A gift to Americans directly from God himself. That sounds crazy to me. It should be on the gun test: If you truly believe your metal tool/explosive device is a gift from above, then you should be deemed insane and unfit to legally own a gun.
That is just my opinion and not that of the Brady Campaign or its fellows. I’ve handled guns for 52 years. I support the Second Amendment. I own guns, but I am very, very careful because they are very, very dangerous. I know.
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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