Up From Pacifism

by Clayton Cramer

It was July, 1984. My wife, daughter, and I, had just moved from a peaceful, largely rural county north of San Francisco, to Orange County, near Los Angeles. Within hours of arriving, I found myself holding a handgun under my jacket; a short distance away, a drunk with a very large knife was threatening to kill someone, and I was trying to decide whether or not to draw the gun, and shoot the drunk. It was one of the two most frightening events of my adult life. How did I get into this situation?

In my late teens, I had decided that I was a pacifist. Clearly, the only people that had bad things happen to them were drug addicts, people that hung around with drug addicts, and those who had the misfortune to be related to drug addicts. Therefore, the risks of violent injury or death were nonexistent for me. Who would want to hurt me? To the extent that I had any opinion about gun control at all, it was straightforward and clear-cut -- what rational person could oppose gun control laws? The Second Amendment? That was about the National Guard -- how could someone think that there was an individual right to own a gun? Why would anyone but a criminal need one? Certainly, my parents had demonstrated that there was no need for a gun in our house -- even at the heights of the Watts Riots in 1965, it was not considered.

Mine was a convenient pacifism, however, like many others of my generation. When I saw a man with a baseball bat threatening a teenager one night in Santa Monica, California, I had no qualms about calling the police -- who were prepared to use state-sanctioned violence for a noble cause. As long as I wasn't directly involved with the use of violence, my hands were clean. The man with the baseball bat was in the right, as it turned out, and the police department had three cruisers on the scene three minutes and fifteen seconds after I called them -- impressive performance, by anyone's measure.

But as with most things, the passing years gave me increased experience that damaged my simplistic textbook ideology. A friend was robbed at gun point. Fortunately, he suffered no injuries. Handing over his wallet solved the threat, but still...

Things got worse. A couple I know had just come home, when three thugs broke down their screen door, tied up the husband, beat him up, raped the wife (while forcing the husband to watch), and stole everything they owned, right down to their wedding pictures. The assailants were never caught. Over the next few years, I watched this couple, trying desperately to hold their marriage together as each battled the demons of this traumatic event. Fortunately, the time came when they could put it behind them.

Another couple was awakened by three strangers who had forced entry into their home. While the husband compliantly went to another room to give them valuables, two of the thugs attempted to rape the wife. The husband fought back, and was stabbed seven times. He lost two pints of blood, and came very close to dying. He was self-employed, uninsured, and the medical bills put him $30,000 in debt.

I ran into a friend from high school, a couple of years after graduation. Her mouth was wired, and it severely impaired her speech -- but she was able to tell me what happened. Two men had robbed her, after beating her so hard that her jaw was broken. Shortly thereafter, my own apartment was burglarized, and I realized that even in a high security building, I wasn't safe. Along with these close friends, a dozen or more acquaintances and friends of friends were victims of rape and murder. Many of the rape victims were haunted by the fear of it happening again, and who could say that it wouldn't?

Then I met my wife Rhonda. Like me, her friends and acquaintances included many victims. Some fit into my comforting, "Stay away from drug addicts and criminals, and you'll be safe" paradigm. But most did not. Two roofers, high on heroin, broke into a house, intent on burglary. A high school acquaintance of Rhonda's walked in on the burglars -- and discovered that they had already raped and murdered his little sister. Then the burglars removed his head with a roofing hammer. Like me, my wife had many acquaintances and friends who had been raped.

The final event that broke my easy confidence in pacifism as a personal philosophy was seeing a map of crimes over the previous three months in our neighborhood. I discovered more than a dozen rapes had been reported within four blocks of our apartment in Santa Monica, a "nice" part of Los Angeles -- and that the three minute police response time to the man with the bat was an extraordinary stroke of luck. If I called them for my protection, would I be so lucky? A friend called the Los Angeles Police Department to report a domestic disturbance one Saturday night -- and he waited tens of minutes before anyone could ascertain how severe the crime was that he was reporting. If trouble came to the apartment my wife and I lived in, we might well be on our own. Brave words about "not lowering myself to the use of violence" evaporated when I thought about what had happened to my friends; there were things worse than death -- like being beaten to death with a hammer.

My wife wasn't similarly deluded; we trained and obtained licenses to carry tear gas. As it became obvious that tear gas was a weapon of only limited effectiveness, we realized the need for something a little more certain. Further, we also came to realize that the refusal to use force reflected an essentially selfish aspect to the "convenient pacifism" to which I had pledged myself: rapists, murderers, and the other savages that roamed the streets of Los Angeles, seldom confined themselves to single victims. Refusing to take direct action in self-defense would guarantee not only our own suffering, but that of the next victim. Self-defense against these monsters is not a selfish act; it is an act that benefits civilized society as a whole. I have reason to suspect that the three savages who raped the first couple I mentioned in this article, may have also been the same trio that attacked the second couple I have mentioned, two years later, within two miles of the first attack.

After many weeks of discussion, prayer, and studying the Scriptures, we made a dramatic decision. I went out and bought a gun. For a writing class, I had learned everything that I could about military small arms, so I was starting from a stronger knowledge base than the average city boy. Our first gun was a Colt Government Model, .45 ACP.

I took the responsibility of gun ownership very seriously. At the local library, I read through all the sections of the California Penal Code that regulated the carrying of guns, then the case law in which the courts had interpreted those statutes. I was surprised to find that it was illegal to carry concealed or openly without a permit, and even more surprised to find that, at least where I lived, it was effectively impossible to get a permit to carry concealed. Finally, the greatest surprise of all: California Military & Veterans Code sec.120 through sec.123 defined me as a member of the "unorganized militia." Wait a minute! The "militia" was the National Guard, and I couldn't recall signing up! Had I been misled about the Second Amendment?

While now I knew what the laws were, I hadn't thought through my willingness to use a gun in much depth. I can remember telling people at the time, "A gun is not a talisman; mere possession won't do you much good," and, "There's no point in owning a gun if you aren't going to practice with it." But in fact, my practice was all target shooting; real-world scenarios seldom crossed my mind.

We moved north, to semirural Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, where people left the car keys in the ignition; if you lost your wallet or purse, it would be returned to you, with all the money in it; where many people only locked their houses if they were going to be away overnight. (Yes, this was in the early 1980s, not the 1950s.)

Then, in 1984, we moved to Orange County, just south of Los Angeles. Our first night we stayed in a motel in Costa Mesa. My wife heard some yelling; I walked across the street to find out whether this was simply boisterous teenagers, or a real problem. Across the way was a two-story apartment building. A man in his 20s, obviously intoxicated, was dragging a woman of similar age down the stairs, while she screamed and struggled to free herself from his grasp. I ran back to the motel room, and my wife and I called the police, to report a kidnapping in progress.

And then we waited. And waited. After about five minutes, the struggle was still underway; she would work herself loose, run back up the stairs, and then he would grab her again, and pull her back down the stairs. His strength was clearly far superior to hers; his drunkenness made it roughly an even match -- but I could not discount the possibility that he would eventually succeed. I put the Colt inside my belt, put on my coat, and walked back across the street. (This was not a violation of California law; our Penal Code specifically allows carry of a loaded firearm where the police have been summoned, and have not yet arrived.) [1]

For the first time while armed, I felt fear in my guts, like an icy hand, squeezing my stomach. The hair on my neck stood up; I felt a slight nausea, and an apprehension that circumstances might force me to make a very unpleasant decision: whether or not to shoot, and likely kill another human being. The advocates of restrictive gun control make the claim that sometimes, the finger doesn't pull the trigger, but the trigger pulls the finger -- that the emotions of the moment, in combination with a gun in the hand, encourages the use of deadly force. My experience that night in Costa Mesa was quite the opposite -- the awful realization of the power that rested between my Levi's and my hip, terrified me. I sought a way to avoid exercising that power -- and fortunately, I did not have to draw that gun.

At no point had the drunk crossed the line where I felt that I had to use deadly force. He had committed kidnapping when he dragged the woman out of her apartment, and tried to take her away. The drunk had committed assault with a deadly weapon when, armed with a hunting knife, he threatened a young man who had come to the woman's rescue. Either of these felonies, had he refused to stop, would have justified deadly force under California law [2] -- and if the bloodthirsty, trigger-happy image that our opponents raise was an accurate description of the average gun owner, I should have shot the drunk.

Eventually, fortunately, the drunk began to sober up, realized that the police would eventually get there, and he left. Forty-five minutes after I called, Costa Mesa Police Department showed up. Helicopters were sent out, and later that evening, a police car brought a man in handcuffs to be identified by the victim.

I learned a number of valuable lessons from this experience. First, it is not enough to buy a gun, and have an intellectual knowledge of the laws on the use of deadly force. You must also think over carefully, before the fact, under what conditions you are prepared to use deadly force. For most people, those circumstances are likely to more restrictive than what the laws of your state allow. If a burglar breaks into your home at night, are you prepared to shoot him as soon as you positively identify him? After he has refused to leave? When you are unsure if he is armed or not? These are both questions of the laws of your state, and your own moral judgment. Are you prepared to risk getting badly hurt, perhaps permanently disabled, to avoid killing a burglar who may not be armed? The time to think these matters through isn't when adrenaline is pumping, and you are making split-second decisions.

Second, you must engage in realistic training exercises. As a result of this experience, I started to spend the extra money to fire at human silhouette targets -- I'm not at all worried about being attacked by a bullseye in my home. You must also imagine the fear that you will experience under the stress of an actual life and death crisis. My wife, for example, trains for the most worrisome and stressful situation she can imagine -- an intruder who attempts to take our children out of the home.

Third, we must be prepared to take responsibility for our decisions. If that drunk had followed through on his threat with the knife, I'm not sure that I was then ready to draw and shoot. While there would have been no legal consequences for failing to shoot, my sense of guilt would have been enormous. We must be responsible for our decisions -- good or bad, in both the legal sense, and the moral sense.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer with a telecommunications manufacturer in Northern California. His first book, By The Dim And Flaring Lamps: The Civil War Diary of Samuel McIlvaine, was published in 1990.

1. Cal. Penal Code sec. 12031(j) (1982).

2. Cal. Penal Code sec.198 (1982).

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