So You Know About Guns?

Melrose Street in Bay Village, a charming neighborhood in Boston, MA.

I moved to Melrose Street in the May of 1983. I was in a PhD program at Boston University and was working in a research laboratory at the Boston Medical Center, so I was delighted to find such a surprisingly lovely and seemingly safe but still affordable—albeit barely—place to live. On my own, no less. I had left my husband, then finally decided to dispense with roommates that I thought I needed to make ends meet.

Apart from the usual hassles, there had been two break-ins at the last place, a striking tri-level apartment on Cortes Street that I shared with two professional women. I was not at home for the first one, later learning that the intruders had gained access by squeezing a small boy through a gap in one of the patio-level grated windows we left for ventilation. Although seriously upset by my losses, I assumed a cavalier attitude, saying, “That’s just the price you pay for city living.” I had, after all, resided in various parts of the Boston metropolitan area for nearly a decade without having even the slightest cause for concern.

I was, alas, the one to discover the second break-in there. When I returned from BU in the early darkness that fell during winter, I saw the lights blazing and a huge hole in the hallway. Having failed to force our solid metal door, the burglars apparently took a crowbar to the adjoining plasterboard. “Come on in, the wall is open,” I quipped to worried neighbors who stopped by. But, privately, I knew that I had to find another place to live, and soon. It was a peculiar area: the elegant old rowhouses on the other side of the street had all been demolished to make way for the Mass Pike, which roared far below.

In similar winter darkness the following year, I returned to Bay Village from the medical center. I stopped at the corner grocery store, where I ran into my upstairs neighbor. Arms full of purchases, we walked to our building and stopped to pick up our mail. Busy locking mailboxes and unlocking the front door, we did not notice a large man approach until he shoved us into the foyer. Out of sight of passersby, he brandished a gun and ordered my neighbor to hand over his wallet and watch. After he, frozen with fear, complied, and the gun touched my ribs, I knew that I had to put some distance between me and both unpredictable men. Without hesitation, I feigned a fainting spell and tumbled down the basement stairs.That allowed my neighbor to run for help and the gunman to get away with only my posh shoulder bag.

I could not sleep that night, knowing that the gunman not only had my checkbook and credit cards but also my keys and identification. The next day, I took care of much of that but still could not sleep. The obvious next step was to get a gun. Which I dismissed, using the same common sense that helped me escape my assailant. I reasoned that even if I had obtained enough training and practice (a big “if,” by the way), there was no way that I could have removed a weapon from my shoulder bag before someone with an already-drawn gun could react. And there was no way, in such tight quarters, that I could have been sure that I would hit the gunman instead of my neighbor. And even if I had hit the gunman, there was no way I would be able to live with the knowledge that I had maimed or killed a human being.  Which meant that there was no way that I could seriously consider buying a gun.

Something else stopped me: much as others expected me to, I did not despise my assailant. You see, there was a housing project about two blocks over. The police had already tied the break-ins to some people living there, and it was likely that he lived in the same place. The project represented the worst of public housing: highly concentrated poverty, with all the predictable sequelae. Which were exacerbated by racial segregation that was so bad that the NAACP finally initiated a class action lawsuit against the Boston Housing Authority in 1988. And management incompetence so bad that the court placed the BHA into receivership from 1979 to 1990. Before the mugging, I gave this little thought, except to note that I thrive on diversity and that proximity to such a project had likely lowered my rent a lot; after the mugging I wondered whether living so close to concentrated affluence might prompt project residents to commit crimes. And whether my family and I, as former displaced persons who had left behind everything that we had, could have ended up in the same situation.

After another attempted break-in, this time in the middle of the night while I was in my apartment, and several months of circumventing a stalker, I gave up and moved into an apartment on the 19th floor of a secure doorman-controlled high-rise overlooking the Boston Common. But still I had no desire to purchase a gun. Even when, while still living on Melrose Street, I accepted a position at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. You see, my unwillingness to arm myself had nothing to do with any unwillingness to support my adopted nation’s Armed Forces. And nothing to do with the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, which clearly states, “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” [Italics mine.] You see, the Soviet threat to the security of my own native land, Latvia, is why we had to flee, first to Austria, then to the States.

My area of expertise became the behavioral and medical countermeasures to NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) weapons, which I had a hard time explaining to most until the Gulf War started and the term “weapons of mass destruction” (“WMD”) was popularized. Even harder to explain was that I did not work for war mongers. And that some of the strongest advocates for peace could most reliably be found within the Armed Forces. Because these people—unlike many members of Congress and the Administration—had actual experience with the consequences of the waging war. And using weapons against fellow human beings. In fact, the first compelling external evidence I had that I was right about not wanting to own a gun came from seeing soldiers try to defend themselves in a simulation of ambiguous real-life situations: almost none of what was learned in the controlled environment of a shooting range translated into any effective action.

I was reminded of that simulation several decades later when ABC News broadcast “Proof That Concealed Carry Permit Holders Live in a Dream World” in 2010. By that time, though still very concerned about urban crime—I had moved to the Baltimore area, and the rate there exceeded the national average—I was more  appalled by the madness of the mass shootings that were staring to occur nationwide with a frightening regularity that the rest of the world could not comprehend. Moreover, I was dismayed that, instead of pushing for tighter gun control, the response from all too many private citizens was, as it had been to crime, of wanting to arm themselves. In either case, I could not believe how deluded people who had never felt a gun thrust against their ribs, as I had, or operated under conditions of armed conflict, as many of my colleagues once had, continued to be.

So, on the day after President Barack Obama faced a room filled with parents and relatives of gun violence victims and wiped away tears for the 20 first-graders who perished in the 2014 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and the many others in his hometown of Chicago, I had nothing to add about how it finally became necessary to take executive action after it had become abundantly clear that nothing would be forthcoming from Congress. I did, however, have more to say than I could put down here about my strong belief that, even with way more gun control than our president could ever hope to enact, guns will remain a problem for Americans as long as a large number remained clueless about what it takes to effectively use a firearm outside of an artificial environment—a mugging, an active-shooter situation, a terrorist attack or outright war—and still stubbornly insist that they know all that they need to about guns. Perhaps I could at least induce a few of them to watch that ABC video:


3 thoughts on “So You Know About Guns?”

  1. Again, Ilse combines intense, vividly recounted personal experience with sound information gained by research. Kudos. It is wonderful to have my strong personal conviction re. guns validated by someone with a perspective as informed as Ilse’s.


    1. Thank you, Clarinda. I know that you, too, have been a victim of crime and still support gun control. But then, you have a heart and a brain, both of which are essential.


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