K.S. ANTHONY: Down the Barrel

20 August 2022

Down the Barrel

I was exhilarated the first time I had a gun – a black revolver, probably a .38, held by a white guy in a black watch cap that he had turned into a ski mask by cutting eye holes into it – pointed at me in anger. I was 21, working close at a pizza place where I spent four years. He wanted the money in the register, which I delivered to him by opening the cash drawer, then the money in the safe, to which I didn't have access. I don't recall thinking that he'd shoot me, but I remember thinking that he could easily pull the trigger and put a hole in me. Most of my focus was on the gun in his hand: it seemed at once incomprehensible and all-too-real that he could simply extinguish me. 

He didn't get the safe money. He ran out the back door and, for reasons still unclear to me, the owner and I gave chase until we ran out of breath. As we did, he turned and pointed the gun at us and we both took cover behind cars, though he didn't squeeze off a single round: he was just trying to get away with a couple of hundred bucks. It was intense and I loved it. 

I started carrying my pistol to work after that: a 9mm that I carried next to my appendix in an IWB Bianchi holster with no retention. I remember the initial discomfort of carrying that pistol and the mixed sense of security that it offered. I say "mixed" because in addition to its physical weight, I also carried the weight of wondering if I'd ever have to use it, if my limited time on the range had afforded me the skills necessary to win a gunfight, and if shooting someone in self-defense would be worth the incumbent legal shitstorm that I knew would follow. I never felt terribly exhilarated when I carried, either then or later: I was always aware of that weight.

The second time was similarly exhilarating, though I had left my pistol at home that night. This time it was a young African-American male wearing a rubber gorilla mask about three months later. He was agitated, waving around a medium-sized black automatic pistol and the girl I was working with was scared to death: she pissed herself. Despite his agitation, I remember thinking the entire thing was absurd and I, perhaps out of a mixture of disbelief or some weird fear response, had to force myself to not burst into laughter as he got the money and left. I was close enough to the cutting knife that I might have been able to grab it and take him apart with it, but his agitation did not allow for such a window of opportunity. I didn't give chase. I was more concerned about the safety of my co-workers so once he left, I hit the emergency alarm, locked and bolted the back door, and waited for the cops. Afterwards, I went out for drinks with one of my co-workers and met the woman I would later marry: the latter being an absolutely disastrous decision. 

A few months later, I walked into a running gunfight in the middle of downtown Oakland. I had just emerged from the BART station after work (again, I wasn't carrying) and heard the pop-pop-pop of gunfire and return gunfire. I watched as people ran and I couldn't be sure where the shots were coming from, so I took cover behind a car's front end, trying not to catch a stray bullet. The volley of shots was brief – a few seconds of bad luck for me – and when it ended, I walked to my bus stop and went home. I wasn't exhilarated, exactly, but it felt really good to not get shot. 

When I started working armed security a couple of years later, I never had to draw my pistol, but by then I was confident that I possessed the modicum of marksmanship abilities required to win a gunfight, a confidence bolstered by the body armor that I wore every day. I'm glad I no longer do that kind of work.

While I don't think about those experiences very often, I think about being shot every day, despite living in a city with the most restrictive gun laws in the world and not being able to so much as own a gun without jumping through innumerable legal hoops. I am always aware of my environment: where I might find cover, whether or not I possess the calmness to treat a gunshot wound, whether I still possess any of the perishable skills that I spent so much time working on when I carried, not that it really matters. Any sense of exhilaration has given way to a perpetual anxiety, not just about getting shot, but about conflict in general. 

I have friends who've been in gunfights, but I have never asked them how they felt during and after. What I have noticed about them is that all of them are far more grateful to be alive than I am. I'm here because two guys decided to not shoot me and because I didn't catch a stray bullet... and that's all. I suppose some people might chalk it up to divine intervention, but I've never had much of a feeling of any benevolent force looking out for me. 

If I had been shot and killed, the world would have gone on without me, just as it'll go on without me whenever I do finally die. Sometimes that thought brings me more comfort than it should: a sense of relief that in the vacuum of not-being, I will no longer have to bear the calculus of death and dying. The flip side to that is that death also holds no exhilaration, no sweetness, no anything save the darkness of a void that I find as incomprehensible and all-too-real as the barrels of life's pistols pointed at me.