In the summer of 1996, when I was going into eighth grade, a buddy who was a few years older showed me his newest toy. It was amazing, it was brand new to the market, and it was mind-bogglingly fun for a teenage boy: a laser pointer.
I begged my parents for one and they eventually broke down and let me buy the pen-shaped gadget with my own cash. The cheap models available as a cat toy for less than $5 now cost me something like $60 back then. It didn’t matter though, because the ridiculous adolescent thrill of casting a brilliant red disk on the neighbors’ houses made it all worth it.
Tom and I had a particularly good time lasering cute girls as they strolled by, wondering where the laser’s dot was coming from. Other boys soon followed suit and before long there was a small-scale “epidemic” as we wreaked shiny red havoc at school, church and elsewhere as pointer after pointer was confiscated. One particular principal’s complaint still sticks out: “These things are dangerous! Haven’t you seen ‘Star Wars’!?”
Months later, my dad sat me down on the couch and he had a serious look on his face. I don’t know about when you were in eighth grade, but one-on-one conversations with Serious Face Dad rarely meant good things at that point in my development. My mind raced wondering what I had done (or more likely, what he’d found) to warrant a talkin’ to. But I hadn’t done anything. He sat me down to tell me that my friend Tommy was dead.
That was a hard thing to process for an eighth grader, and though it now seems a little cold, I immediately joked through my tears to relieve the tension. “I bet it was a car crash, wasn’t it? Sheesh, what an idiot. He was a horrible driver. I hated riding with him. He was always speeding. That’s what happened, isn’t it? Where did he wreck? Which road?”
Tom was indeed a horrible driver and seemed to take adolescent delight in scaring his younger license-less friends like me, but it wasn’t a car crash that ended his life. He’d ended it with his father’s pistol.
Of course it was a little more complex than that.
Tom and his girlfriend has been alone at his parents’ house. He may have been an idiot behind the wheel (and in a few other areas), but he was at least cool enough to have a girlfriend, and that was all that mattered in my book.
Since his laser pointer had been taken away, he decided to use the laser sight on his father’s handgun to tease her. I don’t know the make or caliber, but since it sported a laser I’m guessing it was a railed semi-auto. What we do know of the story, we know from the panicked 911 call that came a few minutes later.
The girlfriend, in her flirty, stupid, teenaged way, gave up running from the red dot. In (I’m guessing) an exasperated tone and with the laser’s point in the middle of her chest, she said “Fine, you got me. Just shoot me.” That’s when the gun “went off.” But no, it didn‘t just “go off.” Thinking it was unloaded, Tom — probably with an infatuated grin on his lips — pulled the trigger.
He immediately called 911, screaming and wailing. The operator was able to draw out what happened and get the address to send paramedics. No doubt in shock over what he had done and afraid to face the ones he loved or her family, he turned the gun on himself with the operator still on the line. The ambulance and police arrived minutes later to find him dead and his girlfriend dying. She passed away en route to the hospital.
After the funeral, I more or less blocked Tom out of my mind. My laser pointer was relegated to the bottom of a drawer and I eventually threw it out.
I didn’t really think about him until about 10 years later, when a friend and I, on a whim, decided to take a basic gun safety class. I’d never fired anything beyond a BB gun, but it just seemed like something a young man should know. I was neutral/uninformed about 2A issues and had totally blocked out that I had lost a friend to “gun violence.”
The instructor stood up and began his lecture as I jotted down notes:
- Treat the gun as if it is loaded at all times.
- Never point the gun at something you’re not willing to destroy.
- Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until you’re ready to shoot (The instructor actually said something more akin “Keep your booger hook off the bang switch,” but I couldn’t bring myself to write that down).
- Be sure of your target, and know what is beyond it.
Then he went ahead and added a fifth one: Find a safe, secure place to store the gun when it’s not on you.
It dawned on me in an instant that following any one of these (with the possible exception of #4… Tom was sure of his target), would have saved two lives back in 1996. Tom, his girlfriend and his father made many mistakes that led up to the accident, but had Tom simply known/obeyed rule #1, he never would have shot his girlfriend (and subsequently himself), even if he had broken the other rules.
If he had simply known/obeyed rule #2, even if he had broken the others, they’d probably be alive and driving terribly today. The same goes for #3. He could have known it was loaded and even pointed it at her, but keeping his finger off the trigger would have saved lives.
As far as Tom’s father goes, I don’t know what the storage situation was. The gun may have been sitting in a bedside table drawer, or perhaps Tom broke into a safe/pilfered the key/figured out the combination.
Either way, the grief-stricken father probably mourns every single day that he didn’t properly impress upon Tom the proper, safe, and responsible way to handle firearms. Even someone completely ignorant of the Four Rules should have realized at several points along the way that Tom’s actions were flat-out stupid.
I didn’t lose a friend to “gun violence” that day, though I’m sure his and his girlfriend’s deaths were categorized in some statistical column that way. I also didn’t lose a friend to laser pointers, though you can bet the crackdown on them at school grew in orders of magnitude after that and my young mind associated their deaths with harmless red lights. I lost a friend — and others lost a son and a daughter — to sheer stupidity.
I think of Tom’s mistakes every day as I slide my everyday carry piece into its holster, or when I breakdown my rifles to clean them. I tell the above anecdote each time I take a new shooter to the range to impress upon them the idea that “innocent” accidents are never far from happening, and following the rules is the best way to protect against injury, death and stupidity.
What I like most about the four rules is that they overlap each other and you really have to break three of them to cause a problem. (Though intentionally breaking two while following one is the height of stupidity.) Barring a malfunction, I’ve never heard of a gun “accident” that couldn’t have been prevented by following at least one of the rules.
When I have children, I will learn from Tom’s family’s mistakes and impress upon them that guns are not toys. Already mine are locked in the safe when not in use (or on my hip).
It would be poetic if Tom’s death resulted my increased adherence to the rules of gun safety and safe storage. But the bottom line is, I would have taken that class and jotted down my notes regardless. Millions of my fellow gun owners have taken those rules to heart without personally knowing a dumb, scared kid who died as a result of breaking them.
I’m sure millions of kids have stumbled across dad’s gun, only to realize that playing with it like a laser pointer was dumb, dumb, dumb and walked away.
If anything, the biggest lesson I learned from Tom’s mistakes is that piling one bad decision on top of another on isn’t the way to go. He would have faced consequences had he not taken his own life, but by not owning up to what he did and being a man, he caused even more heartbreak and sorrow.
Lasers don’t kill people. Guns don’t kill people. Stupidity kills people.
This article was originally published in 2014.