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Winter 2006

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Fall 2006

Critical Mass

Marvin D. Bibby

"Think Anna's having a good time?"

"Definitely," I answered, "We all are."

"God it's beautiful, here," my wife lapsed into silence, content to watch the surf have its way with an offshore rock.

Sitting there on a driftwood log, listening to the click and scuffle of fist size rocks rolling up the beach in the surf, I had to agree. Redwood National Park is always beautiful - on this February day, it was exceptionally so.

It was Anna's first visit to the redwood coast. A cousin of my wife who visits periodically from her home in the south of France, she had reveled in the two mile walk along the cliffs, delighted that the sun had come out after two days of rain. Now, Anna was off on her own; scaling house size boulders in search of that perfect picture, while storm driven waves vented their fury on the jagged rocks around her.

Catching movement from the corner of my eye, I turned to see a man emerge from the brush where the trail ended at the base of the cliff. He was lugging a medium size rectangular carton with bull's-eyes printed on it in blue, yellow and red. Under his arm, he had what appeared to be a compound bow wrapped in layers of clear plastic.

A blond woman trailed several yards behind him as they picked their way awkwardly over the detritus left by the past winter storms - redwood roots and small tree trunks, worn limbs of spruce and fir, all jack-strawed together in a thirty yard swath at the base of the cliff. Oblong rocks, the size of softballs, lay under the wood and extended another five yards before ending in the sand of the actual beach.

Seeing me, the man and his companion tacked to the north, passed some thirty feet away and stopped in some cobblestones next to a driftwood log fifty yards down the beach.

"Is that a gun?" my wife asked, voice edged with concern.

"I think it's a bow," I explained, "It looked like one. That box looks like an archery target."

"That's a gun," my wife was adamant, "You can't shoot in a National Park."

"Nah, can't be," my eyes squinted in concentration. "But it isn't a bow ," I agreed, "Must be a pellet gun. That box isn't like any rifle target I've ever seen."

"Sure hope you're right," she replied, voice doubtful.

We watched as he set up the target box against a large boulder the size of a Volkswagen. The woman stood alongside the target, a few feet away, eyes shaded, looking out to sea. The man picked his way through the driftwood and rocks towards us, carrying what appeared to be a pellet gun with a black plastic stock.

Stopping, he nestled himself into a semi-prone position, rested the barrel of the rifle on a log and waved the woman away. She walked slowly some fifteen feet to the left of the target, turned and sat down on a driftwood log, resting her hand in a palm, elbow propped on one knee.

The sharp crack of rifle shot caused my wife to jump. "Twenty-two," I said," the sound unmistakable, "That fool has a rifle."

The man stood up, propped the rifle against a log and walked towards the target.

"How about you let us get out of here, before you do any more shooting," I met him half way back to the rifle, "Hold off until we get over the ridge. The trail goes just above where you're shooting," I added, "Don't like the thought of a ricochet."

Head bent forward and cocked to one side, at least forty and old enough to know better, he looked up at me from under blond eye lashes, "Which way you going?"

"North," I responded, "Right where you're shooting."

"Thank you," he said, nodding his head and turning back towards his girlfriend.

Not sure what he meant, but glad he hadn't returned to the rifle, I picked up my pack. "Let's get Anna and get the hell out of here. He said he wouldn't shoot any more till we're gone," I lied, "Let's go."

Ten minutes later, walking the trail along the bluff, listening to my wife rail about the idiocy we had just experienced, trying to explain to her cousin the difference between a shotgun and a rifle, I knew we were all in trouble.

Next winter, somewhere around Christmas or New Years, we would attend the annual party hosted by my wife's good friend, the public advocate lawyer. There, my wife would render an impassioned version of this incident to a receptive audience of lawyers, some of whom held elected office, some of whom sat on the Superior Court Bench, and several of whom seemed predestined for the Appellate Court.

This audience would look at me with baleful eyes, reminding me of my past efforts to defend the rights of gun owners and hunters. Me, the only person that they actually knew who engaged in blood sports and then wrote about it. Me, the person who had answered their most serious question, year after year: "You actually kill things with a gun? How does that make you feel?"

I remembered their wrinkled noses, their looks of distaste, their grudging acceptance, that I was who I am. That, although I killed things, I wasn't stupid. I could use multi-syllable words and my fingernails were clean.

Certainly I had no illusions that I changed their minds. They still didn't like guns. They still thought killing was wrong. They still fought against the death penalty - but, they knew that their opponent was not a demon. They had drank with him, and they had supped with him, and though all be it a bit odd, he was a decent sort of guy. Maybe, some folks could keep their guns.

What could I say, now, when my wife held forth on this incident. That this idiot should have the right to buy more guns. I don't think so. There would be nothing I could say, that any one could say, that made this right or sensible. It moved that future inexorably closer, that day when I would not be allowed to go out to the marsh with my favorite shotgun.

Suddenly, my thoughts were interrupted by five shots - strung quickly together like a packet of firecrackers - coming from the beach, below.

"Right. He won't shoot until we're out of here," my wife glared at me, "If he hits us, I'm going back down there and put that gun in a place he won't like."

All I could do was shake my head. "Let's get moving. We're still in range. We need to get over the top of the ridge," I pointed to a spot about one hundred yards away, "We can talk then."

Cresting the ridge, we stopped to catch our breath. My wife talked and I listened. Listened with anger. Anger at myself, anger at the shooter - unused to feeling helpless. Helpless to argue the sanity of continued gun ownership, shooting and hunting. Imagining myself confronting the shooter: wresting the rifle away from him and throwing it in the ocean. Aware of the stupidity of trying that. Aware that he might have other weapons. Aware that he was certainly less concerned than I with the repercussions of breaking the law - it would be me that was jailed for assault.

Listening to my wife's anger, I pondered some what ifs. What if, that last string of shots had found Anna. What if, bending over her on the trail, we had tried unsuccessfully to staunch the blood that pulsed from a small wound in her head. What if, my wife - shaking Anna, then sobbing, then clutching Anna's shoulders - began screaming: "NO! NO! It can't be."

My mind fast forwarded to an image: the steps of the capitol, my wife shouting her anger into the lens of a TV camera, describing her demands for new legislation that would restrict ownership of .22 caliber target rifles, because these guns had killed.

And, I thought of the organizations and groups who were the voice of reason; who spent vast amounts of money lobbying against such measures. And, I thought again about the shooter, about confronting him. Wondering if he might have answered: "It is my right to have a gun. The constitution guarantees it."

And, I thought of the lady from Arkansas, beside herself with grief and anger over the loss of her daughter, sitting in the womb of Congress, the TV camera capturing her image, while the President gave his State of the Union Address.

Then, I thought about the tobacco suits, and the money and lobbying efforts spent to fight them off. I thought of the restrictions on smoking that have been passed state by state, county by county, city by city that controls and delimits its usage. And, I wondered - are guns next?

Then, I thought about that amorphous group of gun advocates to which I belong - those hunters and shooters and collectors and others - who comprise the ' we '. The 'we' that is so frightened of gun control. And, I thought about our recent history - replete with indications that ' we ' are headed in the same direction as tobacco. I thought about a recent lead story on local television: that the Conference of Mayors had voted to encourage cities to bring class action suits against gun manufacturers; and that, several cities, including mine, were following through and bringing suit.

And, I wondered how many losses ' we ' would take, as each evening, some bizarre incident of outrage, of a citizen or citizens running amuck with a gun, flashed across the TV screen, intruding upon our dinners. How many incidents would scream from our breakfast headlines before the nation reached some critical mass. A critical mass that could demand, and get, legislation outlawing all guns - period - finished - kaput.

And, I thought, that with each day, it feels more and more like ' we ' are fighting a rear guard action, that slowly and inexorably the noose of legal constraint is tightening, choking off our options.

Then, as I walked along - and my wife's voice calmed and the three of us, Anna unhurt, stumbled upon a Park Ranger and reported the incident - I thought about where the ' we ' should go, wondering if it was time to rethink those options, to recognize that ' we ' cannot win, that controls are inevitable, that continuing to argue for a gun in every pot is ludicrous.

I thought and I wondered - but I did nothing. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. It was someone else's fight, not mine.

The months rolled by and we took other trips, and later that spring I sat in an airport watching CNN as the horror of Columbine began to unfold.

And, returning home, watched night after night the talking heads pick at the scab, until it festered and finally bled, only to be replaced by a new wound in Georgia and then another shot to the gut in Los Angeles.

"The children," the voices shrill, the words demanding, "What about the children?"

The sadness of our loss keen, the drums of control beat ever louder; through the summer and into the fall, their crescendo building - the voice in my head now less sure, sounds decidedly plaintive, almost a whimper, drowning in the sound and fury of a coalescing mass.

But then, word comes that an agreement has been reached: the suits to be withdrawn if trigger locks are provided with each new gun. I blink, uncertain what has happened. Watching, as the camera moves on, now concerned with a shortage of oil and the price of gasoline. The screen flickers and the sound bites run together, as 'we' let out our collective breaths, overjoyed at the last minute reprieve. Then, 'we' look into each other's eyes, momentarily uncertain; apprehensive again, 'we' close ranks, stiffening in anticipation of the next massacre, and -

I wonder again for the hundredth time, if it would not be best to consider compromise. To admit that our thinking is flawed. That, before we reach that final implosive point of critical mass, if it would not be better to bend - before ' we ' are broken.