YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Game of Bang-Bang, You're Dead

A proposal to toughen laws to keep weapons away from kids is a painful reminder of an incident long ago.

July 20, 1998|WAYNE COOPER | Wayne Cooper writes in Charlotte, N.C., and sells computer systems to the transportation industry

The recent announcement by President Clinton that he supports the bipartisan firearms bill that would hold adults criminally responsible if they allowed children easy access to firearms reminded me yet again of that day when, at 12 years old, I put a gun to the head of my best friend, Calvin Miller.

I had overheard Dad tell one of his friends that he didn't have ammunition for the gun, so I thought it wasn't loaded. I was wrong.

I had lured Calvin into my parents' bedroom while they were away at work. Thirty-three years later, I can't forget how he smiled as I toyed with him about pulling the trigger.

The pistol was spoils from World War II, when Dad had sniped a German riding a motorcycle on a dirt road. He said when the soldier took the hit, the bike went into a loop for a couple of revolutions before falling into the dust.

The soldier's black 9-millimeter handgun was unique in that it was engraved with the guards' crest of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. The theory was that the Nazi had taken it from one of the queen's guards before Dad had claimed it from the mortally wounded German.

Guns were part of our home furnishings. There was a rack of assorted weapons on display in our dining room. I received my first firearm, a 20-gauge shotgun from Sears, when I was 10 years old. I loaded it with shot for the first time on the same night the Beatles went on "The Ed Sullivan Show." I stuffed cartridges in and out of the gun while trying to catch glimpses of the show, but I had to be careful Dad didn't notice I was interested in the British pop group. He said they were sissies.

When I took the Sears weapon outside to break it in, Dad and Granddad encouraged me to shoot some birds perched on a fence. I pretended I couldn't see them. They pointed and instructed me, "There! Shoot that one." "Where?" "Over there! Can't you see that one there in front of you?" I squinted and played blind. The charade went on for several minutes until they finally gave up. A few days later Dad sent me to the doctor for glasses. I guess the last thing that he could ever imagine was that his son had no guts to kill. But I got over it.

The last animal I killed was a squirrel feeding in the bough of a weathered oak. I set the gun's sight on its silhouette, which was stenciled in the sun, and fired hot lead into the twisted branch. It vanished in the blast. I ran to the tree and found it writhing in the grass, jerking out of control, staring up at me in stark terror. I left it to die alone, but its bleeding, frightened image lives on in me.

When I pulled the handgun on Calvin, it was so easy. I reached into the top right drawer of my parent's bureau. I knew exactly where it was. I slipped my hand under some papers and sneaked it out. I teased Calvin for awhile, and he smiled and kept saying, "Cooper, don't do it." I waved it in front of his face. He turned his head away slowly. "Cooper, don't do it."

Calvin understood how lethal guns could be. His dad was a county sheriff. "All it takes is just one squeeze," I reminded him. I delighted in his obedience. I was a god with the pistol in my hand.

I pressed the steel barrel against his left temple and ordered him not to move. He froze. I fingered the deadly little trigger. "Cooper, don't do it," he whispered again. So I didn't. When I pulled the magazine out to show him it was empty, there were eight bullets stacked inside, with one poised in the chamber.

Both of us were shocked. Calvin left in a hurry. I don't remember speaking of it again.

I've wondered many times why I didn't pull the trigger. I was so determined then that the click of the trigger in his ear would be the laughing climax of my foolish prank.

When I read the statement by Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), cosponsor of the bill, that the new measure would provide a powerful incentive for adults to store their guns safely, I remembered Calvin. And I hoped that Chafee was right.

Los Angeles Times Articles