The right turn was the first stupid decision.
It was the late evening, and I was making my way back to the medical school for studying of some sort with one of my good friends. The specifics of our plans are lost to me now. But I remember quite well turning off of one of that city’s main thoroughfares onto a side street because doing so allowed me to circumvent a couple of slow traffic lights.
I should probably have known better. The city I lived in at the time was (and remains) one of the most crime-ridden in the nation. I think I had a notion that the neighborhood I had turned into was sketchy, but it was right next to one of the major traffic arteries, and it didn’t really occur to me to be concerned. (Later, when taking my statement, the businesslike but kind police officer was compelled to clarify, somewhat sheepishly, if I’d been in the area looking for drugs or a prostitute. It seems I really should have known better.)
It was a block or two after I’d turned that I saw the men at the side of the road. I remember one of them lying on the ground, and the other ran into the road to flag me down. I thought the man on the ground had been hurt. I stopped my car.
That was, of course, my second stupid decision.
In hindsight and with the benefit of a few more years’ experience, the abject stupidity of stopping stands out in high relief. But I was a medical student, and full of a naive idealism. I thought I would be able to use something I’d learned to help someone who needed it. And so I stopped the car and rolled down the window.
As I recall, I asked the man in the street if they needed help. And I remember him asking me two questions. The first was what time it was, and the second was if I knew where a certain street was. These questions alerted me that there was something Wrong. You don’t flag people down to ask them the time, and the street he asked about was right at the corner. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I said I needed to go, and looked down to put the car back into drive.
His gun was pointing at my head when I looked back up.
I don’t know what kind of gun it was, other than that it was a handgun. I don’t know its capacity, whether it was a revolver or pistol, or its caliber. All I know is that it had a barrel, and it was pointed at me.
The details get a little bit hazy from there. I remember saying I’d do what he said, and asking him not to kill me. I think he said he wouldn’t if I did as I was told. I remember lying facedown on the street with my hands on my head as he went through my pockets. I remember seeing his buddy, no longer lying on the ground, as he looked around the back of the car at me. I remember the man was excited for some reason when he felt the tube of ChapStick in my pocket and my telling him frantically what it was and that he could have it. (Someone later suggested the plausible explanation that he had mistaken it for a vial of crack.)
And then I was instructed to walk back toward the main road with my hands still on my head. I feared being shot the most then, as I walked away. I heard the car doors slam, and the car drive off. And I was still alive.
I had kept my composure this entire time. It was as I made my way to the street and across to the convenience store on the other side that I decompensated completely. By the time I stumbled through the doors and shrieked at the startled man behind the counter to call the police because I had just been robbed at gunpoint, I was a wreck. I sat crying in a corner until the police arrived.
A few days later they found what remained of my car, which had been totaled. Far worse than the car, which was insured, was that the robbers had removed all of its contents. Those contents comprised all of my textbooks and notes for my coming finals, a week or two away. All of it was gone. My professors were all very sympathetic, and with their help I managed to pass everything. (My virology prof was particularly merciful and all but gave me the answer key to study.) In addition, my study materials for Step 1 of the USMLE were also in the car, and I was to take it in the coming weeks. Somehow I managed to pass it, too, though with almost no studying at all I got a pretty crap score.
The only thing of possible value to the robbers they had destroyed, and those things that were useless to them but priceless to me were gone.
Some time later they caught the man who stole the car. A policeman came to my house with a bunch of photos, and I was asked to sign the back of the one I recognized. It was with dry, dry amusement that I put my name under several others. Quite busy he had been, it seemed.
I never appeared in court. Someone from the prosecutor’s office called and asked if I had a statement to give the judge that he might consider during sentencing. I told her that I was in medical school and would one day soon be a doctor, and because of what happened I would never, ever pull my car over to help anyone ever again. (I was forced to revise my edict many months later when a stranger pulled over to help me on the highway when I blew out a tire. God is an ironist.) I believe the man was sentenced to seven years in prison, and all else being equal should have been released the better part of a decade ago.
It seems hysterical and overwrought to describe myself as a victim of gun violence, particularly in the wake of a gun-related tragedy as profoundly monstrous and horrifying as the killings in Newtown. I didn’t get shot. I wasn’t injured. I survived the ordeal.
But I was a victim of a crime, and the crime was accomplished with a gun. Had the perpetrators kept their ruse up a bit longer and coaxed me out of the car, perhaps they could have stolen it with nothing more than a knife or their own brute strength. However, that crime was committed in that way with that degree of ease because of a gun. And so a victim of gun violence I am, just like everyone else who has been menaced, assaulted or terrorized by a firearm without actually getting shot.
I don’t have a great deal to say about which laws might be passed to make the crime I experienced less likely to happen to someone else. Hell, I don’t even care to weigh in on whether or not preventing a crime such as that warrants any change at all. Others participating in the symposium will doubtless take up those themes. I do know that allowing me to carry a concealed weapon would have made little difference, as lunging or reaching for a gun would quite likely have induced my assailant to shoot me. However, assuming his handgun wasn’t more souped-up that it appeared from my angle, banning assault rifles or certain kinds of magazines wouldn’t really have helped, either.
Others here have very different experiences with guns, and I have little interest in depriving them of it. That vast majority of gun owners and users who have them to hunt or shoot recreationally or protect themselves do not bother my sleep in the least. (I do hope they keep them locked up, however.) How they relate to guns will obviously differ quite a bit from how I do. I don’t own one, and have never fired or even held anything more powerful than a BB gun.
No, my only experience of a gun is what it’s like to stare down the wrong end of one and hope it doesn’t fire. My only experience of one is to pray I survived looking at it, and watching as it (with the help of my own stupidly kind-hearted credulity) allowed a man to rob me of my property and seriously jeopardize my academic career. It is, admittedly, quite a limited experience, but one I thought deserved a mention in our conversation.