No More Guns

If I tell people at all that I used to carry a gun for self-defense, I say that I stopped because I realized carrying a gun makes it much more likely I would have to shoot someone. I almost never say more than that.

I lived in several different lofts in Downtown Los Angeles' skid row area for almost seven years. LA's skid row is pretty widely-acknowledged as the worst in the nation, and I lived in the heart of it — one cop told me it was the strong-arm robbery capitol of Los Angeles.

I escaped a carjacking once by flooring it through a red light: a deserted intersection after midnight on a weekend. Two figures approached my car, one on either side. Both tried to stay in my blind spots. It was rough out there, but some part of me liked the Wild-West aspect of it — and there were other reasons to stay.

The lofts in our building at Wall and Winston were rented by a wonderful assortment of artists, oddballs, misfits, and geniuses, and I loved living among them. There were always parties, and looking at the skyline from the roof, and wandering into your neighbor's loft to see a new sculpture or painting, or to hear some new music, or sharing a meal in the communal kitchen.

The warmth inside our building was countered by the streets around — people in cardboard coffins sleeping elbow-to-elbow, people openly smoking crack across the street from the police station, and the very "Escape From New York" nature of our own building's security. The front door was wood reinforced with thick wire mesh, reinforced with metal bars, and reinforced again with bolted-on two-by-fours. We parked in an alley behind the building, blocked off at one end by a permanent metal wall, and on the other end by a 20-foot-tall, solid metal gate topped with razor wire. We had electric gate-openers, and we'd pull up Winston St., hit the gate button, and pull inside. Once the gate closed, Skid Row was locked out, and we were mostly safe.

In addition to the physical security, we had Mike. Mike was homeless, an alcoholic, and largely unreliable when it came to anything involving money or showing up on time. He was, however, loyal, trustworthy in his way, and friendly, and well-respected on the street for his fighting ability — he provided security, both for the cars in the alley and cars that parked in the street when we had parties. Mike lived in a van in the alley where we parked.

One time I was coming home from work, and opened the gate and started backing my car down the alley, just like every night. As the gate closed, I saw someone slip through the gap and into the alley, and I was instantly alarmed. Mike wasn't always around, and — while 90% of the homeless downtown were good people who were too sick or addicted or unlucky to make it in the straight world, that leaves 10% or so who were not good people. You always had to be on your guard.

I stopped the car, the figure in my headlights. He stopped walking forward. I backed up further, and he kept walking. I backed up faster, to put some distance between us, and got out of my car with my 9 millimeter handgun. Now, having a gun in a confrontation is a serious thing, and if you're not willing to use it, you shouldn't carry it.

Convicts practice attacking cops from the spread-eagle position against a wall -- there's plenty of moves a trained fighter can use to take a gun away from someone, and plenty of time in prison to practice. If someone gets within grabbing distance of you, there's every likelihood that they'll take the gun away from you and use it against you. So I was standing in the alley, with my gun hidden behind my body in my right hand, and I put my other hand out and yelled "Stop." He kept walking. I yelled "Back the fuck up!" and moved so the gun was visible, and he started saying something about knowing Mike, but that didn't matter. Everyone on the street knew who Mike was; knowing his name wasn't proof of anything.

The guy kept walking, and I figured in one step I'd take my gun and point it at center mass, and two or three more steps and I'd have to pull the trigger. There was no room to back up further, and I couldn't let him get too close. I had chambered a round and flicked the safety off before I got out of the car, and though my hands were shaking slightly from the adrenaline, I knew what I had to do, and that I could do it. And then Mike rolled out of his van, no shirt on, and said, "Pablo, what the fuck are you doing?"

It quickly became apparent that they knew each other, and were friends. Apparently Pablo had been shouting Mike's name from the gate, and Mike either hadn't heard it or had ignored it. Once the adrenaline crept out of my veins, I realized something I hadn't earlier — Pablo was a kid. Eighteen at the most. Probably, since he was that young and on skid row, a foster kid who got dumped on the street when he turned 18, or a runaway — but you seldom saw runaways or kids that young downtown.

The kids stayed in Hollywood. Downtown was for the down-and-out, the lost, the insane — with a fair percentage of criminals straight out of lockup, dumped there by police departments from all around Southern California. It didn't occur to me at the time, but he was probably trying so badly to get into the alley because he was scared of what was out there -- and probably kept walking when I shouted "Stop" because he was more afraid of what was behind him than what was in front of him. I came far, far, too close to shooting him. And I haven't carried a gun since.