A few years back, for just a few days, I was the owner of a Smith & Wesson® 9mm M&P semi-automatic pistol. The M&P stands for military and police, and according to online product descriptions, Smith & Wesson “had law enforcement and the military in mind” when they designed this popular series of firearms. But my gun never belonged to the military or the police; it belonged to one of my brothers.
Like many people, he had purchased the gun for personal and home security. And he had every right to do so. But as the years went by, he changed from a kind-hearted kid to a still-sensitive, often suicidal, and sometimes violent alcoholic.
In a moment of lucidity while traveling through Colorado, he left the semi-automatic with my sister, asking her to hold it for him, telling her he didn’t think he should have it.
Flash forward a few years, and time found my brother living mainly on our mom’s couch, depressed and angry, unemployable, and desperate for money. He wanted his gun back.
If your family is anything like mine, you can easily imagine the flurry of phone calls that took place between Utah and Colorado. Internet searches and fearful calls to the authorities confirmed that we had no legal right to keep my brother from his gun. He had not made a recent, specific threat to himself or others. General drunken rage doesn’t qualify.
We also learned that our mom could declare “no guns in the house”—and that the police would respond to any resulting altercation. But that was hardly comfort to a five-foot-tall septuagenarian, and our mom teetered phone call to phone call from being slightly distraught to fully terrified.
My sister and I came up with the plan that made me a temporary gun owner. I called my brother and said a family member in Utah County wanted to buy his gun. He’d pay cash, and I’d handle the transaction. It was an enticing offer—enough for nearly a month of takeout, chew, and vodka.
We were lucky. Lucky to have money for the offer in the first place. Luckier to know a family member who could give a gun a good, safe home.
Our story ended well, and our brother is now in recovery. I’m not sure I can say the same for our country.
A few things strike me about our family’s brush with gun laws.
First is how easy it was to pass a deadly weapon from hand to hand, with no licensing or forms whatsoever. A few decades ago, when I sold a car to this same brother, I needed a title and bill of sale. For the 9mm? Nothing. Surely we can contemplate that the “well regulated” part of the Second Amendment might call for a bit of a paper trail.
Second is how little support our family could find in the law. The system did give us options, but none kicked in until someone committed a crime—until after the disturbance and its repercussions. A law like the one sponsored by Rep. Stephen Handy (R-Layton) would have made all the difference, allowing families or roommates to seek a protective order restricting gun access for people who are at risk of shooting themselves or others. It was rejected in committee.
And finally there’s this: The only thing harder for us than keeping a gun out of our troubled brother’s hands was getting some help for him in the first place. After every horrific act of violence in our country, we hear the accusation cloaked loosely as a question, “Where was his family?” This is a question I no longer ask. I know how little a family can do.
And with this knowledge, I find myself weary of absolutist arguments. I honestly don’t care whether gun violence stems more from mental illness than from lax gun laws or the other way around. And I’m tired of anti-gun-safety activists who try to shut down conversation by demanding that we name one law that could have stopped the latest atrocity. We need all the solutions, for people on both sides of the gun, and for the families who love them.
Shauna Bona is a super-volunteer with Alliance for a Better Utah