People assume killers like me suffered a violent or troubled upbringing, but my childhood was perfectly normal. I never had to witness any real violence, never lived in a gang-infested neighborhood, never went to bed hungry. Not me. I was an honor student who went to college straight after high school, who even managed to achieve my own version of the “American Dream.”
But it all imploded instantly with one reckless – and life-altering – decision to use a handgun.
Growing up, I enjoyed playing with toy guns. From old-school cap pistols to plastic G.I. Joe machine guns to BB rifles. I had them all. When Star Wars came out in 1977, I sat wonderstruck between my parents in a packed San Francisco theater. Later, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted a black plastic replica of Han Solo’s blaster at Toys ‘R’ Us. I had to have one. It was light and insubstantial at first, but, loaded with batteries to power its cheesy sound effects, it became a formidable play weapon.
Years later as a UCLA undergrad, I purchased my first and only real gun – a Glock – after I was threatened by a violent customer at the restaurant I managed part time. I felt the need for self-protection, and the gun’s black polymer body and gunmetal barrel called to me.
The Glock was already ingrained in my psyche as the go-to handgun of my favorite rappers. I wanted to actualize my inner Tupac. And still to this day, I can’t help but associate the eloquent bravado of rap lyrics with the glorious imagery of gunplay.
Like many, the fresh independence of college life inspired a deep affection for marijuana. It was still illegal at the time, and buying large quantities meant dealing with shady characters. I carried that Glock into some sticky situations, thinking I’d rather be safe than sorry. When a hot dispute erupted at one of these illicit exchanges, I got my chance to be an action hero. Sadly, I became a villain instead.
I’ve sat in a prison cell for the last 15 years for the crime I committed. My only glimpse of outside life comes from television news. All too often there is a report about a mass shooting. Even as a “hardened criminal” – a convicted murderer – it still shocks me, and I’m reminded that I was once a guilty member of America’s handgun fraternity.
I’m hardly alone in these thoughts at San Quentin. So many of us here – too many of us – have been forced to reflect on the ideological fallacies that contributed to our criminal behavior. We fully realize now the profoundly deep and problematic relationship that we developed with gun imagery and fictional characters.
During the last 50 years, more American civilians have lost their lives to firearms than those killed in uniform throughout all our wars combined. Tighter gun control laws may make a dent in the violence, but we can’t legislate ourselves out of this problem. Gun lovers will always find a way to get their fingers around that trigger.
We need to change the way our culture portrays gunplay as glorious and heroic. Think of our favorite movie stars and the roles they made famous: Dirty Harry, Rambo, Lara Croft, Han Solo. The list goes on. Here in California, we even made one of those heroes governor. America, it seems, will always embrace the gun-toting protagonist.
Last spring, Hollywood actor and director Ethan Hawke, who famously shot it out with Denzel Washington in Training Day, spoke about the film industry’s obsession with handguns on Late Night with Seth Meyers, explaining “how hard it is to sell a movie without a gun – no wonder we’re in turmoil over this subject.”