By Jeremiah Cahill
There’s nothing like the sound and feel of an Army-issue .45 caliber handgun going off in your hand when you think the gun is unloaded. That was especially true for me when I was 13 years old, at the home of my friend Teck (his nickname), while his mom was out for the evening.
Yup, the gun went off. I had just blown holes through the bedroom and exterior walls, with the bullet lodging somewhere in the garden.
The good news was, I had not killed my friend.
We were both sitting on a rug in his mom’s room. I had been holding the gun at chest height, pointed near him—but not directly at him. Why that critical difference of just a few degrees of angle? Because my parents had drilled one thing into me:
“Never point a gun at anyone—even if you think it’s unloaded.”
Back then—foolishly—I had argued that point with them.
As a kid, I grew up with guns—what middle-class male in the 1950s didn’t? Cowboys and Indians, cops and robbers, war games—all played with realistic toy guns. BB guns and air rifles, too.
Then there was Armed Forces Day in Honolulu, where we lived. Following World War II and the Korean conflict, Armed Forces Day was a big deal for boys. In a sprawling city park, tanks, grenades, bazookas, machine guns, even warplanes were on display. We could scramble all over them as military personnel showed us how they all worked.
Every boy I knew was fascinated with guns.
But that evening at Teck’s house, two otherwise well-behaved teenage boys got more from a weapon than they anticipated.
It started when Teck told me that his mother, who was widowed, had a gun in her room. His dad had died sometime after World War II. He had left his service weapon, a hefty handgun, now lying disassembled in a drawer. It’s actually a fairly simple mechanism, and we found it easy to put the gun together.
A .45 caliber pistol is a heavy weapon. In production for over 100 years, popular with military and civilian users, it’s known for “stopping power.”
Along with the gun there were cartridges (often called “bullets,” but technically a bullet is the nose of the cartridge—the killing part). We found the magazine or “clip” into which we loaded the cartridges. I then slid the clip into the handle. What I didn’t realize was that my actions somehow had lodged a cartridge in the chamber, ready to fire.
I removed the clip, and then assumed the gun was unloaded. Teck was sitting three or four feet from me. As I recall, I first pointed the gun toward him—just joking. But something caused me to shift direction, slightly. I pulled the trigger.
Ka-BAAM! Big surprise. I nearly lost control of the pistol, my ears were ringing, and the smell of gunpowder surrounded us.
What could we do? Get out the putty, search for a matching wall paint, and patch things up in a hurry. This was not a sleepover, so at some point I ditched out and left Teck to face the consequences. Sure enough, you can’t hide the smells of fresh paint and gun smoke from an alert mother.
Unfortunately, from that day on, I was not invited to their home.
So why does this come back to me, so many decades later?
Because I’m grateful for what my parents drove home to my younger brother and me: “Never point a gun at anyone even if you think it’s unloaded.”
Oh, yes, we argued:
“What if it’s not a real gun—that’s alright.”
“But if you’re sure a gun is unloaded, that would be OK.”
“NO. You’re never sure it’s unloaded. Listen to me—do not point guns at people.”
That’s my mother speaking.
Fortunately, I had not killed my friend that day. If I had, what would have become of me? I shudder to think of the psychological impact.
So, dear Mother, you may have saved two lives that day. First, a teenage boy whom I did not shoot point blank. Second, myself, spared from long-term emotional damage.
All I can say, belatedly, is, “Thanks, Mom. I’m so grateful for your persistent message on gun safety.”
© 2021 Jeremiah Cahill
Jeremiah Cahill, Madison Wisconsin, writes an occasional memoir to help him make sense of his past. He revisited this essay following the October shooting by Alec Baldwin on a New Mexico film set, in which one person was killed and another injured by shots from a .45 caliber pistol—supposedly unloaded.