‘I didn’t know it was loaded’ Becoming quite common excuse

    In 1957, some 70 of us National Guardsmen with what used to be called the 515th anti-aircraft artillery unit in Las Vegas, filed into the orderly room, having been issued an M-1 rifle which for its time was high-tech. One of the soldiers, who should have known better, cocked his weapon and placed the muzzle against the head of another soldier, who appeared to be napping, and hissed out the words, “I’m gonna kill you, Commie.”

     As he pulled the trigger, all of us heard a loud explosion, but mercifully, the sound effects were compliments of a couple of cohorts who made simulated gunshot sounds with their vocal cords, startling the “victim” awake and causing others to fall into paroxysms of laughter.
     That lasted about 10 seconds, at which time Joe Sandoval, the unit’s master sergeant appeared, calmly reminded our G.I. Joe about “the first thing you learned when you joined the army,” namely that one NEVER points a weapon at another unless the intent is to kill.
     The trigger-happy Combat Kelly had to do what Sandoval required of anyone caught doing such a thing: run while holding the rifle with arms outstretched. Sandoval punctuated the order with “. . . until you drop.” “Until you drop” came sooner than we all expected, and the first sergeant made him do it one more time. All of us learned a lesson from that experience. Although several of us may have thought the punishment was extreme, perhaps it saved a life or two.
     Around our playground at Immaculate Conception Elementary School in the ’40s, we could always tell what western movie Cowboy Jones watched the day before, given his memorization of dialogue and his racing around the playground, clicking a cap gun, acting as if he’d just polished off the student body.
     Was there ever a kid of the ’40s who didn’t answer, “I want to be a cowboy” when asked his ambition?
     My brother Severino, our friend Wilfred and I emulated western heroes. At the tracks behind our house on Railroad Avenue, there was a incline and a switching box which provided protection. Below, in our back yard, was a shed with a small back window. We’d take shots at each other, always aiming at the body, never the face. But in those days air rifles were unpredictable. If I’d aimed at Wilfred’s eyes, for example, I’d probably be four inches wide. Why then couldn’t an aim to the shoulder translate into a bullseye and turn him into a Cyclops?
     We gave up our duels when a BB Severino fired at Wilfred glanced off his wrist and ricocheted dangerously close to Wilfred’s left eye.
     Since then I’ve regarded weapons with fear and respect. Lorenzo Marquez, a local gunsmith, generally debunks the notion that firearms “go off ‘all by themselves.'”
     Two cases come to mind. In Albuquerque, after police arrived, a teenage boy said, “I went to my girlfriend’s to show her my new gun, and it just went off.” She died.
     Recently, a Santa Fe youth used the “It just went off” excuse in killing a friend. Often, people claim to be cleaning their weapon when it fires, killing someone.
     Marquez, who services and repairs weapons, concedes that, “Yes, some defective firearms have been known to go off. Guns are trickier (than rifles) because it’s harder to tell if a round is still in the chamber. Sometimes people remove the magazine from the gun but don’t realize a bullet has remained.”
     Marquez hunts whatever he can: deer, bear, antelope, pheasant, elk and turkeys. His son, Lawrence, a Marine who was among the first of our troops to go to Iraq, shares his father’s passion for weapons.
     The elder Marquez said that Lawrence also owns weapons, which he’s shows to his friends but emphasizes, “He ALWAYS makes sure they’re unloaded.”
     My concern is over the senseless loss of life by people imitating “Cowboys and Indians.” We belong to a copy-cat society in which very little time lapses between the media’s demonstration of some “Jackass” antic and the actual attempt to replicate it.
     Is it coincidence that soon after watching “Superman,” a boy, 11, donned a cape and plunged to his death 14 stories below, thinking he could fly? I have trouble buying the excuse that the person who fires the fatal gunshot was “just playing.” Why can’t everyone who handles a weapon treat it as if it’s loaded, and more importantly, never point it at a living creature unless the intent is to destroy it?
     In most cases, people who kill others with a gun or rifle already have made the choice to loft a deadly, weapon. It’s when they start employing the bang-bang-you’re-dead mentality that people suffer. This subject, which touches on the highly controversial Second Amendment, demands more thorough coverage, which I hope to pursue in later columns. Meanwhile, those of you readers with opinions are invited to join in.

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