John Howell’s column 6-5-12

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Awful irony had root in fears imagined

Some months ago we attended a memorial service for our long-time New Orleans neighbor, Ann. Actually it was a cumulative memorial for Ann, her son, Albert, and daughter-in-law, Penny.

Ann had died of kidney problems, heart failure and age-related illness less than two weeks after her daughter-in-law early one morning took a handgun and shot Albert in the bathroom of the couple’s home. She then called authorities and calmly reported what she had done. Minutes later when scrambling officers drove up to the address, they found, after entering through the front door she had thoughtfully left unlocked, that the daughter-in-law had similarly taken her own life in their home’s rear bathroom.

The act was so completely out of character with the lives these two people had appeared to live up until that fateful morning, that everyone who had known was, as you might expect, shocked and devastated, especially their only daughter, a beautiful and accomplished young woman who had only months before borne them their only grandchild, a beautiful little girl.

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Over and over during that memorial we heard friends, often through tears, tell of the couple’s love and kindnesses, their career accomplishments and humorous idiosyncrasies. And we heard as many expressed their frustration after having searched through recent memories to find some hint at why. It remained the unanswered question looming darkly over that auditorium and remains so today.

During the years that we had known Ann and through her made acquaintance with the couple, she had mentioned to us several times that they were both excellent marksmen with handguns. They practiced marksmanship and held permits that allowed them to legally carry their weapons concealed in their cars or on their persons, she said.

Their concern was self-defense. They armed themselves because they honestly and genuinely feared criminal attack — robbery, rape attempt, home invasion.

Over the years it apparently became an obsession, and by the time of their deaths they owned a sufficient number of guns to require during hurricane evacuations a second vehicle to transport the guns away from possible looters.

So we’ve thought and talked much, my wife and I, about the awful irony. The man who had so encouraged his wife in firearms handling that she would have been useful in any gunfight died from a bullet she had directed toward him; the wife whose calm familiarity with her handgun enabled her to use it first on her husband and then on herself.

This is not a rant about gun control. Both of them followed to the letter laws related to gun use and ownership and would have qualified to own and use their guns even if laws had been far more stringent. The wife was perfectly capable of owning a gun and using it properly up until the day she wasn’t.

This is instead a thought about fear, a question about whether the perceived fear that we harbor and guard against in our imaginations can blind us to a darker threat, more real and personal.