Fiction and Firearms: Messy Murder Mistakes by Jim Thompson

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I grew up in Appalachian Kentucky, the heart of the gun culture. I don’t remember the first time I shot a gun, but my age was a single digit. For my tenth birthday present, I got my first firearm, an Iver Johnson .20-gauge single-barreled shotgun. I worked for Uncle Sam for a while and get the disability checks to prove it. I’m an experienced hunter. I don’t know how many guns I’ve owned over time—it’s that many—and off the top of my head, just counting fully-automatic weapons (now scratching head), I can think of: MAC-10, M-16, M-60, H&K MP-5, AK-47. There are probably others. The point is that I know a bit about guns, enough to give some advice and recognize stupidities. For instance, don’t buy a Chinese AK-47. The selector switch doesn’t always work well, and you may want to fire a single round, but the damned thing may decide it wants to burn up half a clip before it decides to stop firing. Get a Russian AK. Bury it in mud. Drive nails with it. Whatever. It will keep working.

I’m not advocating gun ownership. In fact, I think the vast majority of people would be better off without them, because they don’t know what they’re doing and stand a far greater chance of hurting themselves or someone unintended than defending themselves or loved ones. I doubt the average gun owner could even manage to shoot a rabbit for dinner. As far as the U.S. goes, however, I find the idea of limiting U.S. gun ownership ludicrous. The reason: Americans own 88.8 guns per 100 citizens. Do you think all those people will relinquish those guns? Many or most even refuse to register them if they can, considering it an infringement of their privacy. It’s a classic case of closing the barn door after the cows got out.

From what source are all these gun owners being informed about gun safety and their usage, especially in emergency situations, such as a home intrusion? I don’t have stats to back me up, but I would give long odds on a large bet that it isn’t through firearms safety courses, but through fiction: books and movies. They make it all look so easy. Even the shooting novice manages to save the day (cop hands gun to protagonist, “You know how to use this, right?”) I got news. It ain’t easy.

My biggest pet peeve is when a gangster turns his gun hand over, palm facing down, and engages in a battle with his pistol (usually referred to as a “gat” in these instances), and actually hits what he’s aiming at. They’re just not meant to be used that way and it’s not impossible, but making something already difficult that much harder. Very few people involved in violent confrontation don’t surge with adrenaline, which makes them shake and unable to concentrate on the simplest tasks. That’s why so many armed confrontations end up with dead bystanders. The only way to defeat this physical impediment and brainlock is through muscle memory. Shooters that burn up thousands of rounds on the practice range overcome this. Their minds and bodies tell them what to do as if they had wills of their own. If you want to own a firearm but don’t feel the need to become proficient with it, run a combat obstacle course. Every time a target pops up and you accidentally shoot a good guy, imagine your child’s face on the target.

Shiny pistols, chrome or nickel-plated, irk me. Whatever the NRA may tell you, pistols are seldom hunting weapons. They’re made for killing people. Even in the dark, there is almost always some ambient light, and it will reflect off those bright metallic surfaces. Here comes that home invader you’ve been waiting for. Why don’t you wrap yourself in tin foil and wear a silver hat to announce yourself and give him a better target? Buy a blued or matt black gun. Most handgun altercations take place within seven feet of the two combatants, by the way, and because of nerves, even at that short distance, neither can often manage to put a bullet in the other. And God forbid you let Bad Guy within arm’s reach of you. You’re probably getting your cherry busted in the violence game, he’s probably not, and he’s going to stick your gun up your ass.

High-powered, snub nose revolvers: Firearm safety teaches us that we should always use ear protection when practicing. On film, guns seem so quiet, just pop like firecrackers. Those short barrels won’t absorb sound or recoil. Take your chrome-plated, .357 magnum snub-nosed revolver to the practice range. Remove your ear protection and burn up half a box of ammo. Three days later, when you regain the feeling in your shooting arm and start to be able to hear again, you’ll head straight to the gun store and beg the owner to take it back. And that’s from using it outside. Picture that roar multiplied if you were to fire it in the confines of your home. Kiss those eardrums goodbye.

Many people buy nice, new pistols for home protection but never bother to shoot more than a couple of clips through them, just to play with their new toy. I got some news for you sunshine. That brand spanking-new, slick Smith & Wesson 9mm that you blew a few rounds through last year may well get sticky through disuse and hang up on you, a round jammed in the ejection chamber. So there you stand. Good citizen that you are, you have your pistol and ammo locked in separate places—to keep them out of the hands of your kids—it takes a little time to get them out, then you fumble with the clip for a minute because of nerves, you finally get it into your gun, you rack the slide, and your pistol went haywire in the dark. Bad Guy doesn’t know that. He only knows he heard a sound he’s all too familiar with: a bullet being jacked into a chamber, and he thinks you intend to kill him. How do you picture this scenario working out?

Which reminds me of the scenario in which Good Guy doesn’t shoot Bad Guy. Instead, he says something like, “I got ya covered. Drop your weapon.” Which Bad Guy almost invariably does, as if Good Guy’s weapon were a magic wand. Afterward, sometimes they even sit comfortably like old friends, have a drink and a chat while Bad Guy confesses. If I were Bad Guy, I’d probably be more scared of prison than dufus Good Guy, open fire and make a dive for the nearest exit.

Ammo: The movies like full metal jacket ammo. Why? It’s shinier, picturesque, photogenic. The Geneva Convention allows only the use of FMJ ammo in small arms. Why? It punches holes in people but kills far fewer of them than hollow point ammo, which expands on impact. It’s also more functional. A wounded man takes three men off the battlefield. The guy that got shot and two to carry him away. I haven’t signed the Geneva Convention, have you? Shoot hollow points. The damage you cause will multiply. Shoot a man my size, 6’0, 185lbs, half a dozen times with a jacketed 9mm. If you don’t hit a vital organ, he may keep coming after you, propped up by endorphins.

As an aside, the damage caused by a bullet wounds isn’t simply the intrusion of a single foreign object into the human body. The bullet drags clothing and all sorts of grime in behind it, causing infection. Also, the body is mostly composed of water. Do you know the theory of water displacement? It explains why a water balloon makes a big splat. It also explains why a high caliber hollow point makes a much larger exit than entry wound. Your water has been displaced.

How to surmount all these problems? The best pistol I’ve ever shot was an old 1911 .45 Colt semi-automatic. You know, the kind the U.S. Army started using in WWI. It had been shot so much that the action rattled when I shook it. But a gunsmith had worked it over and I could shoot decent patterns at 25 meters using only the front sight to aim with. In other words, like pointing my finger and having bullets come out of it. Get something like that, shoot the hell out of it. Burn out the barrel if you want. Replacement barrels are less than a hundred bucks. Practice reloading and field stripping it with your eyes closed, in case it jams in the dark. Keep it loaded, cocked and locked at all times. Meaning there is a round in the chamber and it’s ready to fire. The last sound Bad Guy will hear is the snap of the safety disengaging. If you don’t have “the drop” on Bad Guy: Keep moving, keep shooting. Engulf him in a hail of bullets. When do you stop shooting? To reload.

Perhaps my favorite fiction kill is with the sniper rifle that comes in a briefcase. The professional assassin—usually wearing a suit, sunglasses and driving gloves—opens the case to reveal a rifle in parts, including a scope. He snaps the parts together and then quickly and efficiently scores a one-shot kill at seven hundred meters. This is a joke.

A sniper rifle requires extreme care and maintenance and when used, must be handled with the equivalent of a lover’s caress. It must be sighted in for the individual shooter. It’s so sensitive that it must be re-sighted in if the temperature varies much. The barrel of a sniper rifle typically floats in its stock and can be likened to a tuning fork. It vibrates upon firing and is so delicate an instrument that often it requires extensive experimentation to find the proper powder charge and bullet weight combination for correct vibration and maximum performance. Long-distance shooting is a hobby (or profession) that requires a great deal of training, time, expense, and at least a fair degree of intelligence. For instance, ballistics charts must be memorized. For my money, I’ll take a .300 Winchester Magnum with a bull barrel (extra long and heavy) any day. It’s bolt action, simple in design and dependable. A word of warning, it’s more like a cannon than a normal rifle. The recoil is straight back, not up, and may take you off your feet. Get a military-trained sniper to teach you how to handle it properly. The recoil can also knock your retinas out of place. Not a rifle for the uninitiated.

I was going to include self-murder, generally known as suicide, in this. But I’ve meandered too long and must save it for another day. By the way, I haven’t owned a firearm since I moved to Finland. It’s a tool I have no need for living in Helsinki.

Happy New Year!

James Thompson

Helsinki, Finland

December 27, 2011

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James Thompson is an established author in Finland. His novel, Snow Angels, the first in the Inspector Vaara series, was released in the U.S. by Putnam and marked his entrance into the international crime fiction scene. Booklist named it one of the ten best debut crime novels of 2010, and it was nominated for the Edgar, Anthony, and Strand Critics awards. His second Vaara novel, Lucifer’s Tears, earned starred reviews from all quarters and was chosen by Kirkus Reviews as one of the twenty-five best novels of 2011. The third in the series, Helsinki White, will be released in March, 2012.

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