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Murderers and Their Mothers

Two weeks after the Las Vegas shooting, Harvey Weinstein having replaced Stephen Paddock (and even Trump) as tyrant of the news cycle, the question of gun control resurfaced in my email, an especially deep and unavoidable pocket in headline roulette. Irie was writing from school:

(I have cut and pasted her message, resisting the urge to edit.)

Hi mom. In class for Literacy we are doing an article about gun control and on Friday we are having a debate about it and I was wondering if you and dad were for or against gun control. In class I disagreed with gun control but I am still unsure of what it exactly is. I think it is being able to own guns and banning them. I said we should have the right to own them but I was wondering what your opinion on it was.

She was floundering for purposefulness; she didn’t even sign her name.

Every mother thinks about guns eventually, whether we are raising boys or girls, black or brown or white, following or hiding from the news, living in supposed safe havens or danger zones. In 2014, no matter our station in life, we grieved for Tamir Rice, 12 years old, shot by police officers in Cleveland for wielding an Airsoft replica in public. But Irie wanted to know, what was my opinion?

I wondered, did I need to have one, opinions these days so often mistaken for intelligence or wisdom, and always a source of contention.

Aside from hunting guns, owned by friends and acquaintances, locked in gun cases, our next closest encounters with guns are through Ryan’s work in criminal defense. In August alone, he acquired two Public Defender cases involving gun violence.

The first was a drug deal gone awry, resulting in shots fired and a permanently paralyzed victim.

The second was armed robbery and substantial battery. Juan Gutierrez was one of three guys, with the help of an ex-girlfriend, Jackie, who lured a potential paramour (suitor, hook-up) to South Park through

After their victim settled into Jackie’s parked car and the two potential lovers agreed to a liaison, she said, “Let me grab some blankets from the trunk.”

Then she said, “Would you mind giving me a hand?”

As the guy emerged from her passenger-side door, Juan Gutierrez lay in waiting. He thwacked the victim over the head with a purple plastic baseball bat and demanded his wallet. Juan’s and his posse’s faces were covered with bandanas, tied behind their ears in the fashion of old bank robbers from The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery¸ starring Steve McQueen. And when the already injured party showed resistance, Juan and another buddy pulled and aimed, not real guns, but Airsoft weapons loaded with plastic pellets.

At midnight, when two bad dudes are demanding your money, replica weapons marketed as toys (or sporting goods) are likely to appear real, and days later, when the investigation leads police to the perpetrators’ doors, the referred charges will likely be taken seriously by the Winnebago County District Attorney.

These are just two of dozens upon dozens of cases this year involving guns – the details always unsettling.

Neither Ryan nor I hail from guns. Our parents and grandparents were not a lot of things: sportsmen, enlistees of the armed forces, weapons historians or aficionados. One time – one time – I shot a BB gun at a tower of old soda cans while visiting a babysitter’s cabin. And I do remember with fondness neighbor boys popping cap guns in my driveway, plastic percussion disks exploding like little fireworks, bursts that smelled pungent and sweet like burning leaves. That was then.

Of today’s parents, Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher’s writes in “The Troubled Legacy of Toy Guns”: “In parts of America now, especially in the hyper-educated urban and suburban Zip codes, the idea of buying the kid a toy gun for Christmas is about as attractive as buying him a syringe and a heroin starter kit.”

Many of us never imagined guns, even fake ones, in our children’s hands.

Nevertheless, somehow and in some way, our boys had acquired – through a processional of birthdays and Christmases – an arsenal of Nerf blasters, plastic costume guns, their own snub-nosed cap pistols, and Laser Tag hardware. Upon opening Leo’s window seat, once, the appearance of his armory, including a ghillie suit for camouflage, induced my lightheadedness.

And why?

Every mother has heard the horror stories of toy gun conversion kits. In the Washington Post, Fisher reports, “Police in Illinois last week confiscated a lime-green and cherry-red Super Soaker and a similarly colored toy pistol, both of which had been converted into working firearms.” This was December 2014.

When mothers consider their stance on guns, it may very well be from a worried and self-incriminating stance because every time a crime is investigated, we fall down the chutes and ladders back to point A. Every life begins with a mother.

We ask ourselves unseemly questions, bracing against judgement and guilt for every little plastic Lego gun the length of a fingernail. Will I one day be blamed for indulging my child’s fleeting interest in firearms? Enough research demonstrates that toy guns don’t lead to criminal behavior, but skeptics remain, arguing that the fine line between fantasy and reality is easy to transcend. When gun violence erupts, a child in a sniper costume is easier to understand – and his mother easier to blame.

Lucky for me, Leo has mostly forgotten his stockpile, much like his dog tags, which dangle on a hook beneath hockey ribbons and medals on his bedroom wall, relics from his summer of 2013 “Armed Forces” phase.

But a new reality show called Murderers and Their Mothers explores the formative ways in which mothers shape their children into monsters, including, among others, Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook shooter.

And for two weeks now, the best journalists, psychologists, and criminologists have tried to determine Stephen Paddock’s motive for the Las Vegas shooting, at times, cycling around to Stephen Paddock’s mother because where else might we turn when all other explanations fall short? Everything begins, through nature and nurture, with one’s mother, or so crime narratives suggest. Some have even wondered, was Paddock seeking revenge, forty to fifty years after the fact, for his mom having kept his own father’s criminal history a secret?

I’d been listening gluttonously to NPR, and statistics on the availability of firearms in America. Experts point fingers in all directions: social media, the NRA, gun culture, violence in movies, mental health (and failures in treatment), a 30-year peak in suicidal tendencies, the bystander effect, copy-cat criminology, ideological frameworks, political infighting, power, money, corruption. And when all else fails, callers to my favorite talk shows want to know, “Well, what about his mother?”

According to an old neighbor interviewed in the ongoing attempt to determine a cause for the Las Vegas shooting, Stephen Paddock’s mother once described him as “a bad boy.” Was this truth, intuition, or self-fulfilling prophecy? I’m not sure which, but for a fleeting portion of one news cycle, his mother, though shocked, seemed the most reliable source on a nebulous topic called “gun control.”

The message is clear. If only we believed in our children’s inherent goodness, we could solve one or more epidemics. What if it were that simple?

“Place your hands in the air where I can see them,” police say, upon arresting suspects. Placing confidence in our children’s future is about the only debate I could win, hands up, or hands down.

My blog posts are inspired by my husband Attorney Ryan Ulrich’s work in criminal defense. Any casework I write about is from public record, but I have changed the names of his clients to protect their privacy.

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