I should begin with the hole in my sister’s face.
I should describe how surprisingly clean a hole a bullet bores into a skull—as if her head was a watermelon or a piece of wood or a thing we did not love. I should probably detail how surprisingly sturdy my knees felt as I stood over my sister’s dead body, staring numbly into that hole. Except I don’t remember her face.
And I remember things. That’s kinda my whole deal.
It’s not as if the image of her face, pierced point-blank from a gun’s projectile, was erased from my brain. I remember seeing it. I can even describe how the brain swells to fill the cavity that seemed like a perfect nine millimeters wide, but infinitely, impressively deep and clean. I should admit that I don’t know if bullets are nine millimeters wide. But somehow, the memory from that moment was instantly flattened in my mind’s eye. It is two-dimensional, like finding a black and white photograph of a sketch of myself stuck between the pages of a borrowed book. It does not belong to me, yet I know it is mine.
I remember every minute before the shooting. I was a few miles away when it happened, having just left them laughing on the porch. I remember standing next to the refrigerator, singing a gospel song, making my sister laugh while I ate turkey wings. I remember leaving my mother’s house. I remember my sister saying “I love you” before she climbed into the car to make the two-hour drive home. I remember passing my sister’s shooter as I pulled out of the driveway. I remember my mother standing on the third step of the porch seeing both of us off.
I remember the aftermath. The police officer casually unraveling my mother’s water hose to rinse the bits of blood and brains and bones from the neighbor’s grass into the street. How the stain remained. How Ransom, a police officer who grew up around the corner, warned me not to look. How he was crying, too. I remember that.
I can recall how my aunt wailed “I’m sorry.” How my uncle sobbed. How my cousin Tyran pleaded on the phone with me to tell him everyone was lying. To tell him Robin ain’t dead. To tell him she was not shot execution-style, in front of my mother. I wanted to tell him that it was true. The memory seems as trite as my mother howling “Not my baby!” as her screams echoed through the house. To get away from the din and talk to him, I retreated to the laundry room. I was leaning on the washing machine and, for some reason, I opened it. My mother must have been washing her whites. She must have used a lot of bleach because I could smell it. That’s when I first cried. Maybe it was the Clorox.
See? I’m good at remembering things. It’s my whole deal.
But Robin’s face, I cannot remember.
Every time there is a mass shooting, I promise the editors at The Root that I will write a piece about my personal history with guns and gun violence. I started writing it after Nikolas Cruz was arrested for killing 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Or maybe it was after Stephen Paddock murdered 58 people at a Las Vegas country music festival. I regurgitated the vow after the mass shooting in El Paso. But I probably pledged to do it again after the slaughter in Odessa, Texas.
I was on weekend duty alone during the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, which is totally different from the Poway, Calif. synagogue shooting. To be fair, one of my best friends lost his brother in the Florence, S.C., mass shooting, so I kinda did it. I wrote about how my childhood friend prevented a mass shooting in Las Vegas but I don’t think that counts. The New Mexico mass shooting happened prior to my promise, as did Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub shooting. Kenneth Gleason’s bulk murder plot was, too...
I cannot remember them all.
Since Nov. 30, 1998, purchasing a firearm in the United States meant the buyer must submit to a background check in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System.
But not really.
According to gun violence watchdog Everytown, 28 states allow personal firearm transactions, transfers or gun show purchases without the required background check. If that loophole seems small, nearly 1 out of 5 gun owners report that they bought their most recent gun without a background check.
I am one of them.
I’m not a gun nut nor am I against the Second Amendment. Like most rational human beings, I believe in common-sense gun laws and responsible gun ownership. I happily submitted to a background check when I purchased a shotgun a few years ago. But when federal, state and local agencies issued warnings about possible right-wing violence for the 2020 election, I decided I needed something more to protect my family. Because I live in “gun country” and Trump country, where firearms dealers are MAGA maniacs, I knew it wouldn’t be hard. 98.4 percent of the population of Alabama live within 10 miles of a gun store, which amazingly ranks 38th in the country. But in Alabama, the “gun show loophole” is how people buy guns.
I didn’t know it would be this easy.
First of all, a gun show is basically just a swap meet but, instead of airbrushed shirts and license plate covers, vendors sell guns...cheap. Even though they may have dozens of guns for sale, the vendors are technically not “dealers.” They’re private sellers because there is no federal law that says how many guns a person can sell before they are required to obtain a federal firearm license. Theoretically, an enterprising hustler can sell as many firearms as they choose as long as they do not make their livings selling guns. And in states like Alabama, patronizing a private seller at a gun show is sometimes easier than going to the corner firearms dealer.
Secondly, gun shows are meant for white people.
Even though I live in one of the Blackest cities in America, I have never seen more than five Black people at a gun show. And I’ve been to more than a few. The right-wing energy is palpable. The only thing that rivals the selection of weapons is the Trump paraphernalia.
No one screams the n-word, but going to a gun show in the South means enduring a lot of Confederate flag worship, Islamophobia and anti-leftist propaganda. But you can get some cheap guns if you can overcome your distaste for targets practice posters of brown men wearing turbans or a gun display case that says (and I swear this is true): “Break glass in case of Black Lives Matter.”
It’s almost as if they don’t want anyone but white people there.
Long before the face-mangling fallout from bullet fragments found me leaning in the laundry room, leaving amnesia where my tears should be, I was a victim of gun-related violence. My cousin Tyran was there, too.
Growing up, my mother’s intense loathing for firearms meant that I wasn’t even allowed to play with anything that resembled a firearm in any shape, form or fashion. Nerf blasters were banned. No cap guns for me. When Super Soakers became the “it” toy, I got a bootleg toilet plunger-looking piece of bullshit that barely squirted a stream of water past my feet.
So, one day, Tyran and I decided to make our own weapons. After folding pieces of typing paper into a basic triangle (y’all call it “printer paper” now), we closed the door to my room, pointed our artisan pistols at each other and opened pretend-fire. Apparently, we were terrible shots because, despite the barrage of peashooter pee-owws, neither of us was wounded...until my mother bussed into the room (which is different from “busting” into a room) and saw our rudimentary paper gats.
We knew we were in trouble. Tyran explained his blatant disregard for the house rules by explaining that his mom (my mother’s sister) allowed him to play with guns. And just like that, he was allowed to go home (which was only across the street). Seeing how Tyran was allowed to escape punishment by citing his mother’s relaxed stance on toy gun control, I decided to see if I could fit through the same firearm loophole. In retrospect, it was ill-advised. But when you’re stuck between a belt and a hard place, you have to resort to your most primal survival instincts, so I snitched.
“Why come I can play with Tyran’s cap guns at his house, then?” I asked.
My mother froze, belt in hand. Instantly, I knew I had said the wrong thing.
“You did what, now?”
Allow me to pause here to share a valuable lesson known to every Black child. Whenever a Black woman—be it a wife, mother or even a substitute usher—asks you to repeat something as if they didn’t quite catch what you said the first time, do not do it. Rest assured, they heard you the first time. Black women’s ears are finely tuned instruments that rival whale sonar or cat whiskers. I knew this. I refused to participate.
Plus, I was not ready to undo the verbal agreement between me and my aunt Phyllis that allowed me to play with Tyran’s pair of Lone Ranger replica cap pistols. Every time we played with those shiny silver roscoes, I had to promise that I would never let my mom know about it. Of course, the taboo made it all the more exciting.
“Nothing,” I replied to my mother, like aunt Phyllis’s loyal henchman during the interrogation. “I didn’t say nothing.”
“So, you’re a liar, too?” my mother responded, which was a great move. After all, everyone knows there are three things the Lord God Jesus Christ can’t stand:
- A liar
- A thief
- Little boys who play with guns.
I’m sure that was in the Bible; perhaps in Galatians.
I was left with two choices. I could rat out my favorite aunt or play dumb. After a few quick calculations, I realized that snitching would not stave off the spanking. Also, I was actually dumb. So I decided to take my punishment like a man. (Men kick, run and cry “I ain’t gon’ do it no more,” right?)
But in her half-second of hesitation, I saw fear and desperation in my mother’s eyes. I understood that this was an effort to protect me from something I could not yet understand. That belt, and my fear of it, was a mother’s attempt to instill an aversion to something much more dangerous. When she realized that I realized that she was really protecting me from a much harsher reality...
She still whipped my ass, though.
Rules are rules.
But when my fave auntie asked me about the incident later, I specifically remember how proud I felt when I told her:
“Don’t worry. I did not tell my mother.”
They say my uncle Rob was the best.
All the men in my family are drummers. The talent wasn’t necessarily passed down as much as it was absorbed. Tyran was an aight. My cousins Kwanza, Amendez and J.J. will probably pay homage to our oldest cousin Reggie as the best because he was the first in our generation to own a five-piece drum kit that we all eventually played. But in their most honest moments, they would probably admit that Reggie’s younger brother, my cousin Eric, was the undisputed best. I would agree. So would Tyran. Reggie would not.
Reggie is old enough to remember how Rob played. Everyone in our hometown says he had the greatest hands that ever clasped two drumsticks. I am sure I have heard him play. He even earned a scholarship to college...for playing the drums. Because of Uncle Rob, I assumed drumming was a similarly accessible path to college as football or basketball. But before I was old enough to pick up a pair of my cousin’s drumsticks without being plucked in the back of the head, Rob moved to New Jersey.
Every summer, my cousins and I would spend the summer shuttling back and forth between the houses of our aunts and uncles who lived in New Jersey. All the girls would stay with the girls and all the boys would stay with the boys. During the Uncle Rob leg of our tour, he would make the boys listen to Max Roach and Clyde Stubblefield as he spoke of paradiddle progressions. (Now that I think about it, that’s probably how the drumming thing was passed down.) By the time I turned 11, I was no longer being plucked in the head. This was going to be my drum summer.
Until Uncle Rob got shot.
According to the story I was told, Rob and his brother, my uncle Junior, were selling a rifle to a man. Junior assured the buyer that the rifle was empty. During the transaction, the buyer examined the rifle, pulled the trigger and shot Uncle Rob in the right arm.
Rob eventually learned how to write left-handed and regained partial use of his right arm. But he would never play the drums again. If you were to ever meet him, you might wonder why he constantly clenches and unclenches his long fingers into a fist as if he is holding a drumstick.
I am the only boy in my family who is not a drummer. I probably wouldn’t have been better than Eric anyway. In my opinion, he is the best. But everyone tells me that Uncle Rob was better. Maybe he was. I’m pretty sure I’ve heard him play. I just can’t remember.
This is the part that’s hard to write.
Not emotionally hard. It’s just hard to wrap up all these disparate pieces into one conclusion and make it mean something. There aren’t many bullet hole parables or one-armed uncle allegories. Maybe all of this means nothing. Maybe people just get shot. Like my homeboy A.C. Cato. Like Malcolm X. Like my uncle. Like first-graders in Sandy Hook Elementary. Like people buying Pop-Tarts in Boulder. Like how we do in America.
This last part should reveal that my sister was killed by my cousin. There should be a revelation that my sister was killed by my aunt Phyllis’ daughter and how it tore my family apart for years. How my sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins learned to forgive and love again. Perhaps there should be a metaphor about how we picked up the broken fragments of a family and stuffed them into the hole that I cannot remember.
Perhaps I should end with the story of my cousins’ sentencing hearing. After losing part of our family, how the judge offered her a shorter sentence if she told him where she got the gun. How there were rumors that she borrowed the gun from another family member. How there was no way to trace the gun that killed my sister. How my cousin declined the judge’s offer. How 15 years seemed like not enough time and simultaneously too much time. How we raised her children while she did her time. How we loved her when she came home. How she gotta be my sister now. How Robin will never ever ever ever ever ever come home.
How I keep hoping everything is a lie.
How it never is.
So I picked out an intimidating-looking weapon at the gun show from the down-home “private dealer” and waited to fill out the paperwork, background check, receipt, carrying case and...nothing.
“That’s it,” he said.
No background check. No name. No ID required. Not even a bag. I gave him money, he gave me an assault weapon. I think it’s a “long gun.” Maybe it’s a “military-style gun.” Or an “AR-type weapon.” All I know is that it can probably kill people (in case of emergency, of course). All I remember is how surprisingly clean the loophole was and how easy it is to buy a gun in America.
I did not tell my mother.