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[whitespace] Phil Filardo
Photograph by Kyle Cheeser

He just wants to feel safe: Gun Exchange owner Phil Filardo says gun sales are way up at his San Jose-based store.

A Bullet is Forever

Now that Bay Area residents are stocking up on guns, can we expect an increase in homicides, accidental killings and suicide?

By Justin Berton

SINCE THE ATTACKS of one month ago, the flower business is booming. Florists are stringing together bouquets at a record pace and delivery boys are working 14-hour days. Greeting cards are selling well, reports Hallmark.

And gun sales are way up, too. The California Department of Justice reported that in the three weeks following the Sept.11 attacks, Californians bought about 9,200 guns per week, compared to the usual 6,000-guns-per-week average the year before.

Phil Filardo, owner of the Gun Exchange on Almaden Expressway in San Jose, said business in his small store is about double compared to last year. "People feel violated since the attacks," Filardo said, sitting behind a glass counter filled with guns. "People usually buy for home protection, but this time people are moved by fear. It's more psychological than it is physical. People think if they have it in their home, they might feel safer."

Filardo wasn't finished. He reminded me that we live in a democracy, twice, and that the surge in gun sales is merely a reflection of Americans expressing their right to buy, or not buy, guns. "People like to feel safe. Don't you?"

With all the newbies stocking up on lethal weapons, I asked if Filardo feared a backlash. An increase in the misuse of guns. Accidental shootings, more homicides. Suicides.

"There's never been a study that proved it," Filardo said.

Suicidal Questions

In 1999, the New England Journal of Medicine published a controversial study that linked increased suicide rates with handgun purchases. The study followed 238,292 Californians who bought a handgun in 1991 and tracked their lifestyles for the next six years. In that group, suicide--by any means--was the leading cause of death during the first year of handgun ownership. (In fact, a fourth of the men who did kill themselves did it within the first month of ownership.)

The study was immediately dismissed by the National Rifle Association, on several grounds, and then virulently, after it learned the lead researcher was Dr. Garen Wintemute from the University of California at Davis. Wintemute was an emergency doctor who took on the gun industry in his 1997 book Ring of Fire.

Wintemute's conclusions in the study were reviewed by other reputable researchers who challenged his methodology. In an editorial rebuke of Wintemute's study, a trio of researchers, including Lloyd Potter of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued Wintemute's findings "do not demonstrate that the purchase of a firearm caused suicidal behavior, or actually increased the risk of suicide among those who purchased a gun."

The study pitched another fire between both sides of the gun debate.

Did Americans who wanted to commit suicide rush out and buy a gun? Or did those who committed suicide go ahead and do it because they already had a gun stashed in the basement?

The Living End

Here's a case study. About 10 years ago, the next-door neighbor of an ex-girlfriend got his hands on a gun, drove up to the mountains and committed suicide.

His name was Scott and, at the time, he was in his late 20s. Scott was the perennial friendly guy; he smiled and waved each time we drove up the driveway, stopped to chat about the latest neighborhood news, always offered kind words.

Scott's demeanor charmed people, especially parents, and even though he didn't seem to recognize it, he drew plenty of praise from the opposite sex. In several conversations he mentioned his eagerness to start a family. Many of Scott's buddies were proud bachelors, enjoying the best years of their single lives. Scott had no qualms about wanting children, and soon.

After Scott began dating a woman named Katie* (name changed) the relationship turned serious and his friends predicted a quick engagement. They were right. Much to Scott's delight, Katie already had a young child--a family in waiting. Within a few months a ring was purchased, a date was picked out, a future was planned.

Like every other couple, Scott and Katie maintained differences, and the grapevine rattled with the news that Katie might leave him. On Valentine's Day, Katie ended the relationship. Crushed, Scott sped away in his Jeep, and no one knew where he was headed.

After a few hours, Scott's family discovered their son had taken a gun from the house. Exactly who owned the gun or how it was accessed remains foggy; I only recall feeling astonished that Scott, the happy-go-lucky next-door neighbor guy, had driven off with a loaded gun, and was declared missing.

One long night passed before the cops called to report they found Scott's body, and his Jeep, on a side road in the mountains near Los Gatos. The wound was self-inflicted.

My last conversation with Scott took place inside the Chili's restaurant on the corner of Almaden Expressway and Blossom Hill Road, just a few nights before he killed himself. The discussion at the table surrounded the fat content of french fries.

"It's not the french fries that get ya," Scott said. "It's all the ketchup you put on 'em."

I disagreed at the time, for whatever reason, and for years after wished I hadn't. Like all those left in the wake of a suicide--no matter how removed my association--I fantasized that I could have altered one moment in Scott's life to reverse the outcome, that by just saying, "Yeah, dude," a string of positive events would have followed, and deflected his suicidal mind into a new direction. The real horror of suicide is that the string of events never change, and the fantasy never comes true.

None of us will ever know if Scott was plagued by suicidal thoughts, or for how long those thoughts may have terrorized him. Perhaps his subconscious had long ago penned the script to his demise: get rejected by fiancée, take gun, end it all in the mountains. Perhaps he was exorcising the demon of a lifetime.

But others believe Scott was a victim of the darkest hour of his life. Unfortunately, when that hour came, he had swift access to a handgun that was purchased long, long ago for reasons unrelated.

Fear Factor

The number one reason Americans purchase guns is for "self-protection," a uniquely American response, says Dr. George Muedeking, a professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Stanislaus State University. Americans prepare for the moment of danger--a burglar breaking into your house--like no other beings on the planet. Guns aren't only in our houses; they're in our blood.

"Purchasing guns in response to a crisis is an ongoing cultural tradition, especially here in the West and in the United States," Muedeking says. "This action goes back to our vigilante justice days, when individuals settled issues on their own, and used violence to do it."

Settlers of the American West arrived long before law enforcement, Mudeking says, and grew accustomed to bearing arms to determine justice. In Canada, for example, Mounties dug in before the citizens, and with them, an understood respect for law enforcement.

"In other countries, there's much more of a willingness to submit to the authority of the government. Even in countries that have relatively weak governments, they look to protection from the village, relying on the tightness of the community. Here, it's a lot different. We have a tradition of not trusting the government to protect us, and we find it very difficult to come together for protection from our community, basically, because we're all so different; we feel different than our neighbors."

According to the California Department of Justice, spikes in gun sales are traditionally attributed to one of two reasons: fear of getting hurt by an intruder--as was the case following the 1992 L.A. riots--and fear of losing the right to buy a gun--which followed the 1981 assassination attempt of President Ronald Reagan.

More recently, it was a combination of the two. In the days leading to Y2K, some Californians believed the infrastructure would collapse and looters would run wild--fear of getting hurt--and some realized several models of assault weapons would be banned come the New Year--fear of losing the right to buy a gun.

In the case of last month's terrorist attacks, no definition fits neatly. Mike Van Winkle has charted gun sales for the Department of Justice and says he can't put a finger on the recent bonanza. He says just days prior to the attacks, the Fish and Wildlife Department had sent out a mass email reminding hunters in the state to renew their tags; that may have simultaneously boosted gun sales. Also, gun sales usually get a bump in the fall season, all the way into the holiday season. He'll wait to hear from gun retailers in the months to come.

Yet Van Winkle says the last terrorist attack on U.S. soil didn't generate a call to arms. "People didn't go out and buy guns after the Oklahoma bombing. It just wasn't one of those things you felt like you could protect yourself from."

Brisk Business

It's been a month solid since the attacks, and business is average at the Santa Clara County Suicide and Crisis Hotlines, says spokesperson Joy Alexiou. The center witnessed about a 25 percent jump in calls on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday following the attacks, but those calls weren't just suicidal, Alexiou says. "Those calls were mostly, 'Hey I'm stressed, I'm concerned, I need somebody to talk to.'" By Tuesday, a week later, the center returned to the normal 75 to 78 calls a day.

Back at the Gun Exchange, owner Filardo guesstimated a 20 to 30 percent increase in guns sales across California this year. Business could grow, or dead-end any moment, he said. Pointing to a television set high on the wall, Filardo noted, "Business depends on how long this goes on in the media."

Filardo said he couldn't put a face on the average first-time buyer he's dealt with since Sept. 11. "Quite a few women, several elderly couples, a few retired men." He said they mentioned they were just looking for home protection. "If 10 drunk guys break into your house, and you didn't have anything to protect yourself with, what are you going to do? You can't do anything, that's what. If you've got a gun in the house you can do something. You feel safer knowing it's there.

"So, it may be an irrational leap, going from home protection to protecting against terrorism, but people feel violated just the same. And they want to feel safe again. Don't you?"

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From the October 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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