A lot of us live on Outer Cape Cod because someone drew us here. My sister, Harriet Miller, was the one who got us to Wellfleet. She served on the planning board and was a teacher and a writer. She has been on my mind a lot this month, as she always is in February. She died of cancer at 67 on Feb. 8, 2006.
I’m behind on trying to edit Harriet’s memoir, one chapter of which begins with this sentence: “My husband had a hit list — and I was on it.”
The husband, John, whom she divorced in 1979, was a handsome engineer from Fayetteville, Ark., a graduate of Harvard Business School, an inventor, and a stock trader. He was also obsessed with guns. “About eight years after we married,” Harriet wrote, “my husband told me he had killed a man in Texas. I wondered if he was just trying to scare me.” The story, we both came to believe, was true.
My sister and I were city kids from New Jersey. Neither of us had any experience with or interest in guns, and we didn’t gain any by coming to live in Massachusetts, where just one household in eight has a firearm — the second-lowest rate of gun ownership in the U.S.
Still, guns are in the news here now. Reporter Sophie Mann-Shafir wrote last week about the role they play in suicide and how a panel discussion on that subject at Cape Cod Community College, organized by state legislators, brought out a large contingent of gun owners, there to deny that connection. “For you to tie this to guns, you politicians, is disgusting,” said one. Guns, said people in the audience, were being “scapegoated.”
Yet the connection is undeniable. Fifty-seven percent of all firearm deaths in Massachusetts are suicides. “We know that limiting access to guns when a person is at risk prevents deaths,” said panelist Karen Ellery Jones of the Samaritans.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data show that states with the lowest rates of gun deaths overall are those with strict firearms laws and low rates of gun ownership. More weapons and fewer restrictions on who can own them mean more people dying.
Don’t try to convince Kerrie Ann Auclair of Armed Women of America of that. “People think guns are weapons,” she told Mann-Shafir. “They’re not weapons. They’re just tools.”
After Harriet divorced him, John moved to Houston, where his obsessions with guns and day trading grew. He borrowed money from everyone who would lend it to him, including their two sons. On Feb. 16, 1983, their son Bobby, a talented artist who grew up in Framingham, confronted his father and demanded repayment of $11,000 he had lent him. John killed my nephew Bobby with a single round from his Mossburg 12-gauge shotgun. Bobby was 21. John eventually took his own life.
Ours is just one of millions of American families scarred and diminished by guns. The passage of time does not take that pain away, and we will not forget.