A Snake CharmerTM is a shotgun. It's a cute little thing only twenty-eight and a half inches long, single shot, with a stainless steel barrel and a plastic grip. It takes a three-inch magnum .410 shell. That means, to those who don't know it, that the ammunition for this delightful shotgun is three-inches long and not quite a half-inch in diameter. When I moved across country, I left the one I had owned for twenty-years behind.
This was like parting with an old friend. If I had the talent, I would write an aria of farewell, like Colline singing goodbye to his old overcoat in La Boheme, for the truth is that I had purchased this shotgun from my best friend. Sad, leaving it like that, but necessary, or so I thought at the time.
I was sitting in my apartment in the heart of the coastal mountains of northern California studying road maps and thinking about what to take with me on this journey to Florida. I had narrowed it down to music, books, sculpture, and computer, but I had some odds and ends left over, including this shotgun. What should I do with it?
I've lived with guns in the house since I was a child. Dad kept a loaded .22 rifle and a 12-gauge shotgun leaning in a corner of the kitchen pantry, which was common practice among farmers in those days. He taught me how to fire that shotgun when I was seven, the same year he taught me how to drive the tractor. My brother, eight years older, had a regular gun closet in his bedroom with an assortment of pistols and rifles and shotguns that I envied. I used to carry his .22-short double-barreled derringer in my pocket when I was prowling around the countryside; I even took it to school with me once in the fourth grade for show-and-tell. Guns were part of everyday life in rural America during the 1940s and nobody thought anything about it.
Taking a gun along to college never occurred to me and several years passed before I bought one of my own. Pretty soon I owned a .22 revolver and a 30-30 rifle and my wife and I spent a couple of evenings every week out at the firing range, competing with each other. She always won. Then hard-times came and I sold them.
Later on we settled down in Santa Rosa, California, and we bought a house not far from the hospital where I worked. This was before the orchards that surrounded the city for miles were turned into subdivisions and I felt so safe that I used to walk to work at night. Sometimes we even forgot to lock the doors. We didn't own a gun.
Then one day the cops were chasing a car through town and the guy ditched it and started running through an old residential neighborhood, with the cops hot on his heels. The guy ran through the front door of one house, shot an old lady sitting there, ran out the back door, jumped the fence, ran through the back door of the next house, shot a young mother and child, ran out the front door and got away.
I read this front-page news story several times. The crazies had arrived. From the few crazies I had seen myself in the emergency room and from the stories I had heard about the new drugs on the streets, I guessed that we were entering a new era of risk and uncertainty. I decided to buy a gun.
I admit that the odds of surviving a surprise assault with a deadly weapon are mighty slim; that's why SWAT teams don't knock first at three a.m. Even if the old lady had been sitting in her rocking chair holding a loaded gun in her lap when the crazy ran through the door, she would probably not have had the time to fire it but she might have. A locked screen door might have slowed the guy down long enough for her to wake up and grab a gun and fire it. Maybe. We'll never know, she didn't have a gun.
Dad couldn't see the use of having an unloaded gun zipped into a padded case and locked into a closet. I couldn't either. I mean, if you needed the thing, you needed it right now, not five minutes from now. I didn't want anything complicated either; I had some experience with jammed cartridges and stuck safety locks and I wasn't about to take it apart and oil it and put it back together every month so it would work if and when the time came. I'm not interested in playing around with a gun any more than I'm interested in playing around with claw-hammer, so I wanted a smallish thing that could reliably pack a big wallop without a lot of fuss. I bought a gun catalog and I found the Snake CharmerTM. It just happened that my friend had one to sell.
I took it to the firing range and I fired it a few times just to convince myself that it worked. My wife fired it too and once again proved that she was a better shot. We taught our kids how to load it and fire it. That's it. We didn't use up even one box of shells. After that it gathered dust under the bed or on top of a bookshelf for year after year, seldom cleaned, but loaded, ready, and waiting.
Now what should I do with it? I tried to figure the odds. I would be alone, driving for ten to twelve hours a day, with at least two gas stops and two pit stops per day, and a motel stop at the end of the day, for four days. My pickup could break down and strand me in the middle of nowhere anytime. I could be stopped for speeding or for a burned-out tail-light. Whom did I have to fear the most? Crazies or cops?
You may think that this is an easy question to answer, but to me it was not easy. I knew cops and crazies both from the environment of the emergency room, where unheard of drugs and good old four-point leather restraints and lots of professional hands are available. I've never had to deal with these people face to face, alone, on the street or in my home or while I'm driving. I tried to imagine various possibilities.
Several images came to mind. Cops had taken to carrying multiple weapons and wearing bullet-proof vests and black uniforms. The black uniforms bothered me. Why black? These were no longer the "boys in blue" who were there to protect us, these were the men in black who were there to threaten us. It reminded me of Nazi history. Then there were images of Ruby Ridge and Waco and of SWAT teams murdering innocent people in their sleep in Los Angeles. Then there was my close friend, gut-shot by a cop in a restaurant parking lot for no good reason at all. These images added up to one conclusion: cops are dangerous people.
Funny, none of the images that worried me turned out to be images of crazies. I think I can see them coming, for one thing, although they don't wear uniforms and I may be deluding myself. Manson was still in prison, the last I heard, although Hollywood wants to forgive him and run him for Senate, like some other evil people they adore. Be that as it may, in the end I decided to leave my shotgun behind and to take my chances with the crazies rather than take any chances with the cops.
Well, I made it to Florida without a hitch, although I had a bad moment there at an Arizona checkpoint on the taxway. The guy asked me if I was an American citizen in English so broken I could not understand him at first. I started laughing, you see, thinking of Heinlein novels, and the guy was reaching for his gun by the time I said, "Yes! I'm a tax-paying American citizen!" Okay, he was probably a rookie. God save us from rookies.
America is beautiful. We can drive freely across a continent and speak the same language everywhere, we can use the same currency for money, we can shop at nearly identical stores, and one motel or gas station is much like another. Neighborhoods too, the construction materials may differ, but the way we live throughout the country is much the same. Unfortunately, so are the crazies and the cops. I was kind of hoping there would be a difference.
One of the first stories I heard in Florida was about a crazy who randomly murdered people living near railroad tracks. I decided not to live near a railroad track. Recently I read about a cop killing an unarmed college kid during a routine traffic stop. Then I saw the local SWAT team proudly hailed on the evening news. Too much! It's just like California. So I'm back to square one, should I buy another gun?
Against the cops there is no defense. Zero. Zip. Don't even think about it. Cops have the legal monopoly on the use of deadly force and there is nothing we can do short of changing the nature of government itself. If the SWAT team hits the wrong address, we're dead meat. If a nervous rookie misinterprets our intentions, we're dead meat. But what about the crazies? What are the odds that a couple of crazies would run through an unlocked door during a dinner party and kill everybody in the house for fun, as a couple of crazies did in Kansas not so long ago? Would a little .410 loaded with one 00 buckshot shell make a difference?
Yes, well, now that I've thought it over again, I'm going to go out and buy myself a brand new Snake CharmerTM. You just never know when you might need one.
April 18, 2001
Robert Klassen is a medical technician and writer. Here’s his web site.