David Hirst July 25, 2012
After a decade in the US, threatened and beaten, I knew I had to get a gun.
IN THE mid-1990s, I made a documentary which appeared on SBS called Living With the Gun. I had wanted to call it ''Critical Mass'' in reference to the 250 million handguns on the streets of America at that time. But maybe SBS wanted the word ''gun'' in the title. Centres the mind like a hanging.
To move to America and truly live as an American, as I did for more than 20 years, involves serious exposure to gun culture. Although I had written about crime in Australia and covered various royal commissions, my knowledge of crime was patchy, at best. But I hailed from Melbourne, Carlton to be exact, and had experienced the honour of having Christopher Dale Flannery - ''Mr Rent-a-Kill'' - pull a gun on me at Stewart's Hotel in 1981.
When I moved to Venice, California in the late '80s, I thought such things were behind me, but soon found myself immersed in a world of some of the nation's most eminent gangs. Extremely active ones: two African American and one Hispanic, all armed to the teeth to defend their territory and the control of the crack cocaine trade, the local economy. Dope could be bought at most stop signs, and the bars were awash with powder.
One neighbour, Jamie, was a committed crack smoker who, unhappily, was never committed - to jail. Though filthy rich he was a poor neighbour, and had taken to threatening local residents with his personal arsenal, which included a hand grenade.
John, our neighbour on the other side, was a school teacher who faced the gun problem on a daily basis - at school. He tolerated his students bringing AK47s to the classroom to display at ''Show and Tell''. He never judged them, but explained that it was their culture, how they survived. It was John who first approached the police about the ever-escalating neighbourhood crisis after Jamie took a sledgehammer to my '67 Mustang. The police called a ''community meeting'' and we gathered in John's living room to discuss the threat.
As I was the closest combatant, I was asked first what should be done. ''You should put him in jail,'' I told the cops.
Jailing Jamie, the senior LAPD officers gathered before us explained, was not possible at this stage. The courts were cluttered, and the wheels of justice were unlikely to move him towards a cell any time soon. In other words, the man had money behind him.
The officer in charge attempted to take an upbeat view of things and cheerfully suggested that I, as his closest neighbour, shoot him.
''You shoot him,'' I replied. ''You're the cops.''
The senior cop explained the difficulties they faced in shooting a white man with a rich mother, though they didn't say that precisely. However, he pointed out in a kindly fashion that if Jamie was to be shot, and if I could ensure that his body was on our property by the time he or a colleague arrived, all would go well for me. He would personally testify to the threat posed, and jail would be out of the question.
The level of gun violence in LA had become overwhelming, and my girlfriend and I decided to move to the more peaceful pastures of the high desert. We bought the home of a man who was packing, in the American sense of the word. I watched as he laid 21 guns on his bed, and wondered out loud whether he was expecting royalty. But these were just a few of his weapons. Most of his armoury had already been moved. Our new next-door neighbour (to be) was in prison at the time for shooting another neighbour point blank in the face in a dispute over who was the better shot.
Like the city, guns were everywhere in the desert. The local yoga guru packed a .357 Magnum. The saloon blues singer was committing his third robbery of the same nearby convenience store when the owner - a frail elderly woman - finally cried enough. ''You can have the money, but I'm not getting down on that floor again,'' she declared. The same man was to rob the same bank twice, not realising he had already held the place up.
I was the only person I knew that wasn't armed. Then, in early 2000, I was driving at night and stopped to try to prevent an assault on a woman in a town near my desert home. It was a bad mistake, and I was beaten savagely by members of the Aryan Nation - a white racist prison gang. When police became involved I became a target and, like everyone else, had to get a gun. A friend delivered a Winchester shotgun capable of killing close up or at a good distance.
So I had finally become a fully-fledged American citizen. In fact, when I left an America I had come to love despite its terrors, a final act was to return the shotgun, a pump-action killing machine that I doubt I will ever need in Australia.
David Hirst is an author, journalist and filmmaker. His documentaries include Living With The Gun.
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect description of a weapon.