What It Feels Like

Posted on November 18, 2016


In 2000, I had just moved to London and was busy finding my place in a fantastic city that made my feet ache and my heart soar. We had all just shed the papery skin of an old millennium and eagerly marked the new one and all that it promised.

Then a man pointed and fired a gun at someone close to me and my shiny new world caved in.

One minute I was curled up on the sofa watching Sex and the City, the next I was sitting on a plastic chair in A and E, swallowing for air, watching this person’s blood- and shit-stained body convulse with pain on a trolley as he was taken to the operating theatre. There seemed to be no urgency. Later still, a detective reached into his pocket, brought out a plastic tube and rattled it in my face. In it was the hard gold and black bullet that surgeons had extracted from his blood and bone. My friend who was with me in the Relatives’ Room started to cry silently. But I just stared at that bullet, horrified at how big it was. How could anyone fire that, that, into another person’s body? How?

16 years on, it’s a question I am coincidentally trying to answer for a radio documentary – Why Do People Carry Guns? I’ve met plenty of people here in Texas who want to tell me that it is their constitutional right; that fear of crime propels people to gun stores; how you can only defeat a ‘bad guy with a gun’ by being a ‘good guy with a gun’. But saying you need a gun – and actually picking one up and firing it – are two different things.

Was there something I was missing? Would it feel glamorous and exciting to hold and fire a gun? Would it make me feel ten feet tall and impregnable? Would it just make a sanitised popping noise that didn’t sound like a gun? And would all of this cancel out the fact that I was holding a killing machine that could pierce someone’s flesh and end their life? I had to understand the physicality of it. I had to hold a gun and fire it.


So on a shooting range in Austin, Texas, under the supervision of an avuncular instructor clad in a T-shirt and baggy shorts, I picked up a gun and after ten minutes of training, aimed at a red circular paper target. I had an awful feeling about it – that it would be horrible, alien, frightening. But it couldn’t be that bad, or people wouldn’t be willing to do it, right?

The instructor told me to aim just below the target because the gun would rise up. My head was pounding from all the other shooting going on. I just wanted to get it over and done with. I quickly squeezed the trigger.


It wasn’t a pop. It wasn’t a thud – it’s a noise I have never heard before. And one I never want to hear again. A screaming bang. Dull but piercing at the same time. The noise of catastrophe . A noise you cannot escape from. A noise that picks you up by the scruff of the neck and screams its boiling breath in your face. It’s like the end of the world. It’s like being thrown off a cliff but only for half a second. That’s how long it takes to fire a gun, to defend yourself, to kill someone – however you look at it.

Maybe it gets easier the more you do it. But I still can’t square with myself how some people can unleash the fatal heft of a hard bullet into someone’s body – someone’s stomach, someone’s heart, someone’s head. I understand about defending yourself, that it’s ‘him or me’. But I know I couldn’t do it. Yet I had to check.

The person who was shot in 2000 survived, grateful for his life, but forever plagued by ill-health – his organs scarred by bullet fragments, his lungs heaving and watery to this day. When I see him and hug his soft flesh, I always cling on for a few seconds more than I should, inhaling his familiar smell. I always pinch the fabric of his jumper just to check. You’re still here. You’re still here.

The attacker, to our knowledge, is still in jail.

And I still don’t know why some people carry guns and fire them, but I’ll keep on asking anyway.

“Why Do People Carry Guns?” will be broadcast on the BBC World Service in January. 


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