I learned about the power of guns when I was nine years old. I had a red felt cowgirl hat that tightened with a white cord under my chin, a holster made of stamped fake leather, and two toy metal six-shooters. When I waved them around shouting “Bang, bang!” I imagined myself out in The Wild West among the saloon owners and cattle rustlers I saw on TV—someplace like Texas.

I wasn’t at all prepared for the real thing. I’ll never forget the principal of my elementary school, his face stricken, telling us the news from Dallas: “The president has been shot.” He sent us home early, and for days afterward we sat in front of our TV watching the disturbing images over and over: the president slumping over in the motorcade car, Jackie spattered with his blood, Jack Ruby fatally shooting alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, the eerie rider-less horse in the funeral procession.

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I thought then that such shattering violence would be a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. I didn’t know that one renowned civil rights leader had already been assassinated that year in Mississippi. I couldn’t begin to imagine that within five years two more African-American leaders would also be murdered—along with voting-rights workers and freedom riders and the victims of lynch mobs—and that the brother of the president would also be gunned down by an assassin. Continue reading