One night about 50 years ago in Kansas, two madmen slaughtered a family of four in their farmhouse.
There was no reason for the killing.
The two drifters who killed the Clutters were ex-cons. Some delusional cellie in prison had lied about the Clutters stashing money in their house. When the drifters got out of prison, they decided to rob the Clutters.
When the drifters failed to find the non-existent money at the Clutter house, they executed them.
Of course you know all this. The Clutters, and their killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, were memorialized in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
But in rural America, long before the book was published, the Clutter murders forced families to take stock of their own vulnerability.
Our family lived on an isolated Arizona cattle ranch. Our closest neighbors lived more than 10 miles away. We didn’t have TV, and our electricity came from a generator. On cold nights, we listened to news accounts of the creepy Clutter murders on our static-laced battery-powered radio.
My mother later told me she swore she saw the Clutter killers drive by our ranch house en route to Las Vegas, where they were later arrested. She said they took the road past our house because it was a back road that connected to Route 66, and I have no idea whether she was imagining this. It doesn’t matter.
The point is, she was scared.
On some days, my mother and I were the only living souls at the ranch house — my father and the cowboys were far away working distant pastures.
Once, when my mother and I were alone, a car inched past our house, seemingly staking it. The car turned around, and drove past again, going the other way. Then it came back and stopped.
Two men got out and walked to the front door. My mother made me hide. She loaded her pistol. Separated by only a screen door from the men, who asked to come in the house for a glass of water, my mother pointed her pistol at the ground, where they could see it. She told them to move on, and lied that my dad and several others were in the back yard and they didn’t allow her to have strangers in the house.
The men backed off, got in their car and drove away fast. I don’t know if it was the gun, or my mother’s lie that did it.
But this story explains why we we had guns in rural Arizona, back when I was a kid.
After I became an adult and a reporter, I took a test and qualified for a concealed weapons permit just in case I needed protection during assignments on Arizona’s lonely roads.
But I have never felt the need to own a military-style assault weapon.
I don’t need the testosterone-tinged NRA, either.
And I surely don’t need Arizona’s lax gun-show laws, which allow killers to get assault weapons via straw buyers.
Sadly, these days I don’t even need a concealed-weapons permit since Arizona’s new NRA-Tea-Party-backed gun laws permit practically everyone to to carry concealed weapons without testing their ability to handle guns safely.
Can you imagine the additional carnage that would have occurred if whacked-out Kansas killers Perry Smith and Richard Hickock lived in Arizona — or passed through Arizona — today?
What would have happened if they had gotten their hands on military-style killing machines at Arizona gun shows — weapons like the ones that surfaced at the elementary school in Connecticut, at the Safeway parking lot in Arizona, at the movie theater in Colorado?
Take it from a gun owner: Assault weapons and NRA-backed laws don’t keep us safe.
They only make us more vulnerable.