5 Vermonters talk about guns
A question from a listener prompts a different kind of conversation about guns. Reporter Erica Heilman talks with five Vermonters about how their lives have been impacted by them and why they have them.
Listener Rachel M. posed this question to Brave Little State, Vermont Public’s listener-powered journalism show: “Vermont has experienced a mass shooting, yet many own guns. Why? As a liberal-but-rural state, what's our take on this national crisis?”
It’s a question that raised many more questions for reporter Erica Heilman: Has Vermont had a mass shooting? Is Vermont a liberal state? And who's “we”? When Rachel asks, “What do we think about the national gun crisis?”, who gets to speak for all of us?
Now the question, “Why do so many Vermonters have guns?” That's a question with lots of answers.
Content warning: This episode contains conversation about suicide, domestic and sexual violence, some un-bleeped swearing, substance abuse and gun violence, which might be difficult for some to hear.
Note: Our show is made for the ear. We recommend pressing play on the audio posted here. For accessibility, we also provide a transcript of the episode below. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Myra Flynn: From Vermont Public, this is Brave Little State. I’m Myra Flynn. This episode was reported by Erica Heilman. You may know her from our Vermont Public airwaves, or her own award-winning show, Rumble Strip, where she talks to people about their everyday human experiences. And now, she’s taking a turn with us here on Brave Little State. Welcome.
Lena Donofrio: Let's see, it was like, a week and a half actually, before opening night of the play. I was in chemistry class. And we were all actually just like, about to get out of our seats in a couple minutes to go to homeroom for 10 minutes. And over the intercom, they said, "Clear the halls."
Erica Heilman: Did it sound, did it feel different from a drill? Just the way it was said?
Lena Donofrio: We all knew it was different immediately, because they didn't say, "This is a drill," which they usually do. So, you know, that silence of not saying "it's not a drill," that was pretty loud, like we all knew. Then, like a minute later, they say, "This is a lockdown. Everyone get into lockdown." I remember I was pushed up against a desk, and I could see the door very clearly from where I was. And, like, most of the good spots were taken at that point.
I remember just staring at the door and thinking like, I have so little control over who could come in through that door right now. And one of my friends was on her phone. She was almost crying. And she said, "One of my friends texted me. They heard from their parents that somebody has a gun in the school." And I was like, well, dang.
I was in that room thinking all the little things that I was looking forward to, like Facetiming Edie, my older sibling. I was going to do that later that week. We’d made a plan to Facetime. And I was like, I might not get to Facetime Edie ever again. We were going to have the play. While I was in the room I had that, like, what if I just didn't get to do those things? Just somebody came in this room and bam. Over.
Erica Heilman: That's high school sophomore Lena Donofrio, after an active shooter false alarm at Montpelier High School in February.
(sound of birds)
Erica Heilman: And this is the sound of spring near my house, which I recorded over the last couple weeks.
In the weeks that I've been talking with people for this show and recording the first sounds of spring, there have been at least 63 mass shootings in this country. That’s according to the Gun Violence Archive. Also in these first weeks of spring, we’ve seen people getting shot for knocking on the wrong door, mistakenly getting in the wrong car, driving up the wrong driveway, asking a neighbor to be quiet. And the cost of these shootings is inexplicable, and the end seems nowhere in sight. So today’s winning question is either auspicious or especially awful. But in any case, it's timely. Here's the question from listener Rachel M of Burlington:
“Vermont has experienced a mass shooting, yet many own guns. Why? As a liberal-but-rural state, what's our take on this national crisis?”
We couldn't reach Rachel to talk more about this question. So I've been giving it a lot of thought on my own. And I'm filled with my own questions.
First, have we had a mass shooting in Vermont? There’s actually no firm agreement on a definition, but according to the Gun Violence Archive, a mass shooting is an event where four or more people are either injured or killed. So in that sense, yes. Vermont has seen mass shootings. There have been at least three horrible shooting incidents in the state where four people have been injured or killed. But Rachel's question is tricky, because sadly, we've all sort of become sort of expert in mass shootings. And what we think of when we hear that phrase, "mass shooting," is near indiscriminate killings in public places, where many more are killed and injured. And thankfully, Vermont hasn’t seen one of those.
Also, Rachel describes Vermont as a liberal-but-rural state. Is Vermont a liberal state? In some places, yes, but huge parts of our state and the people who live there would not call themselves liberals.
And last, who's "we"? When Rachel asks, "What do we think about the national gun crisis?", who gets to speak for all of us?
Now the question, "Why do so many Vermonters have guns?" That's a question with lots of answers. And I like that question because it’s not "What should we do about guns?" or "What do you believe about guns?" I mean, we hear a lot already about what people want to do about guns, and everyone on every side of this debate is either angry or heartbroken or both. So what happens if we talk about guns but no one is allowed to say "We should do this" or "We should change that?" What would happen if we just talked about guns?
So, for this show, I talk with some people about why they have guns. And I talk with people whose lives have been impacted by guns. These are only five people, five stories, five of the "we" referred to in Rachel's question, but I'm hoping there's some utility in listening to these stories, that this kind of conversation adds some missing ingredient to a very polarized debate about guns.
Erica Heilman: To start, just say your name, so I have it at the top of the thing.
Bob Hoffman: Hi, I'm Bob Hoffman. I live in West Danville, Vermont. And I'm an old guy, 83 and a half, and I'm interested in talking to you.
Erica Heilman: Okay, so why, why do you have guns?
Bob Hoffman: Well, I have guns because I've always had guns. At a young age, I became interested in hunting. And then my father bought me a brand new .22 rifle. I was probably 13 or 14. The main thing I wanted to do was go hunting with it. We had fox squirrels in Ohio, and I shot a few squirrels with it. A lot of people hunted squirrels, and they ate squirrels. I thought that's what you did! You shot squirrels and you ate squirrels. Otherwise, there'd be no reason to shoot it. And I took guns for granted. I thought, like, a lot of people had guns. I felt like it was instinct. I don't know where the impulse came from. It was just there. Nobody taught me, nothing like that.
Erica Heilman: Can you talk about your first deer?
Bob Hoffman: Yes, I shot my first deer at age 14. The deer weighed 123 pounds. Now I couldn't even drag an 80-pound deer. So that was my first deer.
Erica Heilman: And did you eat that deer?
Bob Hoffman: Oh, yeah! My dad butchered it because he could butcher good. Yeah, we ate the deer.
Erica Heilman: I haven’t ever shot a deer. But I imagine, you’re facing the first thing you've killed, the first deer you've gotten. And I'm wondering, what that's like?
Bob Hoffman: Well, I can't remember. I'm sure I was starting to shake about then.
Erica Heilman: Why, why?
Bob Hoffman: Well, just because of what just happened. It just all happened right there within seconds. I sort of remember gutting it out and seeing all that blood run out and feel the hot blood.
Erica Heilman: And what's that like?
Bob Hoffman: Well, it actually felt good — the warm blood — and I realized I'd taken a life. But I felt I had done something that was natural.
Erica Heilman: You said to me on the phone, you were talking about an instinct — how to manage guns, how to use them, and how not to use them. Can you talk about what decorum is and where you developed your own kind of decorum around guns?
Bob Hoffman: Well, yeah, I couldn't even point an empty gun at somebody. Where's it come from? I guess a total respect for guns, just how lethal they are. Yeah. I guess if I thought about it, how would it feel if somebody pointed a gun at me? You know, it'd be terrifying. I mean, why would you point a gun at anybody unless — I suppose if you wanted to totally scare somebody to see your view or get out of your way. You know, I don't even know if somebody broke into our house and I could get a hold of the gun. I don't even know that I could get a hold of the gun because the ammunition, I don't even know where it is. And if you're going to have a gun to protect yourself, you got to have a loaded gun right at your hand. But even then, I suppose I could shoot someone. I mean, this is all hypothetical. But if I really felt threatened but it’d be awfully hard to point a gun at somebody and pull the trigger.
Erica Heilman: So why don't you keep a gun for self-protection?
Bob Hoffman: I guess I just feel so safe that I never need it.
Erica Heilman: What do you know, because you're a hunter, because you've had all these years of hunting, what do you know that you wouldn't otherwise know?
Bob Hoffman: Well, I have a deep reverence for the earth. But I've spent many, many years in the woods not hunting too. I just plain like to be there. I like to smell the woods. I like to see the leaves coming down and land on the water. Wildlife is everywhere! It's abundant.
Erica Heilman: You're talking in a way that there's love in what you're saying about the wildlife that you see, and also your instinct is to hunt. Many people don't understand that. Can you explain that? How can you both love and want to take the life of?
Bob Hoffman: Because I'm a predator, and I have no doubt that I'm a predator. And I love for wildlife to have habitat. We as human predators, we can destroy our prey, we could wipe them off. But we've wisely chosen to go the other way. And that's to provide for them through the years with habitat and hunting seasons that reflect that these animals can be used but must be taken care of.
I and a lot of other people use guns so responsible that it ... isn't even related to all this stuff that's going on in some other parts of the country.Bob Hoffman
Erica Heilman: So this is the question from the question-asker: Vermont has experienced a mass shooting yet many Vermonters still have guns. We are a small, rural, progressive state. What do we think about the national gun crisis?
Bob Hoffman: Well, why do other people have guns in Vermont? Probably the same reason I do! They grew up with them. The gun was always sitting there in the corner. A lot of them hunted. And how did we get from that — what to me is a benign use of guns — to going and starting to kill people by the numbers. I'm alarmed at the national gun crisis. I can understand people saying, "Y’all, they shouldn't have these guns with these…", you know, I don't even know what the guns are, AR? I don't even know what an AR-15 is. But I know they're quite a killing machine. And you sure as hell don't need them to go hunting. I don't know why they would go off and kill somebody they don't even know, or somebody they even know. I can't I can’t understand it. But I do wish we could do something about it. And I don't know what that is because I certainly don't want a restriction on my guns. I and a lot of other people use guns so responsible that it does, it isn't even related to all this stuff that's going on in some other parts of the country. Just somebody goes off off just over the cliff. And you know, it's a dangerous machine. It's just like a car. It's a dangerous machine if you don't use it wisely.
Aimee Nolan: My name is Aimee Nolan and I am a police officer. I'm a detective sergeant with the Vermont State Police in the Major Crime Unit. And I have been doing this position for five years. But I have been a law enforcement officer since 1995. So 28 years, almost 29.
Erica Heilman: For all those out there who have experienced gun crime on TV only, what does it actually look like, feel like? What is gun crime in real life?
Aimee Nolan: It's messy. It's messy. Again, in my role as a crime scene investigator, you know, gun violence leads oftentimes to death. Violent deaths, you know, suicides can be very messy that involve a firearm. You know, there's a lot of trauma involved if there are witnesses or families that maybe come across their loved one or find their loved one deceased, whether it's a self-inflicted gunshot wound, or someone does it to them. So there can be a lot of trauma involved because they are typically messy. So there's blood, there's tissue, there's brain matter, there's skull parts. I mean, they can be very messy. They don't show you typically on television the same level of violence and injury that you might see in real life for for, you know, homicides and suicides. So, we are seeing an uptick in drug-related homicides involving firearms. And then, obviously, I have also seen domestic-related gun violence, homicides. As a detective, I've also seen a lot of suicide-by-guns. So I've kind of seen the full gamut of it.
Erica Heilman: Have you had reason in your work to need a gun?
Aimee Nolan: I have never shot anyone. I have had to pull my firearm, you know, on someone I've had to draw down on someone, and I don't even remember unholstering my weapon. And it happens so fast, right?
Erica Heilman: So when you're doing it even in a training circumstance, you've never had to, you've never shot anybody. But you have held someone at gunpoint. And that to me is a profound thing.
Aimee Nolan: It's a very serious thing. Like, I would never draw my weapon unless I was at the level where I might have to use it, like it would never be used as a scare tactic. You know, it's a very serious thing. If I'm pointing my weapon at someone, I am one finger-pull away from potentially taking their life. So it's a very serious thing.
Erica Heilman: Okay, so you've drawn and then what is happening between you and that person? Like, you are having a communication with somebody who is on the other side of a gun.
Aimee Nolan: Correct. It's heavy, it's heavy. You know, you're giving commands and hoping, you know, that they're complying. And you're definitely yelling, usually you're yelling. It's a very excited moment. And like I said, if you're, if you have your weapon drawn, it's for a reason. And so you are yelling at them. And a lot of times you'll see videos of, you know, either uses of force or lethal force use and the officer is screaming. And oftentimes the F-bomb is dropped. You know, "Get the eff down! Drop your effing, whatever, hands!" You know, whatever it might be. It's very tense. It's very tense knowing what could happen. And of course, anybody who says that there's no fear involved that's a law enforcement officer, in my opinion, is lying. Like, if you aren't afraid, when you're when you have your weapon drawn, and you might have to use lethal force, then, you know, obviously, we're not afraid to take action because we're taking it. But I can't imagine having my weapon drawn and not being afraid of what could happen next.
Erica Heilman: So the question-asker asks, "Vermont has experienced a mass shooting yet many own guns, why? As a liberal but rural state, what's our take on this national crisis?
Aimee Nolan: Well, that's a lot to unpack. Let's see, why do Vermonters own guns? I think there's a number of reasons. Some people are just collectors. Some people are hunters. Some people have them for sport, they skeet shoot, they competitively target shoot. There are people who have them for self-protection. There are a number of reasons why Vermonters own guns. There's a lot of history involved in Vermonters owning guns. Vermont has not always been a liberal state like the listener asks.
Erica Heilman: And not all parts of Vermont are liberal.
Aimee Nolan: And not all parts of Vermont are liberal. There's still some very conservative parts. And so, historically, Vermont was very conservative and owning a gun was just a rite of passage. It was just what you did. And so there are still a lot of native Vermonters, you know, many generations over, that owning guns is just what you do. And many of the guns in Vermont are handed down from generation to generation. And, yeah, I mean, there's a lot of different reasons to own guns. We have not experienced what some of the nation has experienced. And I thank God for that every day. But yeah, I think that a lot of people feel like owning a gun is a right that they have. And...
Erica Heilman: Do you feel it's the right you have?
Aimee Nolan: I do. I do. Because I haven't given anyone a reason to say that I should have that right taken away. I own personal guns. I don't shoot them often. I enjoy shooting. I've done different, you know, target shooting and sport shooting and a very small amount of hunting. But I do. I do feel like it's my right. You know, I hate the fact that these incidents that are happening nationwide are putting such, you know, a black eye, if you will, to every single gun. There's a much larger population of responsible gun owners than there are irresponsible gun owners. But with that said, how do you look someone in the face who is a family member that lost someone due to a violent gun crime? How do you do that? I couldn't look someone, you know, in the face that's lost someone to a violent crime involving a gun, and say it's my right.
Erica Heilman: So how do you square that?
Aimee Nolan: I know. How do I square that?
Bonnie Boyce: My name is Bonnie Boyce. We are currently in Wells River, Vermont. I met my husband actually through a Tupperware party. I was selling Tupperware and he showed up with his girlfriend. And eventually we got together. Come to find out, he's an alcoholic. And he was in dry-out. And when he got out of dry-out, he was like this new person. And you could never ask for a better man. So we ended up getting together. We moved in together, got married, had a great wedding.
So for the first four years of our marriage, it was awesome, couldn't have asked for anything better. And then eventually, he just started slowly getting back into the alcohol — got into Budweiser and then got into the hard stuff. So the last six or so years of our marriage, not one day did I see him sober. Then it got to where he was very verbally abusive, name calling and degrading and basically trying to break me down to think that nobody else would ever want me. He smoked so bad that I had burn holes everywhere throughout the house, including right on the toilet seat between your legs. Another time he was drunk, he reached over. We had a recliner and then another recliner — and his recliner was on this side and mine was on this side and the cat was in the middle. I had a cat that I had for 19 years before I had to put him down. The cat was in the middle, he reached over and just lit the cat's tail on fire. You know, and that's just some of the mental crap that I had to deal with.
So I felt trapped because financially I didn't think I could do it on my own. He would be obnoxious and drunk and stuff. I'd call the state police, they would come, they would tell me, "You've got to get out, you've got to get out." And I never did.
Erica Heilman: So the cops would come periodically to tell you to leave or say you should leave. But were they ever concerned about the guns in the house?
Bonnie Boyce: They were because they were everywhere, scattered throughout the house. I mean, I can't tell you how many guns we had. It was in the double digits. They were concerned, you know, they didn’t come out and say, "This is what's going to happen if you don't get out." I felt like, you know, I'm stuck. I'm stuck in this abusive relationship. Again, not physically abusive, but verbal abusive stays with you. Bruises go away.
So I told him. I said I was done. "I can't compete with Budweiser anymore. And so I'm out. I'm filing for divorce. You'll be getting served on this day." And then that night in June, he decided that night that I wasn't leaving. He wrote up kind of like his last will and testament, I guess, I don't know what you would call it. And he signed it in blood. That night I went to bed and about midnight or a little after he comes in and woke me up with a shotgun. He shot the phone out, which was a foot away from my head where I was sleeping. Once I woke up I realized what was going on and I saw the guns and I saw what happened. I'm like, "Okay, this is it. This is it. I'm done." I'll never forget that night as long as I live. It's like it just happened. And I knew at that point in time, if I want to live tonight, I need to fight for my life or I'm not going to live the night.
So I got up, I flung the covers, I'm like, "What the hell are you doing? Think about what the hell you're doing!" He says, "I have thought about it for a long time." He had another gun with him because once he shot the 12 gauge shotgun, well, you have to load it again. And so he had the .22 with him, fully loaded. He's standing next to the bed and he looks at me holding the .22 saying, "If you want to live tonight, strip." He was going to rape me, kill me and commit suicide — is what his plan was that night. I wrestled the .22 away from him.
Erica Heilman: How? How did you do that?
Bonnie Boyce: I grabbed it. I just grabbed it. It was fairly easy, actually, because he was so drunk. I ran out of the bedroom, slammed the door behind me to slow him down as much as possible. I took the gun, I flung it outside. And the way it landed, you know, it did like the somersault as it’s in the air. And the way it landed was the barrel facing me. And I didn't realize until the next day that this gun was fully loaded, it was a .22 and it had 19 more rounds in it. Anyways, he tried blowing his head off with a double-barrel shotgun, a 16 gauge, double-barrel shotgun. The barrel was too long. He couldn't reach the trigger with the barrel under his throat. So that never happened. So he went to jail for three years. And then cancer got him. So he ended up passing away.
Once I woke up I realized what was going on and I saw the guns and I saw what happened. I'm like, "OK, this is it. This is it. I'm done."Bonnie Boyce
Erica Heilman: The presence of these guns all around you and this really erratic man, when you look back on that, is that a relevant fact in the experience of being with this guy?
Bonnie Boyce: I never gave the guns in the house a second thought, never. I was taught at a very young age how to handle guns and I hunted every year. I had my hunting license. I hunted every year. In fact, today I have guns in my house. And I shoot today. I couldn't for many, many years. In fact, for the longest time after that incident, I was petrified of any gun sounds or anything. As soon as I’d hear a gunshot, I would just duck because I was scared to death. I didn't know what was coming at me. So it got to the point where the more I heard gunshots even though I couldn't see the guns, I'm like, you know, it's really not that bad. And my neighbor down here — they were out shooting — and I said, "Can I take a shot?" You know, at this point in time it's been almost 20 years. She goes, “Yeah.” It was just a .22. I was shaking. But I pulled that gun up like I always do. I was like, dead on. I'm like, OK, I still got it. I can do this. I can do this.
Erica Heilman: Was that important to you?
Bonnie Boyce: That was very important to me.
Erica Heilman: Why?
Bonnie Boyce: Because I grew up with a hunting family. I hunted myself for years, even though I never got anything because I'm the type of person where if I see a deer I'm gonna go, "Oh, you're so cute!" I just want to pet them and make a pet out of them. I don't think I could ever kill one. But…
Erica Heilman: So you needed to get right with guns again so that you could hunt and not shoot deer?
Bonnie Boyce: Correct. It’s just the joy of being, like, out in the woods, out in nature. That's just me. That's why I live in the woods. I live out in the middle of nowhere.
Erica Heilman: OK, let me ask you, the mass shootings that happen in this country have been happening for a very long time now. So having been on the wrong side of a gun, what can you understand that maybe I couldn't understand, when you see news about the shootings? Is there something that you understand that I couldn't?
Bonnie Boyce: The ones who actually survive from it, I know what they're going through. You know, it never crosses your mind to be that kind of a victim. Before when I used to hear about these — before that happened to me — I'd be like, you know, feeling sad for the people or whatever. And now it's beyond feeling sad. I am so heartbroken for those victims. The ones that don't make it, for their families. The ones that do make it, for them and their families, because this doesn't only touch the victim. It touches the families. So, and it's something that is very hard to get over. Very hard to get over. Not everybody is strong enough to get over it. I'm one of the lucky ones.
Erica Heilman: Start by saying your name and where we are.
John Rodgers: John Rogers, West Glover, Vermont.
Erica Heilman: OK. And you said a minute ago, you were talking about how, you know, historically, there's no police. There's no law enforcement around here. So one reason you might have a gun is for self protection. I mean, just maybe describe… I mean, we're in the middle like, it's hundreds of acres, and it's all your relatives.
John Rodgers: It's in West Glover, which is in the town of Glover. My paternal grandmother first settled in the early 1800s here.
Erica Heilman: The point that I'm making is that you are, we’re sitting in front of a big picture window, and there's no house. (laughter)
John Rodgers: There's no house. No, there's no close neighbors. You can see the Andersonville farm across the valley through the trees, but that's about it, yeah.
Erica Heilman: OK. So is part of why you have guns for self-protection?
John Rodgers: Oh, absolutely. I like to tell people, I don't think my house is gonna burn but I have a fire extinguisher. I have several of them. You know, they're placed all around the house. And if the house catches on fire, I have a fire extinguisher.
Erica Heilman: I’m afraid I won’t know how to use mine when the time comes. (laughter)
John Rodgers: And that is absolutely a thing.
Erica Heilman: Is it?
John Rodgers: Well, because if you need a fire extinguisher, or if you need a gun in an emergency, you're rattled usually. It's an emergency, there's shit’s going wrong. And so you do need to know how to use it, you need to be well-versed on it. And it's the same with firearms. But I mean, we've had times on the farm where we've had rabid animals.
Erica Heilman: OK, so rabid animals, that's one potential offender on your property. Are you also braced against human intrusion?
John Rodgers: Well, I think anybody that's responsible prepares for anything. I mean, that's always been my motto: work for peace and prepare for anything. Nobody ever knows what's going to land in their front yard. There are a lot of dangerous people out there. And I hope to get through life without ever having to harm another human being. But, if it comes to the point where there is an evil person threatening to do harm to my loved ones, I will have no problem defending my loved ones or my community.
Erica Heilman: Do you enjoy shooting guns?
John Rodgers: Oh, yeah, absolutely love it. We have a skeet thrower. And every once in a while when both of my boys are home, we will go out in one of the back fields or pastures and we'll just fling skeet out and take our shotguns and take turns hitting clay pigeons. It's, yeah, it’s great fun. And when my kids were little, we had a little shooting range out back of our other house. A lot of times I would come home and there would be five or six or 10 kids there. And they'd be shooting skeet and they'd be target practicing, you know, and those kids had all been trained early. They all hunted. I was never worried about them. And every one of them, I mean, went on to be successful, tax-paying individuals.
Erica Heilman: It's funny that you say that. Like, why would I assume that they would be anything else?
John Rodgers: I don't think you would. But just based on some of the rhetoric I've seen on social media — I've literally seen this comment: "training to be the next mass murderer." I mean, a lot of “antis” [sic] think that kids that grow up with guns are going to kill people. And when I was in high school we literally took our guns to school during hunting season. And nobody thought of it. We literally would go out at lunchtime and everybody would check out what everybody else deer hunted with and nobody ever thought of shooting somebody. It just blows my mind that in that reasonably short period of time we've gone from there to here.
Erica Heilman: Can you show me your guns?
John Rodgers: Yeah, absolutely.
Erica Heilman: Yeah, so we're looking at a safe that's about, I don't know, five feet tall.
John Rodgers: So, yeah, so like, that one is just a funky old .22 rifle that's probably been handed down through the family for years. This is one of my grandfather's. This is actually a firearm that was first made in the early 1900s. And that's what my grandfather killed many, many deer with. He was an excellent deer hunter. To me, that right there, is like the crown jewel. This is my AR-10, the .308. And so see when I'm hunting, if I'm crouched in a hedgerow and I need to shorten it, I can shorten that stock up. If I'm out in the field, where I've got a nice long shot, I can pull it back out like this so that I get the longer shot.
Erica Heilman: Is this a gun only for deer hunting?
John Rodgers: You could shoot anything with it, but it's a bit overkill if you're shooting woodchucks. Usually you would go to the .223 because the .308’s a fairly large caliber. And this is my 12 gauge pump and here's the, you know, (pump action sound) there's the sound you've heard on television 1,000 times. It's a beat up, crappy gun, but, like, when we are having trouble with coons or woodchucks or some varmint in the crops, this gets thrown in the truck or it gets thrown in the tractor. So this is not that valuable a gun that I can throw in anything and not worry about banging it up. It's made of composite. I'm not going to scratch it.
Erica Heilman: OK, so I'm standing here with you and you're holding a gun, and every time you put the gun back in the safe, I feel anxious.
John Rodgers: Right? And for people who aren't used to them, I can understand it totally.
Erica Heilman: Well, also, you have a whole lifetime of sort of sensory memory of those sounds.
John Rodgers: Exactly.
Erica Heilman: My only sensory memory of those sounds is from television.
John Rodgers: Yeah. Which is always negative when it's on television. Yep.
Erica Heilman: Or on the news.
John Rodgers: Yep. This is a 20 gauge I bought my wife a few years ago, because the 12 gauge for a woman to shoot is quite a kick. It's a large bullet. A 20 gauge is still substantial, but far less kick.
Erica Heilman: So why does she need a gun?
John Rodgers: Well, if I'm, if at some point, not here, and she feels threatened, I want to make sure she has the ability to get something that is going to make her feel safe. Because like I said, if you hear a thump in the night — somebody breaking glass — you can call 911. But, you better be prepared to stall. We don't have a ton of police in the area. And they cover a huge area, if they happen to be up in the Island Pond area responding to something, even if they jumped in their cars and drove straight here, it's an hour. So you really are independent out here.
Erica Heilman: Somebody might hear that and say you're being paranoid.
John Rodgers: I'm not paranoid, I'm prepared.
Generally speaking, when you are in favor of gun rights and the Second Amendment and Article 16, many people want to tie you to the Right. And I am not Right.John Rodgers
Erica Heilman: When I hear "we have to be prepared" I think of Ruby Ridge or that, you know, that's what comes to mind. So that's not what you mean here?
John Rodgers: No, not really. I mean, OK, so think about this, we know that there's a ton of different governments that are constantly trying to hack our grid, right? What happens if one of them successfully does it? The trucks aren't going to be running, the grocery stores are not going to be full. I'm going to be able to go out and get a deer. That's what I'm talking about, prepared. We're prepared. And, you know, quite frankly, after January 6th, the insurrection at the Capitol, quite frankly, I'm a little bit worried about some of the crazies in our own country.
Erica Heilman: Do you feel as though, do you think that people, or have you personally felt that people have made assumptions about your politics?
John Rodgers: I don't know if you can actually quickly connect it to a bunch of things. But you can say that, generally speaking, when you are in favor of gun rights and the Second Amendment and Article 16, many people want to tie you to the Right. And I am not Right.
Erica Heilman: So you are not a righty? You don't consider yourself a right winger?
John Rodgers: I’m not a righty and I'm not a lefty. I'm a moderate. And I'm a Democrat. I'm a Vermont Democrat just like my grandfather was.
Joe Smith: My name is Joe Smith. I'm a veteran of Operation Desert Storm. I served with the 101st Airborne Division. I was an infantryman there. But unfortunately, Erica, you know, a lot of the things that you see in the service of your country, you can’t unsee that. And also unfortunately, a lot of the things that you do, you can’t undo those either. And that messes with you over time. Over time, I went for twenty years undiagnosed with PTSD and anxiety related to my service. No regrets. I want to make that perfectly clear. You know, I would not change a thing.
So twenty years of depression and untreated PTSD, not dealing with those demons, you know, that was bad. It ruined my marriage. I was with my ex-wife for 20 years, married for 12 of those. And we had two beautiful daughters. Yeah, we went through this whole breakup. It wasn’t good. Not seeing my babies every day, I wasn't expecting how hard that was going to hit me. At the time, I was seeing a therapist and the medication that I was on was a benzodiazepine. One of the side effects of this stuff, which I did not know at the time was suicidal tendencies. And I'm not blaming the medication.
You know, the breakup, not seeing my children, and the medication as well. Throw some drinking on top of that too. There's your perfect storm. And sometimes that shit breaks you. I still remember the thought: "This is never going to end. It’s only going to get worse." That level of hopelessness, you just want it to end. "This will end right now" — I remember having that thought.
The weapon went off while I was clearing it. I wanted to believe that.
Erica Heilman: So how did you realize that you'd made a choice?
Joe Smith: About a month before I got out of the hospital, and after having this conversation dozens of times with my psychiatrist, I left a note. He handed it to me, after me explaining my theory for the thousandth time. And then he just left. I'm not a doctor. But that was genius. That was the best therapy I got. I was free to accept the fact that I made that decision.
Erica Heilman: What did your note say?
Joe Smith: It mentioned some friends of mine. I want to give this to this friend of mine. I want my kids to have my pictures.
Erica Heilman: So there you were, alone with a note that you had no idea even existed?
Joe Smith: Yeah, yeah, it was like a light went on. A light that made noise that went on. So I was in the hospital for five months. There's a substantial amount of trauma to my skull and my brain. Traumatic brain injury. It broke my skull in 24 different places. I lost my eye, lost some teeth. I lost a piece of my frontal lobe, lost a piece of my tongue. My jaw was wired shut for 10 weeks. It’s a really good weight loss program.
Erica Heilman: That’s a lot of yogurt. (laughter)
Joe Smith: It’s a lot of Boost. It’s a lot of that nutrient drink; I was having that three times a day. I guess what I would want to put out there in the ether, given this opportunity to do that, is for anyone who’s thinking that sort of thing, think about what happens if you survive. Think about the discussion that you're gonna have to have with your children explaining to them why you did that. Think about looking your parents in the eye when they got that call in the middle of the night and dropped everything to travel a thousand miles to see you. Think about the people in your life that care about you that were absolutely shocked that that happened. Think about the idea that there are going to be people in your life regardless of whether you realize it or not, that are gonna blame themselves for what you did.
Erica Heilman: Is there any part of you that blames the gun?
Joe Smith: At that time, I saw it as a tool to end my pain, end my suffering — quick. Looking back at it now, trigger locks, gun safes. Now, in the state of mind and the state of sobriety that I was in that moment...
Erica Heilman: Sobriety, or lack thereof?
Joe Smith: Correct, I was saying that sarcastically... If I had that obstacle, if I had that 30 seconds to think twice about what it was that I was doing, my life might be very different today. I firmly believe that.
Erica Heilman: There's a visceral knowledge that you have having failed to kill yourself. It’s a different kind of clarity. We are here on a spring day. And here you are.
Joe Smith: You know, with all those injuries I can't smell anymore, I can't taste anymore. Never will again. But also, I get to watch my daughters grow up. I call it bonus time. This is what I say to my friends: "I'm on bonus time." I look out this back window when it snows and that real heavy snow where it sticks to the branches and occasionally falls and knocks snow off. That's beautiful.
If I had that obstacle, if I had that 30 seconds to think twice about what it was that I was doing, my life might be very different today.Joe Smith
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, help is available. Just dial 988 to talk to someone at the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
If you’re experiencing abuse or violence against you of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is also available to you for help or conversation. You can reach them at: 800-799-7233.
Myra Flynn: Thanks so much for listening to the show. This episode was reported and mixed by Erica Heilman with editing and additional production from me, Myra Flynn, our BLS intern, Mae Nagusky, and the rest of the BLS team: Angela Evancie and Josh Crane.
If you want to hear more of Erica’s interviews, check out her podcast Rumble Strip. She’s also the creator of a really fascinating Vermont Public series called What Class Are You? John Rogers, one of the folks in this episode, is also featured there. We’ve got links in our show notes.
Special thanks to: Susan Clark, Louis Porter, Amelia Meath, Renee Falconer, Aimee Farr, Kirk Postalwaite, Marilyn Skoglund, Ingrid Jonas, Karen Tronsgard-Scott, Conor Casey, Will Staats, Tena Starr, Kelly Green, Tobin Anderson, Wynona Ward, and Russ Shopland.
Brave Little State is a production of Vermont Public, and a member of the NPR Network. Our website, where you find more of our episodes and join our process, is bravelittlestate.org. I'm Myra Flynn. Thanks for listening.