SEVEN YEARS AGO, after a lifetime of watching guns in the movies and on TV, I met the real thing.
It was past midnight. I was unloading my car in Durham, N.C., after returning from a Memorial Day weekend away. I worked quickly, moving from the unlocked car through a propped open screen door and into my apartment. One other car was parked behind the old house where I rented. I was rounding the front of the car at a trot when I saw him - a man walking up the side of the parking lot across the alley. Though I could not see him well, something about him spoke of stories I had heard: of a former tenant's rape, or the previous summer's armed robberies. He walked by 20 feet away and passed down the far side of the house.
I resumed unloading the car, hurrying. I grabbed a box of books from the back seat. I heard him approaching from behind.
I turned, hoping for a moment that the man, whose face I had still not seen clearly, was an upstairs neighbor I had met only once before. I thought I heard, "Can I help you?"
But no. He was a stranger, about half a foot taller and 75 pounds heavier than me, with an expression on his face that suggested he was drunk or high or just not all there. In his right hand he held a revolver.
"Shhh, shhh, shhh," he said. I looked at the gun."Lie down on the ground," he said, and came around behind me.
I thought of talking my way out, talking my way even.
I said, "I can't do anything until you put down the gun."
With his left hand he held my left hand. With his right hand he held the gun to my head.
"Lie down on the ground," he said. I heard the gun click once.
"I can't do anything until you put down the gun." As I said the words I looked at the crab grass that grew against the back of the house and wondered it if it was the last thing I would ever see.
"Lie down on the ground." I heard the gun click again.
"Sir, I can't do anything until you put down the gun."
I saw his hand coming toward my mouth and screamed, not as shrill or loud as in the movies, but a cry of great effort. I part dropped, part threw the box of books to make noise and free my hands.
He turned and fled toward the alley. I ran inside, slammed and locked the door of my apartment, and dialed 911.
The adrenaline was still pumping through me when the police arrived.
"Maybe I shouldn't have said that," I told the officer in charge. "He could have shot me."
"No," the officer said. "You did the right thing."
Exhilaration dissolved into fear after the police left. I went to bed that night fully dressed, except for my shoes, with my contacts in, the living room light on, and a container of mace within reach. It was hours before I slept. And the thought of a man lurking outside, waiting with a gun, haunted me for many nights to come.
Sometimes, when I am walking by myself and a street seems too dark, I still feel a terror rooted in that night. Yet the experience also left me with hope. It is hard to explain. Now, as I celebrate my first Mother's Day by participating in the Million Mom March, I ask myself, what will I tell my 10-month-old son when he is old enough to understand?
I want him to know that there is nothing uglier than a gun turned against another person. It is not glamorous. It is not strong. It is a blasphemy.
And I want him to know that people are far more powerful than guns. And more precious.
Guns don't kill, people do, but since we have so many people running around who kill, let's at least try to keep the guns away from them. We can do that if we stay focused on the sanctity of human life. And if we refuse to believe our safety lies in the ease with which we can acquire and fire guns, rather than in the strength of our values, our families and our communities.
Before that night, I would never have imagined that if someone put a gun to my head I would have refused to do what the person asked. In the movies, the people with the guns give the orders and everyone else obeys.
Thank God, in real life, it is not so simple.
Karen Lange is a writer who lives in Takoma Park.