In my family, firearms were a mark of manhood - until the day they became a symbol of tragedy.
Credit: Courtesy David Vann
After my father's suicide i inherited all of his guns. Everything except the pistol. My uncle wanted to get rid of that, sold it right away. But I was given my father's .300 magnum rifle, and though I had stopped hunting, I began using that rifle.

I learned to break it down into several parts that I could fit into my jacket. Late at night, when my mother and sister were sleeping, I rode my bike through our suburban neighborhood into the hills. I'd ditch the bike, find a spot hidden in trees, and reassemble the rifle. I sat in the braced sitting position, elbows on my knees, that my father had taught me, calmed my breath, and eased slowly back on the trigger. The recoil was so powerful it literally knocked me flat. But nothing was more beautiful to me than the blue-white explosion of a streetlight. The sound of it – the pop that was almost a roar, then silence, then glass rain – came only after each fragment and shard had sailed off or twisted, glittering in the air like mist.

I also sighted in on people. A man with the curtains open in his living room, the crosshairs on his chest, a shell in the chamber, the scope powerful enough that I could see him swirl the drink in his hand. I had done this with my father. When he spotted poachers – hunters trespassing on our land – he would have me look at them through the scope.

I was a straight-A student, was in student government, sports, band, but I came to live a double life for the year after his suicide. No one would have guessed I was sighting in on neighbors and shooting out streetlights.

I don't think I'll ever entirely understand that year. I told everyone my father died of cancer. I didn't have a real conversation with anyone about it. Instead, I shot things. A year of the most basic brutality, a year I'm lucky to have escaped from without hurting anyone.

I was an insomniac – and would be for the next 15 years – and as I lay wide awake in bed every night, I couldn't help thinking over and over about the .44 magnum my father had used to kill himself. I had fired it once, at maybe 11 or 12 years old, and though I had used both hands, it flew back so hard it nearly hit me in the face. But the scariest part was that it fired with only the slightest pressure on the trigger. It was difficult to put your finger on the trigger and not have it fire. So what I kept wondering was whether my father had really intended to kill himself. What if he was just thinking about it, just testing it, or what if he had one moment of deciding but it was only a brief moment and, with the hair trigger, that was enough. I wanted to hold that pistol in my own hands, feel the possibility, feel the heft of it and know what it felt like pressed against my head.

I finally sold my father's guns when I was in graduate school. I needed the money, but I also just didn't want them in my life anymore. What I really wanted was for them to have never existed. But once I sold them, I was surprised by the terrible feeling I had, like I had sold off a part of my father. I had so little of him left.

Twenty-nine years after my father's suicide, the feelings I have toward him haven't diminished, haven't faded over time, but I have nothing to attach them to. If I could hold his .300 magnum now, would he come back to me – some closer memory, some echo of hiking with him through live oak and manzanita, watching him raise that rifle high over his head as we pushed through the brush? If I remember that rifle, really focus on it, I can remember the sunlight on my father's light-brown curly hair, receding, his lopsided grin as he looked down at me. But more than that, I can remember how the moment felt, what it was like to be there with him, to hunt with him.