We used to own a gun.

A little, plastic novelty gun that gave you a shock when you pulled the trigger. It was a source of entertainment for weeks as we tried to get unsuspecting visitors, even the kids, to pull the trigger.

Max was the last to fall for it. (Turbo Ginger ain’t no fool.) I expected him to drop the gun and do his trademark OWWWW with a couple crocodile tears for dramatic effect. To our surprise, he kept pulling the trigger again and again, flinching his eyes then grinning, enjoying the little charge of electricity coursing through his wee finger.

Mixed messages much? Here we were encouraging our kids to play with toy guns. In our next breath, we’re telling them guns are the devil.

Here Max, take this toy gun and shoot grandma. Good job, son! And now for your reward: a Popeye cigarette! Go ahead, pretend you’re having a draw. But remember, smoking is Satan. Hey, wanna play Call of Duty in a greasy white tank top?

Max still uses his pants as a toilet, so I don’t expect him to know the difference between a gun that’s a toy and one that can blow your fucken brains out. But hey, it’s not like he’ll ever have the chance to pull the trigger on a real gun before he knows the difference, right? If the husband ever buys a shotgun for moose hunting, it will be stored in a locked steel case, in a locked iron box, in a room with a force field around it, on Jupiter. Seriously though, there’s no 9mm semi-automatic lying around Chez Murphy. Except for the one I have discretely baked into a pie in the fridge, so when my would-be rapist asks for a snack, he’ll get his just desserts. (See what I did there?)

And besides, toy guns don’t make your kids grow up to be cowboys. Or criminals.

The batteries in the toy gun expired around the same time Nicholas Winsor did. Have you forgotten him already? I have not. His picture was all over the news. Tough guy, 120 pounds soaking wet, covered in tattoos. And oh yeah, he’s also dead, but in the press his death seems secondary to how he looked and how he lived. It all goes hand in hand in hand, I guess.

A couple weeks ago, the 20-year-old St. John’s man (who was barely a man at all) took a fatal gunshot to the neck, compliments of his friend. Two of his best buddies, Phil Pynn and Lyndon Butler, will now stand trial for second-degree murder after an altercation that went bad. If this were a big city, it’d be just one of many such incidents on the daily news. But this is not Toronto or LA or Baghdad. Around here, stuff like this makes headlines and shakes us to the core.

I have to admit – the tattoos made me roll my eyes and shake my head. I think there was one collective glare of disgust across the city when we saw their photos: the now deceased in his invincible gangster stance, with “Trust No One” inked on his forearms. One of the alleged shooters with teardrops etched onto his face. (Max could have done a better job with his jumbo crayons.) And on the neck of the other alleged perp, the words that inspired the title of this post: “The Lord made me but the devil raised me.” Wow. I doubt his parents put that artwork on the fridge.

Sorry for the prejudice all you good Christian people with tats on your face and neck, but Max is never getting a tattoo. Unless it says “What would Jesus do?” Or, “Get your pet spayed or neutered.” Or, “I love my mom.”

My initial reaction? These boys are scum of the earth. Lost causes. I felt little more pity for the dead guy as I did for the shooters. A gun went off. It could have been any of the lot. There is no victim here. Just look at their facebook pics: hard tickets posing with homemade shanks in what looks like a jailhouse scene. What a waste of space. What a waste of life: the victim’s and the shooters’ alike.

But that was my fear talking.

What if Max were in the wrong place at the wrong time? Bang bang, you’re dead, beautiful little boy. And in an instant my whole world is snuffed out like a cheap candle.

What if Max grows into a shy, awkward kid and finds acceptance with “the wrong crowd”, with boys like these?

What if he has a darkness inside him? Something he was born with, a mental condition and a predisposition for trouble. What if some kids are just born bad? What if it’s more out of my hands than I realize?

Now, where’s that toddler-sized bubble I bought on e-bay?

I fear boys like Butler, Pynn and Winsor. (Well, the latter, not so much anymore.) It’s a fact: my Max is a little less safe in this city because of them and others like them. I despise them for poisoning the place I choose to make my home. But most of all, I pity them.

I think back to when Max was born. An eight-pound bundle of possibility. He didn’t ask to be born. He came to be, because of his father’s inability to resist my womanly form. And now his whole existence is in our hands. I remember walking out of the hospital with the car seat in our hands, thinking, Are they really going to just let us walk out of here with this person? Aren’t they going to stop us, give us a quiz or a skill-testing question or something?

We are his everything. The be-all and end-all. For a good portion of his life, we hold all the cards. We predetermine the outcome. It’s a lot of responsibility, and a lot of power.

Nick Winsor was somebody’s bundle once, too. He didn’t ask to be born. When he was a little boy and someone asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he didn’t say a gun-slinging, drug-pushing gangster. He probably wanted to be a firefighter or a truck driver or – oh the irony – a police officer. I don’t blame his mother or his father because I don’t know the whole story. Maybe they did the best they knew how. Maybe Nick was born with a darkness that would have prevailed, no matter what anyone did. Nobody knows for sure. Frankly, as a mother myself, I have compassion for the woman who gave birth to him, no matter how she raised him. No mother wants to see her child pieced back together in a coffin, while she falls apart every day for the rest of her life.

Yes, someone failed that little boy. The damage was done long before that bullet lodged itself in his neck. And once the vengeance inside him took hold at an early age, it was probably too late; nobody was strong enough to save him from himself. But again, no need to point the finger at the woman who gave him life; the punishment has already been handed down, and it is severe.

Surely this case will make headlines again when the trial begins. So next time you see the face of Nick Winsor on your TV or computer screen, look beyond the tattoos and the tough guy bullshit. You’ll see a scared little boy, poorly equipped for a big world.

Granted, I want Max to stay the hell away from boys like him. But I also want Max to have compassion for boys like him. So I must have compassion too. Childhood is a critical time. It makes you or it breaks you. So all of us who have remained intact: let’s have a heart for the broken. Luck is never distributed evenly or fairly.

I look at Max and wonder what the future holds. To borrow a line from Mad Men’s Don Draper on the birth of his son, “We don’t know who he is yet or who he is going to be, and that is a wonderful thing.”  Indeed, I don’t know how Max will turn out, but I do know I will try my damnedest to keep him on the path of good. Because obviously the path of evil is just around the corner from our house. And if it ever rises up to meet my precious boy, I will beat the shit out of it with a shovel (which I keep under my bed. So I can bury would-be kidnappers right after I whack them. Efficiency is this mama’s middle name.)