America’s millions of guns have lives of their own; Santa Cruz novelist Vinnie Hansen tracks the one involved in her own burglary

Santa Cruz author Vinnie Hansen
Santa Cruz author Vinnie Hansen.
(Via Vinnie Hansen)

America has the highest per-capita gun ownership in the world — estimated at about 120 per 100 residents. Vinnie Hansen got interested in one of them — the one used, and which then disappeared, after a burglary of her home. She talks about the new book virtually Tuesday via Bookshop Santa Cruz.

There is a tragic irony at the heart of Vinnie Hansen’s new novel, “One Gun.” It was inspired, in part, by one heartbreaking American mass shooting of schoolchildren, and released at the same time as another. In 2012, the veteran Santa Cruz crime novelist (and longtime school teacher) mourned the news of the Sandy Hook school shooting, which resulted in the death of 26 people, most of them young children. At the same time, she and her husband, Danny, experienced a potentially violent crime at their Santa Cruz home.

Q&A with author Vinnie Hansen

Those experiences compelled her to write a new novel titled “One Gun,” which centers its narrative on the fate of a single gun as it changes hands in a close-knit community. Hansen is best known for her Carol Sabala mystery series, but “One Gun,” released in the wake of another horrific school shooting, in Uvalde, Texas, is a “standalone” novel, outside the Sabala series. She will chat with novelist Susan Alice Bickford in a virtual event presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz on Tuesday.

We chatted with Vinnie Hansen about “One Gun” and the distinctly American pathology of gun violence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: What was on your mind when you decided to go down the path of writing about gun violence?

Vinnie Hansen: One impetus for writing the book was Sandy Hook. But also [my husband] Danny and I were burglarized, and that would have been maybe about two and a half weeks before Sandy Hook. We came home and interrupted the burglar in our house. And [Danny] gave chase and the burglar pulled the gun, pointed at his head and threatened to kill him. And Danny — you have to know Danny — once the guy started running again, he kept chasing him and he pulled the gun again and started dumping everything that he took and, long story short, because Danny had chased him, he was apprehended, but not before he had ditched the gun.

So those two things — the personal event and the public tragedy — really impacted me. I’m a retired school teacher, so a school shooting always gets to me the most. [Sandy Hook] was our first one where we had these little children involved, and it just is … still, you know, right now talking about it is difficult for me. I feel like it was just like a gut punch. And I felt somehow like I wanted to write a book that dealt with gun violence. But I didn’t want to come out and just have this preachy treatise, nor did I think that our burglary was enough to make a story. But the thought that took hold was when our burglar got arrested, he didn’t have the gun. Well, what happened to the gun? And taking that idea and just running with it and inventing a fictional story of the one gun lead to the book.

Lookout: So your book follows the gun, rather than following specific characters?

Hansen: It’s a story of a gun being pitched into a neighborhood and what happens to it as it touches various people’s lives.

Lookout: That’s a fascinating idea, as if the gun is the book’s protagonist.

Vinnie Hansen's latest novel, "One Gun"
(Via Bookshop Santa Cruz)

Hansen: Yes, you could say that, because there are lots of characters and multiple points of view. There is a couple who are a little bit like Danny and me that start the book. It could be argued that they are the main characters, but there are other really important characters. And so yes, I think that the gun is the thread. I hesitate to say the gun is a character because I’ve been on these panels where people say, “Can setting be a character?” or, “Can this or that be a character?” And my thought on that argument is, characters are characters. If you take something like Stephen King’s “Christine,” where a car becomes a character. Well, then the car is a character and the car is not a car anymore. It has personality and initiative and agency. It has all the trappings of character.

Lookout: But that’s not the case with the gun in your book?

Hansen: Right. Fairly early in the book — it’s not too much of a spoiler; it’s actually in the blurb on the back — what happens is two tweener boys find the gun. So Ben and Vivi, the couple that were burglarized, they’re searching for the gun. And the burglar who’s gone off to jail, he wants the gun off the streets, because having a gun when he committed the burglary actually elevates it into robbery and adds a plus-10 to his sentence. So he has strong motives for finding it and makes a deal in jail to get a message to a cohort to get the gun off the street. So all these characters are converging toward that gun.

Anybody who thinks they can just have a gun and they’re going to pick it up in a tense situation and be able to fire it and do what they need to do, that’s a little crazy.

Lookout: What did you learn about guns in the process of writing this book?

Hansen: Well, our burglar was apprehended. And he opted not to plea[-bargain] and so we had a trial. So there was a lot of this that came out of personal experience. If you have a gun, it’s a very common item to be stolen. It’s actually something that a burglar will seek out. It’s a coveted item.

Lookout: So it attracts crime as much as it repels it.

Hansen: Yes, and hopefully that kinda comes through in the story.

Lookout: Did you have a particular attitude about guns before you wrote this book that might be different now?

Hansen: My feelings about guns are really complicated because I’m a crime fiction writer. So, by necessity, I am interested in guns and I research guns and I’ve gone to the shooting range, and I’ve had [shooting] lessons and I asked people who are gun experts about guns. And I also grew up in South Dakota, so I grew up with a rifle hanging over the piano and I learned to shoot a .22[-caliber rifle]. I’ve trained with the shoot-don’t-shoot scenarios, and all that stuff. So there’s that. But then, on the other hand, there are all these statistics, and I’m sure you’re aware of that. We are 5% of the world’s population and have [42%] of the world’s guns, that there are more guns in the United States than there are people, that guns have become the No. 1 killer of our children. And so I definitely land on guns are not a great thing to have around in your house. But then, on the other hand, our burglar, our criminal, the guy who was in our house, once he got out of prison he went to rob another house and in the middle of the night, and the woman shot him. And I have to say, that gave me satisfaction. He didn’t die, but he definitely was in the hospital for a while. What can I say? I’m conflicted.

Lookout: I would assume that the fact you’re conflicted might lend a certain richness to your writing on the subject.

Hansen: Well, I have characters in the book who voice the pro-gun side. But I think it’s a book that clearly lands on guns are a bad thing to have in your house, and are going to attract crime to you rather as much if not more than it repels crime. I certainly don’t believe that a gun keeps a person safer. I was talking to [a friend] and he mentioned that he has a gun, and it’s locked away somewhere. He probably hasn’t been to a shooting range or even picked it up and fired it for 40 years. Other than somebody maybe wanting to steal it, that’s a very worthless gun. Because anybody who thinks they can just have a gun and they’re going to pick it up in a tense situation and be able to fire it and do what they need to do, that’s a little crazy.

The virtual conversation between writers Vinnie Hansen and Susan Alice Bickford, presented by Bookshop Santa Cruz, takes place Tuesday. Things get started at 6 p.m. It’s free, but registration is required.

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