Like a lot of people who are not gun owners, I don’t know much about them, don’t like them, and pretty much wish they didn’t exist.
See, I grew up around guns. My grandparents were hunters and competitive skeet shooters; my stepfather, uncles, and many family friends hunted regularly. As a 7-year-old, I was allowed to shoot BB guns and small-gauge shotguns at cans and squirrels, except I liked squirrels and thought they were cute–so I never actually shot one. My family teased me mercilessly about my shooting style–left eye scrunched shut, tongue poking out the side of my mouth, but I had pretty decent aim.
I went on the hunting trips with the grownups. In our house was a large glass case filled with rifles and shotguns–at least a dozen, probably more–that I walked by every day. I didn’t fear guns; the adults in my life had stressed safety and instilled in me a healthy respect for the danger of guns.
But, of course, they never prepared me for what would happen the year I turned 10.
That year, three people in my immediate family died of bullet wounds. Two were self-inflicted. One was a wrong place, wrong time. This isn’t something I talk about a lot.
Perhaps this explains why, for more than 3 decades, I have had a distinct phobia about guns. In my early 20s, two friends took me to a gun range and I shot a handgun for the first time. I wanted to throw up. I put the gun down and walked out after firing a single shot.
So, all these years, I’ve just hated guns. Hated being around them. Hated the culture that surrounds them. Hated reading the news about another mass killing, another child being accidentally shot, another suicide who blew their brains out. I did not want to see them, touch them, or even be in the same room as them. My phobia was that the gun would go off and kill me all by itself. Like a family curse or something. (Not logical, but that’s why they call it a phobia.)
But my phobia goes a little deeper than even that; I feared that by somehow being near a gun, I would be overtaken by the same darkness and violence that took my family members. That moment when they reached the deepest, darkest place in their existence, and there was a gun nearby, and the answer seemed to be to use it. I feared finding myself in that place more than anything else.
In all the political debate about guns and gun control in this country, I remained essentially ignorant about them by choice. I didn’t care about policies or nuances. If someone else wanted one, fine–just keep it away from me and I won’t complain.
But I hate ignorance even more than I hate guns. Particularly if it happens to be my own ignorance. So that, along with the desire to actually know how to unload a gun if I happened to be around one and needed to know I was safe, inspired me to take a handgun safety class at a local range.
As it turned out, a friend of mine wanted to come along and learn about guns, too. And I’m very glad she came, because I wanted to walk out from the moment I got to the parking lot for about the first 2 hours of the 4-hour class. Having a buddy was the only thing that made it tolerable.
As I pulled into the small, cramped lot, I saw a woman driving a large Cadillac, having a difficult time parking. Since she was blocking most of the driveway, I waited and watched as she made no less than eight attempts to park her car between two lines. I laughed–surely, surely, she could not be in my class.
She also was one of several people who brought their own guns. Now, since this class was called Introduction to Handguns, it seemed to me they probably should have taken it before they ran out and bought guns. You know, being sensible before buying the deadly weapon. I realize this is a lot to ask. In fact, about half the class had their own guns. Of those, two of the students seemed very competent and careful about being safe with their guns. The rest behaved, in general, like morons.
So, for 1 1/2 hours, I sat in a classroom, with several people who had about my skill level, who were waving their guns around. Including Parking Lot Lady, who sat behind me with her gun pointed at the back of my head for most of the class. Fucking awesome.
First, we were treated to a discussion about how “revolvers are good for women because they’re simple to use.” Which is just one example of how gun culture is steeped in sexism. (Here’s another: Stay armed and fabulous, ladies! And don’t forget to Bedazzle your camo!)
But I had to admit, for most of the women in the class, as simple as possible would be best. My friend and I rolled our eyes at the instructor. An older woman mentioned her husband wanted her to come, but had warned her not to break her nails while loading. She was not being ironic.
As we passed around different handguns, I briefly wondered what caliber my stepfather used, my cousin used, my grandmother used. I mentally list the people in my family I could ask. But realize it’s not that important to know. I can’t do this without picturing bodies on floors, blood on walls, brains on brown leather couches. I remember how you learn things that no one, really, should ever know: For example, the best way to kill yourself with a gun is not to point it at your temple or put it in your mouth. You might just fuck up your brain and not die and end up a vegetable or permanently disfigured. Right under the chin is most effective. I wish I did not know these things; rather, I wish I could un-know them. I shut down the ghoulish thoughts and try to pay attention to the safety lecture.
Feeling like quite the little ladies, we proceeded to learn proper stances and did dry fire exercises before heading out onto the range.
With gunfire going off all around me, I became immediately tense and uncomfortable. We had to wait our turn to shoot because there were only 5 bays for our class of 12. So we waited, and my anxiety just kept rising. I thought about leaving without firing the gun. I didn’t want to do it. But I’d invested the time already and I was still curious.
It was my turn. I stepped up and fired a Glock 9mm. It doesn’t have a strong kick, but the moment the gun fired was startling. The bang was louder and stronger than I’d expected, and the little burst of fire out of the muzzle freaked me out a bit.
I fired several times, always hitting a bit high. The instructor came over and showed me what I was doing wrong. Then I switched to a small, .22 revolver–something I briefly imagined tucking into my thigh-highs at the brothel in 1885. After the 9 mm, it felt like a popgun. A creepy popgun. I tried two more guns–another 9mm and another .22.
I peeked down the range to see Parking Lot Lady’s target. True to form, her shooting was wild–barely in the white areas around the silhouette. I wondered about ricochet danger. The instructors took turns trying to help her aim, but she was simply unable to do so. I thought, this is the type of person who gets out the gun to shoot an intruder and winds up murdering her entire family and a couple of sleeping neighbors with stray bullets. In other words, someone who, statistically, is the poster child for people who shouldn’t ever own a gun. But of course, the instructor, the range…the entire gun industry…will never tell the poor old fool that.
Reminds me of the line in King Lear: Thou shouldst not have been old before thou hadst been wise.
At this point, my friend had had enough. I stayed because we had about 20 bullets left and I was actually enjoying myself on some level. Go ahead and judge. I’ve come to terms with it.
I got a fresh target and used the rest of the ammo, still scrunching my left eye but managing to keep my tongue in my mouth like a big girl. The instructor told me I’d done a good job (I still heard “little lady” after every sentence). He was encouraging some of the students to look at and buy guns, but oddly enough he didn’t breathe a word to me. So I’m guessing he got my lefty vibe and let it be. Or he got a “she’s insane” vibe, perhaps. I’ll never know.
In my quest to educate myself about guns, I have talked to friends who own them. I’ve read the NRA’s website (not recommended). And my thoughts about guns are in a state of evolution. After taking this class, I am more convinced than ever that it is unacceptable for people with a skill level of absofuckinglutely ZERO to own something so deadly. I mean, even cops and Navy SEALS accidentally shoot their own fucking legs sometimes–why in the world do we allow utter novices to walk around brandishing this shit? Here’s an interesting Tumblr about accidental shootings. Instead, we have untrained idiots who can get a concealed carry permit with less effort than it takes to get a driver’s license. Then, we have the macho, John Wayne, good old boy gun culture. Which, now that it’s evolved, includes the little ladies, even…as long as they are “Armed and Fabulous.”
I believe that–statistically–a gun is a foolish choice. If it’s handled properly, it’s locked in a gun safe. This means it would do you absolutely no good in the case of robbery/home invasion/sudden assault. If you do manage to pull it out of the safe, the statistics still say it is likely to be used against you.
And then we have the NRA, which probably started out as not such a bad organization (although I really don’t know because they’ve been such dicks my entire adult life). And they are putting themselves in this ridiculous and destructive position of NOT HELPING to end the problems. Even if they are justified in fighting bad/ineffective/knee-jerk legislation (and, frankly, I find myself semi-agreeing with them, sometimes, from this angle only), they are dancing on little, minced feet around actual solutions to gun violence and gun accidents.
And, for the love of all that is holy, I don’t even want to hear the Second Amendment argument about stopping “tyranny”–give me a fucking break. Your bunker and stockpiled MREs and AK-47s are simply not going to help you, all Red Dawn-ish, in the event the government goes for all-out tyranny.
Or in the words of Katherine Dunn (from Geek Love): Obvious horseshit.
After all this–sitting through videos I wish I could unsee, having a dangerously stupid woman waving a gun at my skull, and still managing to get a slight thrill from shooting a handgun–at the end of it all, I still wish guns didn’t exist. I wish I could say I learned how to handle one safely–but really a few hours in a class isn’t going to stick for long. I also learned, unnervingly, I still have good aim left over from when I was a pre-teen.
And I still don’t have any answers about that dark place.