I can define myself with a few key phrases--independent, smart, a little odd. My friends (hopefully) describe me as loyal, funny, creative. My parents would want to characterize me as careful and polite. They would also want to label me as a pacifist, a trait they instilled over the past 26 years.
A trait that I was happy to embrace, until recently.
Gun laws are a burning issue in the United States, and I typically leaned far left when it came to choosing sides. My mom, despite being two decades too late for the sixties hippie counterculture and anti-Vietnam movement, is a genuine flower child, embodying all aspects of pacifism in her personal and professional life (not including the illegal drug use). She taught a freshman class in my South Jersey high school called Tolerance, aimed to derail the discrimination and bullying that typically evolved in the early ages of adolescence.
As a child, I used my words—too frequently, most family will tell you. As a teenager, I turned my babbling storytelling into a self-declared flair for writing. I knew kids who spent their weekend hunting, or paintballing, or posting MySpace pictures of their parents' gun collection. I felt nonplussed, or annoyed, or downright disgusted, but my opposition was limited to the dinner table or the pages of my journal. I didn’t know enough, or wasn’t brave enough, to speak up.
Then I went to a small school in Southern California for my undergraduate degree, and I was quick to immerse myself in open-minded liberal culture. My mentor was brilliant, vibrant, and genderqueer, and with her I helped start the first of many Pride carnivals at the previously strict Catholic school. My sophomore capstone class led to a Peace and Justice studies minor in non-violent conflict resolution. Finally, I began to speak up. My words, written or verbal, had more fire than a Dwayne Johnson movie.
But outside of class discussions or campus rallies, I had no real experience with gun control. The Virginia Tech Massacre had occurred right before my high school graduation and was still debated, the braver of both sides making uninformed, albeit loud, arguments for their political beliefs.
Regardless of having the arena for political discourse, I won’t pretend that I didn’t spend my undergraduate years in a bubble. Despite being in a major city, I lived on campus every year behind protective gates and plentiful campus security. We had the occasional burglary or DUI, but nothing extreme enough to challenge my beliefs. This wouldn’t change for years after graduation—my bubble remained impenetrable.
Then I moved from a quiet, affluent Pennsylvania suburb to a humming neighborhood in Washington DC, and my idea of safety was turned upside down.
In college and after, I was never silly or senseless about my safety. While I was a pacifist, I knew that other people had different ideas about violence and general moral standards. I carried pepper spray; I avoided walking alone in the dark in the city; I didn’t leave my doors and windows unlocked.
But I remained staunchly against firearm ownership. I don’t believe that you can stop a home intruder or mugger on the street with words, if they are armed with a deadly weapon. But more often than acceptable, guns purchased for “home defense” resulted in fatal accidents. In the last decade, active shootings increased amongst adults or children of adults who obtained firearms legally.
My beliefs toward gun control changed slowly, then all at once. That isn’t to say I’m now 100% one way or the other, but the gray area seems so much bigger now.
I started noticing little things. In the first few weeks at my new apartment, there were four cars with shattered windows. This didn’t frighten me—I had my window smashed in the middle of the day in Philadelphia—and I was even a little patronizing in my sympathy (if you didn’t leave your laptop in your backseat…). I took everything out of my car and covered the front and back windshields.
A month into my move, I saw a man trying to remove a motorcycle from its chain on my way to the Metro. The fact that he had seen me walk by and continued to pull at the iron bars was more surprising than scary. An idle blip on the anxiety radar, but nothing that directly affected my safety.
A few forgettable, minor incidents happened throughout the next month—frequent warning stories at work about “certain parts of town” and the history of Rock Creek Park—until one morning, I was directly affected.
I woke up around 4 AM on a Saturday (Ted Mosby’s mom was right) and couldn’t get back to sleep. I had a busy day, so I planned to take an early run when the sun came up before running errands. Until then, I decided to make a pot of coffee and settle on the couch to watch Netflix.
I live in a garden-level apartment, with windows facing the street. As I sat on my couch, half-stretching and half-dreading the thought of exercise, I saw slow, dragging movement in my peripheral vision.
It’s not uncommon to see people pass; it’s a busy neighborhood with a lot of dog owners and families. My only errant thought was that it was still pretty dark out—the first signs of dawn were at least 30 minutes away—but it was a Friday night/Saturday morning, after all. Maybe a straggler from a nearby bar, or someone with an early work call.
The first instinct that something was wrong bubbled up when I saw the figure stop, a few feet from my steps, then slowly descend into my patio. My first thought was: “Is this really happening?” My second thought: I’m not sure. I don’t remember. My body went into lockdown, and my brain froze over. I remember later thinking that phrase exactly—froze over—because I was surprised by how freezing cold I suddenly was, in the middle of August.
The dark outline was molded into the bushes now, face pressed to the windows, unmoving and unashamed. I was unmoving in my previously safe haven, now destroyed by unwanted observation. Just when I convinced my limbs out of atrophy, the figure moved.
To my front door.
I hadn’t felt that level of terror before or since.
To the commendation of my landlords, no amount of this man’s jostling and jiggling would have even gotten him through the gate, and there is another door after that. But that didn’t stop my from flying to the back room, scooping up my cat and locking ourselves in the closet, calling 911 with a shaky description of my situation. The police arrived in less than two minutes, but the man was nowhere to be found. Their response time was comforting; their response to my panic was not.
I didn’t go for a run. But by 9 AM, I couldn’t sit still, so I walked around town with a pocketknife in my bag and my senses heightened. Every time I heard footsteps, I jumped to the side. When I saw a tallish figure in a dark sweatshirt, I changed directions. I was like a wild animal, and I finally convinced myself to return home (after finding an open liquor store).
When I got home, I closed the blinds and grabbed a butcher knife, sitting in my bed and jumping at tiny noises for the next five hours. After that, I started researching gun laws in DC.
I'm in the process of registering for a domestic firearm because I've learned that 26-year-old women really can't be too careful, and every day I take classes or fill out paperwork is another day I have to struggle with my internal beliefs about guns and violence. But if doing this gives me back the ability to sleep through the night, or with the lights off, I can quiet that voice.
I can hear the backlash now, and you can save it—I know people have been through home invasions or sexual assaults so terrible that my incident looks like a childish prank. Those only fuel my shifting beliefs, and I would back any man or woman who embraced the Second Amendment after going through anything like that.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not about to start joining the ranks of the NRA and retweeting their insensitive missives on gun ownership. Fundamentally, I still feel that gun control is important—background checks are vital to an efficient process, and training and education should be instilled in any family with domestic firearms. But I know what it feels like to be unsafe, and if having a controlled firearm that I know how to use correctly can change that, then that’s something I can believe in.