I'm a proud Southerner, born and raised. I drink sweet tea with my meat-and-three. I know the difference between a sympathetic and a passive-aggressive, "bless her heart!" I don't sweat; I glisten. But despite my southern heritage, I've always felt uncomfortable around guns.
My family never owned guns when I was growing up, but many of our friends did. It was practically a rite of passage to receive your first rifle at some point in elementary school. Boys and girls alike wore camo to school. Missing a day of class for a three-day hunting weekend was a completely acceptable practice for both students and teachers.
While we didn't have guns at home, my parents carefully taught my brothers and me gun safety. Always treat a gun like it's loaded. Never touch a gun without permission from the gun owner. If our friends wanted to show us their guns, their parents had to be in the room too.
Even with these guidelines in place, I had zero interest in holding a gun, let alone learning how to shoot one. That said, my personal feelings on guns didn't dampen my support of second amendment rights. I guess I've always had a little bit of a libertarian in me, even from a young age.
Growing up in the early days of the Internet, before the 24-hour news cycle, I was initially ambivalent about the NRA. Southerners support second amendment rights, the NRA supports second amendment rights, so I was supposed to support the NRA, right (or at least not publicly share any opinion to the contrary)? But over the last decade with both the increase in school shootings and the bizarre remarks made by NRA, I realized that I should support second amendment rights while still criticizing this conservative organization.
Even though I've always technically supported the right to own a gun, I privately didn't understand hunting as a sport. From my outsider's perspective, hunting was just a competition for trophies.
My mom agreed with me. We were a middle-class family, with mostly middle-class friends. None of us needed to hunt for food, and our privilege clouded our perspective...until the day my mom came home from volunteering at my brother's elementary school. She had been working with a little girl who needed extra help. My mom had asked the student about her weekend. Eyes shining, this little girl had excitedly replied, "My dad went hunting this weekend and got a deer! We get to eat meat this week!"
With that one encounter, my mom and I both changed our perspective on hunting.
But I still didn't want to be around guns. I understood the importance of hunting for families in our town, but that didn't mean I needed to learn how to shoot.
A debutante party, of all things, was my first experience with a gun. I made my debut my sophomore year of college at the annual Danse de Noël. When I tell my friends outside of South Carolina about this, they imagine something glitzy like in Gossip Girl. While the deb ball is certainly nice, it's essentially prom with a dozen or so women in white dresses and a cash bar.
Leading up to the deb ball itself, all of our parents hosted parties for us. In true southern fashion, one of the parties I attended was a Dads & Debs Skeet Shoot. I was a terrible shot, only hitting three of the clay disks. I also bruised up my shoulder and arm pretty badly. If anything, the experience only confirmed that I did not want to own a gun, even for target shooting.
But now that I've befriended an NRA instructor, and taken an NRA beginner's class, my entire perspective has changed.
First of all, the class was just so practical. During the three-hour classroom portion, my friend drilled us on the main safety rules, over and over and over again. We learned how to safely handle our guns (I borrowed a handgun) while they were completely safe and unloaded, without even an empty magazine in them. Only after three hours of instruction did we actually go to the shooting range to practice target shooting.
I'd always felt rather terrified of handling a gun, but the slow and steady pace of the NRA beginner's class put me at ease. When my friend first announced, "Fire at will," to the class, I waited for the other students to shoot first so the sounds wouldn't startle me. I lined up my sights, took a deep breath, exhaled halfway, and fired. I felt like all of my stress and fear released from my body in that one shot.
Second of all, I'm really good at target shooting! In a class full of life-long gun owners shooting with their own handguns, I ended up best in the class. My very first time target shooting, with a borrowed handgun, and I out-shot everyone else. I've never been that good at sports, but out of my first seven shots, five of them were a bulls eye. I can't begin to describe the rush I felt that day.
So now I want to buy my own handgun, one well-suited for my small (and weak) hands, and take up target shooting as a hobby. The only thing holding me back is cost. It turns out that legally buying a gun is not cheap.
My perspective on gun-ownership isn't the only thing that has changed. My feelings about the NRA are a lot more complicated.
Like any rational human being, I'm against gun violence. I support gun safety. So isn't it logical to support an organization that offers so many courses on gun safety across the nation? While accidental discharge of a firearm results in a small percentage of gun-related deaths each year, any life that can be saved by proper gun safety is still a life worth saving. Furthermore, over 60% of gun-related deaths are suicide. I would imagine that gun owners properly locking up their guns would keep them out of the hands of suicidal friends or family. But as much as I believe in gun safety courses, I'm still wary of the NRA's polarizing politics.
At the end of the day, I think I might just need to accept the same cognitive dissonance I already hold for Republican friends/family vs. the Republican party, and extend it to friends in the NRA vs. the political organization itself. Cognitive dissonance might not be logical, but it's one way to keep complicated feelings at bay.
In the meantime, I have some targets to shoot.