How a Gun-Loving West Texas Girl Learned to Fear Assault Weapons

For every outraged indigence about "trampling" on the second amendment, with every word and breath, I am that young woman again, sitting in her truck in a parking lot, alone except for a 911 operator.

I love guns. I'm from West Texas -- most of us harbor respect for guns, if not outright love.

I vacillate between the high sixties and the mid eighties, which is good for a woman who only gets to shoot trap once a year. I keep about the same record as my father, who shoots competitively and is a former homicide and narcotics detective.

My mother’s hips and knees can’t take the standing around anymore, but for most of her life she was just as good a shot as my father.

She smiles knowingly every time I hit a sporting clay.

"It's because you're a woman," is her theory. "You have a lower center of gravity than men, which gives you a more solid stance."

* * *

When my parents were first married, they lived in a bigger city than they do now; in the late 1970s, you went where the oilfield dictated you go.

My mother was alone for weeks at a time. Soon after they moved, the television in the den started turning itself on in the middle of the night.

My mother is about one of the most fearless, sensible women I know. Most oilfield widows have to be.

I've seen her be cool, calm, and collected about rattlesnakes and scorpions. I've seen her sweep tarantulas off the front porch with a broom.

And she was sensible about this, but it still unnerved her a bit.

"I want a gun," she told my father. "I'm alone all the time; I want a gun."

He brought her a pistol, and was damn proud of it. She didn't feel the same way.

"What is this?" she demanded. My mother has never been one to pussy-foot around about anything. "What the hell am I supposed to do with a pistol? Do you know how hard this thing is to aim and actually hit something? What if one of these bullets goes through a wall and kills Mrs. Gladyson next door? Get me a shotgun."

He bought her a shotgun.

* * *

Before Luke and I were married, we would have fights that were, essentially, us flexing our backgrounds and differences, which were numerous between a Native American/Italian immigrant Texas woman and a decidedly WASP Ohioan who says "those are they" instead of "that's them."

One of the largest arguments we ever had was about guns.

I have a Winchester over-and-under from my grandfather.

And I love that gun, but it did not travel with me to Ohio because we were unsure about transporting it across multiple states to occupy a small, highly urban apartment with me.

Luke and I were discussing how, after living in Cincinnati a year, I now wanted my shotgun.

"We will never, ever have guns in this house. Ever."

I wasn’t surprised, but I was amused. He must be thinking I was talking about a handgun.

"It's just a shotgun," I explained, thinking that would clear things up nicely.

"Never, ever, ever," he repeated.

"Honey, it's not a Glock. It's just a shotgun. It's the ideal home defense weapon, because it makes a loud sound when you load it, and the spread is -- "

"What if you killed someone in our house?" he shot back, interrupting.

I blinked.

"Well. I mean. There's a lot of ritual and meditation that goes into loading a shotgun, so it's kind of hard to accidentally kill the postman..."

"I'm not talking about that; I'm talking about what if you killed some poor kid that broke in to steal our television? I'd never forgive you!"

Wow. What a sentence, right? It’s fraught, visibly pregnant with meaning.

We don't live in a traditionally "great" neighborhood; it’s is pretty low for violent crime, but it's high for theft and robbery. And like my mother, I was alone a lot.

"Luke, I'd have to assume...if someone did break into our house while I was here, that they were there to do me harm. You just have to make that assumption. Would you rather me be dead or the kid that broke into our house?"

It was obvious by his silence who he'd prefer, and so I spent the next two nights in the guest room.

It has been one of the most difficult arguments we've ever had.

* * *

I did not share this conversation with my parents, so when Luke met them for the first time, they suggested with absolutely no ulterior motive that we go out shooting.

The ride to the shooting range was the longest, quietest car ride ever.

I didn't do the talking, I just shot. I let Dad do the teaching.

And I am completely unashamed to tell you that my husband was terrified of that shotgun.

He'll tell you the same thing, which is understandable for someone who has never held a gun, any gun, before. Guns = death, that's a fact.

I could tell he was afraid of it because he held it slightly away from his shoulder when he fired it. The noise frightened him, made him unsure of himself; the recoil (made worse by his insistence on pulling it slightly away) was uncomfortable and scary.

And I'm sure every horrible news story ran through his mind the whole time, unleashing a mantra of "Do not accidentally shoot your fiancee. Do not accidentally shoot her parents. Do not kill anyone, do not kill anyone, do not kill anyone."

When he finally got the hang of it, he ended up shooting in the mid 30s -- not half bad for someone's first time to shoot any kind of gun, ever.

My Dad is pretty proud of this, and he'll regale you with The Tale of the First (and Last) Time Luke Went Out Shooting.

"Shot in the thirties his first time out of the gate," he'll say. "That's pretty good for a Yankee, don't you think?"

Then he'll beam. It doesn't matter to him that Luke has never been shooting with him again; he tried it, in spite of being afraid, and then he overcame his nerves to become good at it, and those are the only components that matter to my father.

* * *

After Luke went out shooting with us, the texture of our conversations about guns changed. His stances didn't, but the fabric of them -- what they were made of -- was altered.

This was increased by a bachelor weekend a year or so later, in which he and the groom's party went to a handgun range.

When he came home, I waited patiently for him to explain his feelings; I didn’t press him.

“It was strange,” he said. “You're right, about it being very meditative and ritualistic, what you have to go through to load a shotgun just to fire two shots. A handgun isn't like that, but an assault weapon is the worst."

He'd fired an AK-47.

"It was exactly like playing Duck Hunt. It didn't move, no kickback. It was this bizarre combination of being the deadliest thing I've ever held, and it also being the most similar to holding a plastic video game gun. It was easy to totally divorce myself from that gun; you can't do that with something like a shotgun. It requires too much physical interaction on your part."

"What did you shoot at?" I asked him.

"That was uncomfortable too. Because we shot at those paper silhouette things. Literally, the intention was to shoot something standing in for a human being. It's a completely different mental process than going out and shooting trap with your father."

And I smiled at this, because I'll tell you a secret that my husband didn't know:

I love my shotgun. But I loathe handguns and assault weapons. I loathe them even more than Luke does -- and ironically (or perhaps because) I have more experience with them.

* * *

I was given a Jericho, a semi-automatic, for my 16th birthday.

I loathed it the first (and last) time I ever handled it.

It was far heavier than I'd expected it to be, because it looked so small compared to my shotgun.

And earnestly? It looked evil.

It felt evil. This was a gun invented to do evil things.

And the fact that it was so easy to wave around fucking terrified me.

"I don't like it, and I don't want it. It makes me nervous. It's not right. Someone like me should not own that gun."

If my father was disappointed, he only let it creep around the very thin edges of the conversation. Mostly, he was understanding. Maybe he was even proud.

I have no idea where that gun is now, I only know that he took it back from me and that I don't own it, and frankly not knowing where it is also fucking terrifies me.

If I could have taken it apart and destroyed the pieces, I would have, for reasons I didn't even understand then; I only knew that I hated it, and something I had such a strong, immediate spiritual reaction to was not a good thing.

I'd understand those feelings a lot more intimately after college.

* * *

In college, I spent several years with an abusive boyfriend.

He was smart, though, so it was a quiet kind of abuse -- very few marks. Very few public displays of anger. Hard worker, upright citizen. A bit cold, but not the kind of man you'd “expect” to knock his partner around.

Nine months after I left him, he called me crying at 10 in the morning, drunk. He was hurting. Life was hard.

And I still only wanted good things for him, so I went over.

For the next hour, he held me hostage with a Glock pistol, which is a semi-automatic handgun. This has also been the gun of choice for Jeffrey Weise, James Holmes, Cho Seung-Hui, Jared Lee Loughner, and most recently, Adam Lanza.

In my case, it was a gift from my boyfriend's father. For "home defense."

It is the calmest I can ever remember being. He alternated toward pressing it against me, and pressing it against himself, threatening to kill us both.

Wait. Wait. Wait, said my mind. Be patient. Your chance will come. And if you don’t take it, you're both going to die here. Be patient.

I was patient, and my chance did come. He set it on the coffee table right before fleeing to the bathroom to vomit.

When he made it through the doorway, I carefully plucked the gun up, grabbed my purse, and left.

Then I sat in my car at the very edge of the parking lot with the doors locked and the engine running.

I was at a loss for what to do about this gun I now possessed. It was loaded, it didn’t have a safety, and I didn't even want to drive with it in the car.

So I embarked on the slowest series of movements I've ever executed, what I'd seen my boyfriend do a dozen times: I pressed the magazine catch, removed the magazine, and set it in the large cup-holder of my truck. Then I pulled the slide back: one round in the chamber.

The bullet looked strange to me, but I had a hard time processing why. I set it on the console of my car, studying it as I calmly dialed 911. Why did it look so strange?

But more importantly, who was going to take this gun? I had to call someone, I couldn't just keep this gun. That's how fucked up my thinking was at the time: it was all about the gun.

When the 911 operator picked up, I was downright professional. I stated my name. I stated my location. I stated the nature of what I was calling about.

"You see," I said, "I had to call -- because I don't know what to do with the gun. Someone has to come take this gun."

And then, like flipping a light switch, I promptly lost my shit.

I've never cried that hard before or since.

It was the hysterical kind of crying where your chest feels like someone is stabbing an ice pick into it repeatedly. I tried and tried just to get out one word, but everything resulted in a sickening screaming sound that I couldn't believe was coming from my body.

God bless and keep you, 911 operators. That woman on the other end of the line was so wonderful.

"You're doing good, honey, you're so brave; we've got someone on the way. Stay on the line and just breathe with me."

I wanted to tell her okay, I'm going to, thank you so much.

I screamed instead.

"You're so brave! Just breathe. Breathe for me, that's all I need you to do."

The police showed up a few minutes later.

"The fuck," said one when she took the gun from me. That's it. Just two short and seemingly very out-of-place words.

They were clarified a moment later by her partner, who had turned to look at what she was looking at.

"These are hollow-points," he exclaimed. "They're meant for piercing armor."

Which explained, of course, why the rounds had looked so strange to me.

* * *

Things moved very fast, and it wasn't until weeks later that I realized the single round on my console, the round in the chamber, had rolled off in my hysteria to be lost in the dark space beside my seat.

My ex was calling a lot. I hadn't pressed charges, because I didn't want him to lose his job, and taking out a restraining order was tricky without pressing charges.

I was leaving in a few short weeks anyway, moving halfway across the country.

And it has been one of the biggest regrets in my life, that I didn't fight. Years later, I found out that he was seeing a woman with small children. I found out that he was considering applying for law enforcement.

My inaction is something that has haunted me ever since.

But I was young, and I was scared. It was difficult to get outside of myself, to understand the echo effect of my own inaction. We so seldom do.

So I did the only thing I knew to do: I kept that bullet and I looked at it whenever he left another voicemail on my phone.

"I wear an albatross around my neck for all I've done," pleaded one voicemail. Poetic. Sad. A reference to Coleridge.

Fuck you, said that bullet. You don't get to reference Coleridge, and you don't get to be sorry.

That little, compact piece of death has traveled to Ohio with me.

You might expect that it rests someplace romantic, like my jewelry box, but you'd be wrong, because it's not a thing that I romanticize.

It lives in a shot glass, in our kitchen. It’s right there if you come over to our house. More than one person has eyed it without comment, but I can't bring myself to put it anywhere else or to get rid of it.

I see it every day, and every day it reminds me. It reminds me that I am alive. It reminds me where I come from, and why I believe what I believe. And it reminds me to never, ever go back.

* * *

This essay has taken a roundabout road to my thesis, because it's not really a thesis at all -- it's as essential to my soul as light and breath. We have enough "theories" and "commentary" floating around right now, enough to drown in.

It would be easy, in fact, to drown in it -- to just choose never to come up for light or breath again.

I've taken the long way around because I want you to understand.

I want you to physically feel it, what it is that I know.

And when you begin to form an argument in your mind, I want you to have to consciously disregard me. I want you to have to emotionally set me aside. I want you to have to invalidate and rationalize me by choice.

You can advocate or rail against whatever you like, but I want you to have to push past me to do it.

Because I didn't fight then, but I will fight now.

Reading the comments on Sandy Hook -- the ones that openly advocate sacrificing the lives of our children for unfettered "freedom" of adults, the ones that suggest that all those teachers should have been armed to the teeth, that the Westboro Baptist Church is praising "God's judgment," -- even my own mother's stance that crazy people are just going to do crazy shit and that this has nothing to do with guns -- as if it's just that simple.

Well. There is a time warp, a black hole that blooms in my soul.

For every outraged indigence about "trampling" on the second amendment, with every word and breath, I am that young woman again, sitting in her truck in a parking lot, alone except for a 911 operator.

And I am screaming. And screaming. And screaming.