I was 14 years old the first time I held a gun.
My parents had recently divulged that they owned not one, but two, 9 mm semi-automatic handguns. The thought of guns in my house was scary, even if they were kept in small lock boxes, stashed far in the back of my parent’s closet. It occurred to me that even if you have a gun, anyone could find it or take it from you and use it.
Perhaps for that reason, my parents insisted on enrolling me in a “gun safety class.”
The class was run by a friend of my grandfather’s, a large, gruff, Irish-Catholic retired Marine named Mike. To my surprise, a large portion of the class was dedicated to learning strategies to avoid firing a gun. Mike said sternly throughout the day, “do not hold a firearm unless you intend to fire it.”
With this heavy on my mind, I lingered at the back of the group as we walked from the classroom to the firing range. As we got to the range, I could see a variety of small hand guns laid out at four stations. We put on noise canceling ear muffs, and formed a line behind one of the stations. I didn’t get in any line, but stood, arms folded, against the back wall.
After everyone else had loaded, aimed, and fired at least one of the guns several times, an instructor took everyone back outside and towards the classroom. Mike motioned me toward one of the stations. I shook my head, took off my earmuffs and told him I had no intention of ever firing a gun so I would not be touching one.
“Is there a gun in your house?” he said.
I stared at the ground and nodded my head.
“Then you need to know how it feels to hold one, and what to do so that you don’t panic and shoot wildly. This is about protecting your family.”
We stood there for what seemed like hours, me staring at the ground, Mike staring at me. Finally, I put the ear muffs back on, walked up to the 9 mm station, and picked up the gun that looked, I imagined like the ones in my house. I aimed at the paper silhouette target a hundred yards away, closed one eye and pulled the trigger.
The silence brought me back into my body, and I abruptly put the gun down, almost dropping it. Mike flinched, said “you forgot the safety.”
I backed away from the table and handed him my earmuffs, saying, “I’m done.”
“You know you need to learn how to fire that! You know nowhere is safe?!” Mike shouted as I crossed the parking lot towards the classrooms.
I know that nowhere is safe.
I know that elementary schools are not safe.
I know that middle schools are not safe.
I know that high schools are not safe.
I know that colleges are not safe.
I know that movie theaters are not safe.
I know that offices are not safe.
I know that restaurants are not safe.
I know that cars are not safe.
I know that nursing homes are not safe.
I know that Christmas parties are not safe.
I know that military bases are not safe.
I know that concerts are not safe.
I know that places of worship are not safe.
I know that a gay bar, my holiest of sanctuaries, is not safe.
I know I must expect that anywhere I am, someone could be concealing a weapon intending to open fire. And I also know that fact will never scare me enough to think that holding a gun will save me, us.
Photo by Elvert Barnes