“We won’t stand a chance against tyranny in government, we are already outgunned and should be able to arm ourselves with the same weaponry that the government will use against us if we decide, as a nation, that our government is full of tyrants and we want to change that. You think it’s bad now, if they start using drones on us and tanks and sniper rifles, I mean we don’t stand a chance already, and they want to make it a sure deal by disarming us. At least right now we could still make a dent.”
— “44magman,” online

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One day long before my wife and I walked into a shooting range one town over to try something new, I happened to flip through the sections of a Sunday newspaper (an actual paper newspaper, which we rarely bought) and pulled out a color circular for a sporting goods store, where I saw a black 12-gauge shotgun, a Mossberg 500 home security model, for a great price.

A 12-gauge Montgomery Ward shotgun had followed me from my 18th birthday until the day its slide assembly just fell out one day many years later, and the cost of fixing it was 20 times its value. From that day I’d always carried a mental “to-do-someday” reminder to replace it, but never had.

Now that would change. I folded the sale circular into my pocket and went for a drive. But not before checking with my wife.

“Why do you need another shotgun?” she asked, but not in the scolding-through-questioning way that some couples use on each other. She genuinely wanted to know because she didn’t understand, because a gun wasn’t even a tiny pixel in her picture of the world. So I explained that I’d always had a gun of some kind, ever since I was a kid, and the whole time since my old department store shotgun had fallen apart, I’d been feeling a void.

In other words: just to have, because I used to have one. And when she simply rolled her eyes and shook her head, I recognized it as permission to proceed.

For several months, that new black Mossberg hung on a wall in our bedroom closet, with a new box of buckshot ammo sitting on a shelf next to it. But this assumed that the ammo would always travel with the gun, to any floor in the house. It was probably a good idea to keep some shells even closer by, so I went online to see what kinds of accessories were available.

The first thing that came in the mail a few weeks later was just a simple elastic sleeve with loops sewn into it. The sleeve wrapped around the gun’s stock and held five shells tight against it. Inexpensive, functional, and effective in making the gun look more intimidating.

But why stop at five shells, when a molded clip could hold six more against the receiver? And how about a sling for carrying the gun, with 25 more loops sewn into that? 36 rounds external, six more internal. Rambo, look out.

A forend strap and pistol-grip stock came next, followed by a high-intensity flashlight for the barrel and a red-dot laser for the hell of it, each of these connected to the gun with black pigtail cords leading to thumb switches.

By the time I finished with it, the Mossberg looked absolutely terrifying and had lost all of its functionality as anything I could ever take to a reputable outdoor range.

Even worse, if I ever actually needed to use it against a burglar, and the local prosecutor chose to press charges, any reasonable jury seeing this Mad Max weapon would label me a deranged Ted Nugent fan who obviously relished the idea of killing.

So a few weeks after I had this realization, another basic black 12-gauge shotgun went up on the wall beneath the zombie killer. This one, a Stevens, got only a simple black sling and a basic barrel flashlight with a simple thumb switch.

Plus an elastic sleeve for the stock, to hold five shells. But that was all. Nothing else went on that gun.

With this kind of firepower the house was secure, or at least our bedroom was, and I really had no need for anything else. But then one weekend a Marlin rifle went on sale for a price too good to pass up. That was followed by a Ruger, and a short time later I came home with a 1930s Mosin-Nagant, a bolt action, Russian-made military sniper rifle from pre-World War II, a military surplus weapon with a primitive wooden stock, a cleaning rod, a five-round magazine, and a bayonet.

With the bayonet affixed, the gun was over five feet long. The Mosin wasn’t just a rifle, it was a history lesson. My wife conceded that it was an intriguing artifact—but again, why exactly did we need it? And how was it going to join the growing closet wall collection, if that wall was only four feet wide between shelf units?

The Mosin went up on the garage wall. Hanging there above a small collection of antique hand tools, the gun fit right in. Like those drills and saws and planers, it, too, was an old tool that had accomplished a specific task. The display felt right.

But what if, some day, I actually needed to take the old rifle down and put it back into service? The ammunition it fired, 7.62 × 54R metric rounds, was military surplus like the gun itself, and cheap and plentiful as a result. But the gun weighed as much as a Soviet-era car, and at five and a half feet long it was like hoisting a small building. An impractical weapon, at best.

Luckily, accessories were available. The old Mosin got “sporterized”—a gun-specific term for customization and alteration—with a synthetic stock to reduce weight, six inches of excess barrel removed, and a custom-bent bolt to make room for a high-powered scope. So altered, it looked magnificent beneath the two shotguns and the pair of rifles.

The sixth gun in our house wasn’t my idea at all. It came from my wife, who one day pointed out that in a two-story house above a finished basement, television viewing always happened in the lowest level, and this meant that our self-defense against home invasion was two flights of stairs away from us. We needed another shotgun, one to keep with us downstairs while the others remained on the top floor to guard our sleep.

Off to the sporting-goods sale again, for another basic black 12-gauge that differed slightly from its upstairs twin by having an added pistol grip and a barrel flashlight. The gun’s lack of bling made it a safe and practical form of self-defense. No jury would form “over-eager assassin” impressions of us from seeing it, if we ever had to use it and an overly ambitious prosecutor tried to punish us for that.

With that gun mounted beneath one of the glass-block windows within an arm’s reach of the TV-viewing couch, it was time for my wife to become more familiar with how our shotguns worked.

I offered a 10-minute primer with the over-accessorized Mossberg zombie slayer, but that gun was too heavy for her to seriously consider using. The two simpler shotguns, with their short police barrels and light, almost hollow stocks, were a lot more manageable for her. So I picked up a dozen “dummy rounds”—shells with no powder or shot or firing primer, but with the same weight and size of live rounds— and we practiced.

Six shells in the tube, rack one into the chamber, safety off, point the muzzle, pull the trigger. And be aware that the civilized little click accompanying that last step would actually be a ferocious, even deafening roar under real circumstances.

In many ways, a shotgun is a foolproof weapon, literally a “point and click” device that will pretty much find its target with the right kind of load. But my wife understood that owning such a gun while having no familiarity with how it felt, how it worked, how her body interacted with its weight, could be more dangerous than owning a gun, period. You rack a shell into the chamber, point the muzzle at the bad guy, and pull the trigger—only to find that the trigger can’t be pulled because you don’t know where the safety is.

We practiced. She got into a rhythm and a pattern. Then a few weeks would pass and the rhythm and pattern were mostly lost. But she stayed with it.

We didn’t discuss why or when a shotgun’s use indoors would be necessary. She didn’t want to go there, and frankly, neither did I. We practiced and didn’t talk about why we were practicing. We pretended that it was just so she’d know what to do if we ever took the shotguns out to a shooting range. Never mind that riot guns are basically useless on a range.

I fully empathize with non-gun owners who say they don’t want a gun because they don’t want to contribute to an already too-violent society. But not owning a gun in order to somehow create peace among those who use guns illegally is like not owning a house in order to eliminate slumlords. It’s a token gesture and an empty one, carrying no power to effect change.

But I also empathize with gun collectors and aficionados who can appreciate the work that’s gone into classic firearms, and enjoy them just as Jay Leno appreciates his collection of cars.

My half-dozen guns weren’t anything fancy and would never appreciate in value. They hung on the wall simply because I liked guns. They were just things to enjoy having. And because there were multiples of them, I realized that they would look, to outsiders, like an “arsenal of weapons” that media reports tend to describe. But that was dumb. The guns were just, well… there.

And contrary to public sentiment, owning six guns didn’t automatically brand me a nut. That label comes not from owning firearms, but from fetishizing them as the most valuable possession in life, to be revered and defended at all costs.

I had no concerns about doing that. But I did need to start looking for a decent shotgun to take to the trap and skeet range.