Three years ago, my wife and I got concealed-carry firearms permits. A lot of people have asked why we did that. The answer is short: we did it because of a weekend column in the newspaper. Plus, we wanted to do something new, and we weren’t afraid of guns.
The official gun evangelist answer, on the other hand, is longer: “Why not a concealed carry? Are they trying to infringe upon your sacred Second Amendment right to Keep And Bear Arms, bestowed upon you and all of your Fellow Citizens by God Himself, as He directed our Founding Fathers to ensure Freedom from Tyranny for all Freedom-loving Patriots who need to defend Themselves and their Families from the Government and the Maniacs that lurk outside our homes across this Beloved Nation and—"
While that tirade continues, back to the short answer. It was summertime, and one night as my wife and I sat on the front porch reading our local newspaper (on our laptop screens because the “paper” only exists in binary code now) I caught one of those Things to Do This Weekend pieces that typically run in the Friday issue of any paper.
As these columns tend to do, the one I stumbled across gushed about trying the awesome new restaurant downtown! and sipping free wine at an art gallery show on Saturday night! and bringing the kids to bowl a free game on Sunday morning! Then, at the end, it said, “Or, if you’re feeling really adventurous, head down to the range, rent a handgun, and see how good a shot you are!”
Enthusiastic details and prices followed.
I had no idea that we even had a shooting range so close by, let alone one that would rent shooting gear. That seemed dangerous. And I’d never had any desire to become intimate with a handgun. A Montgomery Ward 12-gauge shotgun and a Sears .22 rifle, both gifts from in-laws during a first marriage back in the Polaroid age, had followed me from place to place for a couple of decades, and I still had half a box of dusty .22 rounds and about eight faded birdshot shells for the shotgun. I’d always assumed that if I ever needed to, these were plenty to get a few shots off and scare away bad guys.
Not that I ever worried about bad guys. Even in the worst neighborhood I’d ever lived in, where falling-down duplexes were crammed together by the railroad tracks downwind of a steel mill and drug deals happened in the middle of the street in daylight, the only bad-guy action my shotgun ever saw came when a neighbor borrowed it to shoot out the radiator of his brother-in-law’s car.
For a short time there I also owned a discount single-shot 12-gauge with both its barrel and stock sawed off, because as a younger man I thought sawed-off shotguns with pistol stocks looked awesome, but this one was highly illegal because I’d cut it down way too short. That gun only went bang two times. Both were on a New Year’s Eve when I loaned it to a friend who fired it in the air at midnight with only one hand holding the sawn-off pistol grip, and the gun barrel instantly swung backwards with the force of the recoil and bashed him on the head.
The other six or seven of us out in the yard with him laughed and laughed as blood poured down from his scalp, and then he laughed too, and I took the gun, reloaded it, pointed it at the clouds and held on with both hands as best I could, and pulled the trigger. It was like a cement truck slamming into reverse from above, and it hurt like hell.
The next day I started to disassemble it, planning to throw one piece into the garbage each week for the next month and a half. There wouldn’t be any illegal-gun charges against me, especially for a gun that was totally useless. I even drilled out the serial number on the receiver above the trigger, like I’d read real criminals do with their illegal guns. I would outsmart the authorities who went picking through the trash. Like I said, I was a younger man. I still had a lot to learn, about garbage collection if nothing else.
“—and the Second Amendment doesn’t say anything about whether our Arms should be open or concealed, and it definitely doesn’t give the Government any Authority to tell us what we can carry, and if we give in to Tyranny by letting Congress decide how we protect Ourselves and our Families—"
Yes, right. Quiet, please, I’m telling a story here. And what’s with the random Capitalization of Various Words?
Sitting on the porch with my wife and my laptop and a cold beer and an article about rented handguns, I was suddenly intrigued. I’d grown up around a few guns, but the closest my hand had ever come to a pistol or revolver were the cap guns of my youth, cheap little plastic-and-zinc things that fed spools of red paper with little dots through the hammer, and the dots went pop and left an awesome smell of “gunpowder” that was really just burnt paper when the hammer fell on them. And I think the last time I fired one of those cap pistols was around my eighth birthday.
After that I got a bottom-of-the-line Daisy Youth Model lever-action BB rifle from my parents, and then a much better Crosman Variable Pump rifle with an actual scope on it, through which I spotted a squirrel on our neighbor’s roof during the winter just after I turned 12. I tracked the squirrel for a while through that scope before sliding the bolt back and feeding a pellet into the rifle chamber, giving the gun four or five pumps of air, tracking the squirrel a little more as it foraged the neighbor’s rain gutter, and then, only half aware of what I was doing, pulling the trigger.
The squirrel acted nothing like a cartoon when the pellet hit it. Its arms didn’t flail open, it didn’t flip onto its back, it didn’t yell Yeow! and jump straight up into the air. Nor did it simply run across the roof in alarm, which is what I expected it to do. Instead, it just fell. Immediately, incredibly, the animal that had been alive a second ago now plummeted to the ground, bounced once, and never moved again.
My hands shaking, the air rifle clattering to the driveway at my feet, I was a ball of instant regret. The squirrel would get up; surely it was just shaken. It had only been hit by a little metal pellet. Not even little—tiny. And I was at least 60 feet away. The pellet couldn’t have hit that hard.
I tried to bury it, some time later, but the winter ground was frozen. The best I could do was scoop the squirrel onto a snow shovel, carry it respectfully to one of the trash bins that would be collected the next morning, and drop it in. It wasn’t an animal, it was an error in judgment. And there was hardly any blood at all. It was something I should not have done but had done, responding to an unthinking impulse.
And even though I was 12 and therefore almost a man, and there was surely something wrong with me for feeling so stupidly wrecked about it, I went back to the yard, picked up the Crosman Variable Pump Air Rifle by the end of its barrel, and in one motion swung the rifle as high into the air and as hard into the ground as I could. The plastic stock cracked and splintered against the hard ground, and the scope broke off. The gun was now only its steel parts, a receiver and a barrel, plus that goddamned plastic Variable Pump lever.
I flung these remnants toward the back of the yard where my dad would plant vegetables in the spring, and that’s where they stayed, forgotten, until the day he did exactly that, taking his shovel and rake back to break up the soil to seed it. He found the remnant of my rusted former air rifle lying in the dirt. The rifle that he and my mother had paid a good amount of money to buy for me.
And so it was time to explain.
One of my uncles hunted deer every November, and another uncle had carried an M16 rifle and a Colt M1911 pistol in Vietnam, but my pops had a quieter relationship with guns. During his stint as an Air Force sergeant he saw no active duty, but he became familiar with the Browning Automatic Rifle—the legendary BAR—a fully automatic 20-round beast that had marched into Korea all the way from World War I. Having tamed this rhino of a weapon on the firing range, he had no fear of guns.
When his own father died, my dad helped in the traditional dividing-up of the decedent’s things and brought home the ugliest, oddest-looking revolver I’d ever seen, an 1800s “pinfire” model that could only fire custom-made cartridges because pin-fired ammunition had become obsolete a century earlier. Heavy and hideous, unloaded and useless, the gun went into his nightstand drawer anyway. Maybe he thought that just the appearance of a revolver-shaped device in his hand would be enough to deter bad guys in the dark. Maybe he simply wanted something of his dad’s close by. These were my assumptions; I never asked.
Sometimes I would go into my parents’ room while they were out shopping, and I’d open the drawer and look at the ugly, curious gun but only look at it, never touch it, because it wasn’t mine, but during the summer before I shot the squirrel, some teenaged shitheads broke into our house while our family was off camping, and they not only touched the gun, they took it, along with our TV, stereo, and the loose-change jar in the kitchen. That was when I realized the value that the antique gun had for my dad, because he let loose with a string of blue language I’d never heard from him.
Then he never said anything about it again. The pinfire revolver had once existed, and then it didn’t exist anymore, just like the squirrel.
Standing in the spring-barren garden over the rusted barrel of my former Crosman Variable Pump air rifle, I confessed to my father. He listened quietly, and when I was finished he nodded and said: “Never point a gun at anything you don’t intend to shoot. If your finger’s on the trigger, you’re ready to shoot what you’re aiming at.”
I could only nod and stare at my feet. My father reached down to get the rusted steel, handed it to me, and shrugged. “Now you know,” he said. And after gesturing toward the house—where, I guessed, I should throw the thing into the same trash barrel that had sent a squirrel to the local landfill—he resumed preparing his garden for planting.
“—and Liberal gun Grabbers always talking about the ‘Regulated’ part and the ‘Militia’ part but never the ‘not be Infringed’ part, because they don’t actually know Anything about the Constitution that keeps our Great Land FREE and they just want to Disarm everyone so that Socialism can take over and—"
Wow, they’re still going on.
With the passage of years, shame and remorse turned into a quiet knowledge with weight and depth to it. And as I sat with my wife on our porch, thinking about a shooting range that I’d just discovered was only 20 minutes from our house and had handguns for rent, along with what I assumed would be thorough training in using them, the question I was about to ask felt alien and alluring. She had never pulled a trigger in her life, but my wife had long ago reconciled with my department-store shotgun and .22, my relics of another marriage, to the point where they’d long since become invisible closet clutter.
So I looked up from my computer, took a drink of beer, and said, “Hey, honey, want to go to the firing range and shoot some handguns?”
She thought about it for a moment. “Sure, why not,” she said.
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