Although I’ve owned guns pretty much all my life, it wasn’t until 2011 that my wife and I took a headfirst dive into handgun culture. And if you’ve been reading this column regularly, you know that the diving was a lot of fun even though the training and advice we got along the way was an absolute joke.
The range, the concealed-carry instructor, the police screeners, the license board, the gun shop, the NRA, the government: every party along the way basically gave us a hearty slap on the backs and a full endorsement to go and operate lethal weapons with minimal training.
Well, that’s America, we thought. Thank God for these liberties and freedoms and lacks of government interference.
We became frequent customers at the shooting range near our house back in late 2010, and we were licensed to carry concealed handguns three years ago in May. Once licensed, we moved to scheduling regular weekly shooting practice.
What had been just some enjoyable weekend competition, something like a ballistic equivalent to pitching horseshoes, became more serious business. I did research into good inside-the-waistband holsters; my wife bought a purse with a concealed inner pouch that would hide her .38 Airweight with its shrouded hammer.
It was hot inside the range during summer because the place was basically a long, cheaply built shed that had been put up as an afterthought, and it had no climate control or air filtration. So we shot mostly on cool rainy days or in the evening. When fall came, the change in temperature was welcome relief.
December 14, 2012 was the first Friday in a long time where we had a break in our work schedules. We could finally take a day off and put in some time at the range. Incredibly, almost two months had passed since we’d last shot. We were more than ready to put some holes on paper, and we’d even picked up some targets that left bright neon splashes where they got hit so we wouldn’t need to reel them in so often to check progress.
But then the bottom fell out of the world again. I think I saw the first headline on a news aggregator on my computer screen, just as I was about to close the lid and start the day in earnest.
“School shooting reported in Connecticut,” it said. This is a breaking story, was all the detail it could offer beyond the headline, after identifying the town and the fact that first responders were on scene.
Three hours later, my wife and I sat in silence at our kitchen table, with some sort of lunch in front of us but no appetite to even pick at it.
Three handguns sat in two range bags on the counter behind us. Their roots went back to a cheap plastic BB gun that my family used for target fun in the basement, a thousand years ago when I was… these children’s age. Or maybe the roots went back even before that, to a miniature plastic checker-gripped .45-caliber Colt pistol that fit into the pre-formed hand of my first boyhood GI Joe, a thousand years ago when I was… these children’s age.
Those had been toys. That had been playtime. And these children would never play again.
Anything we could have done that day would have been a hollow, worthless gesture. We could have gathered up all nine of our guns and flung them into the deepest part of the river. We could have locked them in chains and buried them. We could have set them on fire. We could have written anguished letters to the President, to Congress, to the NRA, to the parents of the slain, to the classmates of the lost, to the hearts of the bereaved, to the soul of the nation. We could have prayed to God. We could have kept vigil at our television sets. We could have wept.
Instead we went to that awful trash heap of a range in the next town, listening to the radio news all the way, hardly speaking, and we could barely look at the counter clerk because her cheerfulness was obscene. Pulling open the cheap cardboard door at the far end of the hall, we heard laughter and we saw Osama Bin Laden’s face being shot to pieces by rapid-fire rednecks who found the whole thing hilarious. The only way to drown out their infuriating laughter leaking through our ear protection was to commence firing our own weapons and imagine our targets as the foreheads of these slobs cackling with glee while the voices of a shattered community, and the voices of a mourning nation, buckled in agony and asked the question again.
For the loss of one blond college student murdered during a Caribbean vacation, we’ll howl the question relentlessly for a year. For the loss of one little beauty queen from a rich family in a mountain state, we’ll ask it for more than a decade. For the one and a half million Americans killed by guns outside of war since records began to be kept in the 1930s, we ask it for a couple of days whenever the death toll is deemed excessive.
Obviously, the answer is neither simple nor easy. And it sure as shit will not fit neatly within the confines of a bumper sticker. For many gun owners like me, it’s conflicted and contradictory and confounding, and it will not offer an easy invocation of the Fifth Amendment’s protection against self-incrimination.
By the end of that December day, the gundamentalist community had already begun to refocus the tragedy on itself, the collective victim of a coming wave of anti-firearm legislation and government tyranny that of course never came. But that narrative of patriotic martyrdom has never let up since.
Which is pretty much why, in the nearly three years passed since Sandy Hook, my wife and I have taken our handguns out only twice to a range we now loathe. And why her revolver-concealing purse collects dust in her closet. And why, when our concealed-carry licenses come up for renewal, she won’t be renewing hers.
I probably will renew mine. And some day, if we don’t all shoot each other in a stupid civil war waged over the right to shoot each other, I might want to look for another range that I don’t hate. Or maybe I’ll buy some land and build my own. Just me and my guns, out there in the woods somewhere, shooting bullets into a dirt backstop, thanking God for my liberty and my freedom and my lack of government interference, wondering what the fuck went so horribly wrong with the interpretation of 27 words and why we let it get that far.