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Put a gun in your hand, open the chamber. Take a revolver, an assault rifle, a shotgun. Load it.

You’ll first feel the dense mass of steel, polymer, or wood weight in your palms. You’ll roll the cylinder, if there is one, pop it open and snap it shut. You’ll learn the distinct snicks and clicks of safety levers and shells and the hammer. With a shotgun, you’ll beware the bite of the spring snap after you shove the last round in the loading port. You’ll see that it takes time for untrained fingers: slipping single bullets into the chamber, loading multiple cartridges into the magazine. You’ll count as you shoot. The sound of each shot will be extra startling if you shoot indoors the first time: WHOUUM for the 357 Magnum. TAP TAP for the 22. You won’t help but wonder about all the pockmarks in the ceiling and sidewalls from previous bullets poorly aimed. Gunpowder will make a shocking cloud. You’ll leave with black marks on your hands, and you’ll smell faintly of fireworks.

I am not a gun owner. But I have been seeking lately to understand guns as a matter of fact. I was surprised, for example, to learn that I preferred to use (preferred to use?) a 357 Magnum, despite its size and heft, rather than a 22 semiautomatic handgun. The latter is so light and comparatively easy to fire that it feels a bit like a weaponized Pez dispenser. Somehow that ease and lightness felt troubling, even offensive, for a killing machine. I figure a gun needs to look and feel like what it can do to you.

I realize that there are all kinds of gun owners: the hunters, law enforcement, the trained-for-combat professionals, curator-connoisseurs fascinated by firearm history, even survivors of violent crimes and/or their neighbors and loved ones. Criminals would make up their own category altogether. Of course each group has its own strata, and certainly some of these groupings overlap.

The group that interests me most is a distinct subset who seem over-eager, the ones who just love guns for being guns. These folks seem (ironically?) least likely to have tangible reasons for shooting, though they tend to be itchy for reasons to shoot, or to justify shootings that have already happened–whether their own, or someone else’s.

At the extreme level, some members of this contingent would righteously avow themselves in the self-appointed sword-of-valor “make-it-right” category. Consider Anders Brevik, whose calculated rampage in Norway last year followed his declaration in a manifesto that “it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike.”

A bit more recently and close to home, we have George Zimmerman, neighborhood watchman, who pursued a black teenager named Trayvon Martin down a sidewalk and then shot him dead with a concealed 9 MM pistol, telling a police phone dispatcher: “these assholes, they always get away” and “these fucking punks.”

When I think of Martin walking along, wearing his hoodie, hearing the sound of footsteps behind him, I can’t help but think that Stand Your Ground should be on his side–as the pursued, un-armed, murdered party. I hope that, when he was attacked, he did claim a chance to fight back. How could the law favor Zimmerman, the gun-carrying pursuer who pulled the trigger because of some axe to grind with “these assholes” and “these punks” (code for young men? young black men?).

What does it mean to stand your ground with a gun? Any armed person who’s been attacked knows his or her answer. Anyone who’s been in combat knows an answer, too. In fact, standing your ground as the likely lone-armed person means doing your best not to shoot if you can avoid it. But indoor ranges–say, compared to skeet ranges outside–train you only to hit immobile paper forms: maybe a target shaped like a bullseye with an orange center; or a cartoon mobster; or the outline of a human form, every body part labeled with its scientific name. You can move the target towards or away from you, but there it sits: waiting for a bullet. A sniper or assassin’s dream, really.

I went through a whole introspection process after I’d fired at a piece of paper shaped like a human body. I have been a relatively accurate shot for a beginner. But would I fire at a real person? Under what circumstances? And if I was willing to squeeze a trigger, could I execute the shot under the pressure of adrenalin, likely chaos, limited visibility, and lots of movement? If I did shoot, would I be accurate then? And what would “accuracy” mean: strategic wounding or incapacitating? killing?

It keeps getting more complicated.

When I went with a friend to a nearby outdoor range to shoot long guns for the first time, I had a weird experience. A too-friendly old-timer on the range set us up with our targets and weapons, and he just wouldn’t leave. When it was my turn with the assault rifle, I decided to shoot from a standing rather than seated position. It’s tricky to balance the gun butt properly for the first time when wearing big plastic ear muffs, so I took my time to get positioned and kept the safety on.

“Try this,” said the oldtimer. And he groped his hand across both of my breasts to adjust my shoulder joint and elbow just slightly. There was nothing subtle or accidental in the movement. It was the most obvious, unwelcome double-scoop from a stranger I’ve had since college. And here’s the thing: I almost laughed.

“Don’t be copping a feel on me now,” I said. “Not when I’ve got a gun in my hand.”

He backed away as if all he’d done was adjust my elbow. “I’m not worried about that,” he said.

I clicked off the safety and fired my bullets at the paper target we had bought. A couple of misses, but the rest hit the center chest and gut, the upper shoulder, the head. “You did good,” said the oldtimer. His walkie talkie squawked again, and he went to help a new pair of customers. My friend and I went on to try the rifle against the target, testing the impact from thirty feet, then twenty, then ten. It’s drastic how five long paces forward can change a shot from painful to perilous.

So who was this guy that had no problem groping a woman with a gun in her hands? That level of entitlement, or audacity, seemed awfully risky. He didn’t know me. Was this his way of trying to put me in place, remind me that I was “just a girl”? Was it a bizarre kind of test he tries on all the ladies? Or was it simply some cliché about women with guns turning him on? (I can hear it now: “Ma’am, what kind of gun were you wearing when he assaulted you?”)

I didn’t feel assaulted, though. The scenario felt comical, even lame. In other scenarios, I realize, it wouldn’t have been that way. I could have been alone. There could have been two creepy gun guys rather than one. Could I have shot at this guy if he had overtly attacked me, or would he have easily wrestled the gun away and used it against me?

I like to think that I will never own a gun. This is not a romantic, righteously pacifist notion, but I do realize that the whole gun thing is more than a cowboy fantasy, more than simply point and shoot (ideas, sadly, Zimmerman imbibed, at least on an indoor range–or with videogames). I also know that paper targets are not real people–the insight Zimmerman missed, or didn’t care about.

When I think about what happened that day on the range, and that tragic night in Florida, two female characters come to mind. In Night of the Hunter, Rachel Cooper on a front porch, rifle across her lap, ready to blast to bits Reverend Harry Powell, who threatens to invade the house and kill two orphan children because they witnessed their mother’s murder.

And in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina–a young black woman who warily carries a Smith and Wesson into a post-apocalyptic landscape of eroding neighborhoods, crumbling freeways, erratic crime, and privatized government. She’s wary to shoot because she has “hyperempathy,” which enables her to feel the perceived pain of others, both humans and animals, in her own body. But she’s also willing when necessary–because, as she tells us repeatedly, she aims to survive.

My own wary epiphany comes down to this. If my survival were immediately threatened, I would want to fight for my own life. If I saw another person being brutally attacked–my husband, or a family member, or a student, perhaps even an unarmed stranger with a bag of Skittles in his pocket–I hope that I would pull the trigger. That my conscience would demand it, joylessly.

And this reminds me of another category of gun owner, one I forgot at first but now I am learning to understand: the reluctant one.

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Jo Scott-Coe JO SCOTT-COE is the author of a memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute Books, 2010), selected by Ms. Magazine as a Great Read. Her writing on intersections of education, gender, and violence has appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, Swink, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre. She received a Pushcart Special Mention in 2009 and Notable Essay listings in Best American Essays 2009 and 2010. Her conversations with essayist Richard Rodriguez and novelist-poet Margaret Atwood have appeared in Narrative. Find Jo on Twitter, at her website, and at the Writer Ninja Podcast, now available on iTunes. She is currently at work on a new book, Tripwires and Trigger Fingers.

9 Responses to “Hands and Guns (or, Grope on the Range)”

  1. Michelle says:

    I like this very much. I find it ironic that I read this here, now – because it parallels my life of late.

    A few weeks ago a man tried to break in my front door at 10am on a sunny spring, weekday morning. I was home alone, in my pajamas and bare feet. My 120-pound Rottweiler-Doberman mix, who stands nearly 6feet tall when he’s on his hind legs, did not deter this guy. The would-be burglar (?) could see and hear the dog but not me. And yet he kept trying to get in.

    I live in a rural area (and have for 11 years), my house stands alone with a 100-acre dairy farm (not mine) across the road. In other words, isolated. We’re close to a crime-addled city, though, about 15 minutes by car. Never had a gun. Didn’t have one that morning. Luckily for me, when I yelled “Hey!!” as I heard the wood frame around my steel door cracking, and saw daylight coming through where it shouldn’t, the bad guy fled.

    As one of the police officers said to me less than an hour later: “It’s better to have a gun and never need it, than to need one
    and not have it.”

    I now have a 4-shot shotgun. The kind cops carry in their patrol cars. They tell me I can’t miss, so long as my target is within 25 feet. And that I have to watch for ‘penetration’ because it will shoot right through the walls of my house. This makes me feel safe and yet queasy. Imagine the impact on a person.

    It is hidden in my closet, empty. The ammo is hidden in a secret drawer in the adjoining room. I hope I never have to use it.

    I am a reluctant owner. Thanks for including me/us here.

  2. whidby says:

    “You’ll roll the barrel, if there is one, pop it open and snap it shut.”

    Presumably, you are referring to the “cylinder” on a revolver. That is not the barrel.

    What you wrote is, really, no different than someone writing an article about cars who states that they put the car into drive and stepped on the tire to accelerate.

    If you want to write about this topic, please do yourself and your readers a favor and learn about it first. It is really not that complicated.

  3. Thanks very much for this. The gun question is such a difficult issue in the US, and you’ve found a wonderful way to address it — by merging your own autobiography with Octavia Butler’s PARABLE OF THE SOWER. I had the honor of speaking with Miss (she preferred that address) Butler while she was working on the novel, and she spoke very powerfully of the problem of living and thinking in what she called “the bunker society.” “the problem with a bunker,” she said drily to me and two other people, “is that it ALWAYS falls.”

    Our collective fascination with and fetishizing of the gun (your experience with your “teacher” certainly shows the erotics of the gun in action) are obsessions that we can’t understand and deal with until we name. Thank you for making such a complex and interesting contribution to that process.

  4. dustin huffman says:

    I appreciate your writings here. I grew up with long guns and shotguns but never shot a handgun until age 35. I now own 39, for various reasons: some as shooters, some as heirlooms to pass on to my sons, some as investments because I follow prices and know them to be selling below actual values. And many have FAR outperformed my stocks over the last twenty years! I hunt big game and have 2 pistols as well as several rifles capable of taking that game. I have a concealed carry permit, though more for its value as a bypass of the national background check than to carry. When I did carry, I found myself to be far more polite and courteous toward others, not that I’m a heathen when unarmed. I have taken a hunter safety course three times, even though my age exempted me, and I took a training course for the CC permit. I enjoy shooting for the solitude and solace it provides, for the relaxation as much as for the mental discipline it requires. I enjoy providing people with their first shooting experiences and I insure that it is well thought out and pleasant. I hate the jerks on YouTube who film their girlfriends or sisters shooting a .44 mag and getting hit in the face with it. I once left a shooting range because I thought two clowns on the range were endangering those of us around them. Somewhat like the old guy who fondled you, I guess. I enjoy the mechanical aspects of firearms, understanding how they work, taking them apart and cleaning them, maybe modifying them slightly with improved triggers or sights or the like.
    I do not advertise that I carry or that I even own guns. I won’t mention it on any social media unless through private channels. I think it would be a misunderstood part of who I am, and I don’t want the communities I follow, which tend to be anti-gun to block me for owning guns. I don’t place private ads to sell guns; if I sell one, it is through a gun shop, within the law at a gun show, through an FFL holder, or to a private party I know. I once bought a gun from a guy who had sold a gun to two guys who used it to shoot up a Denny’s in Indianapolis; he asked for my DL and wrote down all the info and checked me out before selling me the revolver. I didn’t mind.
    I think the FL law will not hold water in G Zimmerman’s defense, nor should it. He lost the protection of that law when he disobeyed the dispatcher and followed Martin, even though it was not an outright order from the dispatcher. I believe *he* was then responsible for the confrontation.
    Do I sound a lot like your mentor? I am just curious as to whether you have approached firearms as a route to relaxation and enjoyment without an eye toward them as tools of violence, despite your book’s subject…

  5. LK Kreitner says:

    I appreciate your article because it has made me think back to growing up in Pennsylvania and Virginia and has caused me to reflect on how much gun culture has changed. In the rural areas where we lived it was a given that most of our neighbors were armed–however, rarely with handguns. People had guns for hunting and–as we did–for protecting livestock from predators of the animal variety. No one boasted about owning guns nor did they have bumper stickers on their trucks asserting their God-given right to be armed to the teeth. They just owned guns. Now, however, it seems that more and more people want guns as nothing more than mere accessories, favoring the “weaponized Pez dispenser” type that you so aptly describe, or, more worrisome, because they are scared, often of issues not statistically worth being scared about. If people were truly wanting to protect themselves, they would own sawed off shotguns, requiring no more than the ability to aim in the general direction of the threat and pull the trigger. I respected the gun owners I grew up around, but the new breed of gun owners scare me.

  6. bob says:

    The closer I came to getting a carry permit the more the magnitude of the responsibility of carrying a defensive weapon of any type became. We don’t live in a bubble. We are in a space shared by many others including some who might not share the ideals and morality that are considered the norm. I often consider the terrible consequences of actions I might be called on to exercise. The only way to remove these threats is to remove mankind but of course that’s said tongue in cheek. We live in a world where the price of personal liberty is the chance that others might act contrary to what we call common decency. That being said I’ll take that chance. There are checks in place to vet a persons past behavior before a firearm can be purchased. There is no way to know a persons future behavior and I wouldn’t want to be the object of a governmental thought police.
    We are unfortunately in a time of economic turmoil. People do many things they would never previously consider under these conditions. It seems the current thought on crime control is to persue those who follow the law thinking that limiting their access to defensive weapons will reduce crime. New laws and conditions are added in the misguided attempt to get rid of guns instead of the more difficult task of removing firearms from the criminals who have no regard for the law.
    As far as the Zimmerman/Martin case, I prefer to withhold judgement until the justice system completes its task. Unlike many who are not in possesion of all the facts. Don’t take this as anything more than what it is for I don’t have all the facts. I won’t join the media and self serving organisations and individuals the prejudge (the root word for prejudice). In the end I hope justice will be served.
    By the way Sawed off shotguns are illegal. See the following;
    United States v. Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939)
    United States v. Powell, 423 U.S. 87 (1973)

  7. Julie Ann Higgins Russell says:

    Thanks for writing this. I remember when I was poised for the first time, as a 19-year-old, to move out on my own, and I considered purchasing a gun. A wise friend told me, “If you own a gun, you have to intend to use it. And if you use it, you have to intend to kill someone.” My thought was I might just have to shoot someone in the knee-cap if they broke into my apartment. But guns are far too dangerous to just have around, for someone like me.
    Still, I like shooting guns. Did you?

  8. Excellent article for this forty-two year-old gun owner woman. I know nothing about the guns I inherited, though I am wanting to have them cleaned and properly registered, if they are not for some reason. I also want to learn to shoot each one. My husband and I are like Jo, and we are not “gun people.” Oh, the irony. I commend Jo for writing about her first experience, and can appreciate Jo’s preference for the 357. It just feels much more solid to me. That said, there are other real issues addressed including one, particular asshat who basically fondled Jo. I do not think this is a normal occurrence. I HOPE it’s not a common occurrence. Jo always makes great points. Really enjoyed the essay.

  9. Vag Forum says:

    Vag Forum…

    [...]Jo Scott-Coe | Hands and Guns (or, Grope on the Range) | The Nervous Breakdown[...]…

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