Until recently, American women weren't allowed to participate in military combat, probably for the same reasons that little girls are given more Barbies than BB guns. We aren't supposed to shoot guns. We're supposed to raise soldiers, or take care of wounded ones. But not be one. That's changed, but the attitudes haven't. Societal expectations give men an advantage in the gun debate. After all, they're the genetically predisposed experts, right? We decided to listen to the lesser-heard voices in the gun debate, so we corralled a group of women at Creative Loafing with differing experiences with and opinions of firearms to shoot some at The Range at Lake Norman (which just happens to be women-owned). What we learned is that, when smart people talk about the most polarizing issue in this country, neither side is substantially different.
"I grew up in Texas, where guns are celebrated, cherished, like football championships."
I grew up in Texas, where guns are celebrated, cherished, like football championships. The area I grew up in, south Texas, is steeped in hunting tradition. A few times a year, cammo-clad men and women pull their rifles from behind lock and key and shoot things out of the sky or behind bushes. Some people carry pistols on their belts, more as a message — Don't mess with Texas, or me — than an actual killing device. They may even collect guns, out of sheer fascination or appreciation for the technology.
I realize — based on entertaining cop dramas or bloody action movies — how easy it looks to fire a gun at someone. But by and large, those characters don't represent people who lawfully own firearms, nor does someone who kills his mother for her guns and then unloads them into unsuspecting children. (Would laws, or anything, have stopped Adam Lanza?) We must make the distinction. Otherwise, our misconceptions will continue to wrongfully navigate the gun-control debate in this country and slowly chip away at a constitutionally afforded right many Americans practice with absolutely no problems.
So what are the problems?
The frequency of mass murders has increased since the end of the 10-year, 1994 assault-weapons ban, but those weapons represent only a fraction of the reason why mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters bury loved ones every day. In 2011, 19 people died in mass-murder incidents. That same year, more than 12,700 people were murdered, mostly by handguns. Of those thousands of deaths, about 1,470 were African-American males ages 20-24, the most affected group by far. Why aren't we talking about that? A child's death is senseless, no doubt about it. But so is a small city's worth of young black adults. Which grabs more headlines?
Few sensible people, gun-wielding or not, would argue against expanding background checks or any sort of restrictions that would make it much harder for the mentally ill to buy weapons. The same sensible gun owners don't see a need for magazines that can unload 30, 50, 100 cartridges at a time. But what's the right amount? Some lawmakers say 10, others one, so it's not hard to see why some gun enthusiasts argue that it's a race to zero. What's more frustrating: According to The New York Times, after the Aurora theater shooting, law enforcement officials said James Holmes could have done more damage with a perfectly legal (even under Sen. Dianne Feinstein's ban) shotgun, since every shell can spray a half-dozen or more pellets.
If a criminal wanted to obtain a high-capacity magazine or a military-style device — most of which are outlawed in Feinstein's ban — to attach to his or her weapon, it wouldn't be difficult, as people who wanted to drink during Prohibition didn't find it difficult. Lawmakers are attacking the gun debate from the wrong end, and are shifting precious resources and energy away from tackling the harder questions: Why can't we seem to prioritize decent, humane treatment of the mentally ill? Why do so many young men die at the mercy of the failing war on drugs?
Right now, asking the right questions is more important than finding answers.
"I didn't feel safe until I was in a car driving 60 miles an hour away from that place."
When I got the email asking if I'd be interested in shooting a gun for a story, I thought about it for a few minutes before responding, "Sounds awful. I'll do it."
I have pretty strong anti-gun feelings, which have only deepened since the tragedy in Newtown, Conn.. I fully understand that guns cannot fire themselves — that it's the shooter who is ultimately responsible for its consequences — but I also believe that shooting a gun is the most efficient way to take a life. I am convinced that if universal background checks made it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to access guns, more lives would be spared. Other weapons will be used, as gun supporters often like to point out, but the consequences won't be as severe. The same day of the Newtown shooting, a deranged man in China attacked 22 children at a school with a knife. Some were badly hurt, but all survived.
While I would take a bullet for my children, I'd never keep a gun in my home for their "protection." But I understand why some families might choose to have a firearm for protection. What I don't understand is why they would need a military-style assault weapon with the capacity to hold 30 or 50 cartridges at a time. I can't imagine a situation — apart from the zombie apocalypse — when someone would need that many bullets.
Still, if I wanted to truly participate in the gun control debate, I would need to become better informed, which is why I agreed to visit a gun range.
Several days before our scheduled shooting excursion, I heard about the death of Chris Kyle, America's most successful military sniper, who was killed by a troubled veteran at a gun range. The best shooter in military history had died in the same type of setting I was about to visit. What if my little experiment left my kids without a mother, my husband without a wife?
By the time we got to the gun range, I was visibly worked up. So much so that Randy, our very friendly and enthusiastic instructor, decided that I looked the most scared, so I would be shooting first. I fired a .22 semi-automatic pistol six times and couldn't put it down fast enough.
I couldn't separate the act of shooting at targets inside a gun range from the reality that guns are used every day to hurt and kill people in this country. I never got used to the sound of the gunshots. "This is what it sounded like in that school" kept running through my mind.
I didn't feel safe until I was in a car driving 60 miles an hour away from that place.
I know that the odds of me being in a car accident that day were much higher than the odds of me being in a gun-related accident inside the range. Yet, I couldn't stop feeling incredibly uneasy around all those weapons.
That's when I realized that I have something in common with the most die-hard gun enthusiasts. We both have an irrational — almost visceral — relationship with firearms. The odds of my children being involved in a school shooting are miniscule, as are the odds of someone needing a 30-round magazine to hunt, or for self-defense. I can't expect gun enthusiasts to stop thinking that shooting is fun, just like they can't expect me to ever fire a weapon again.
I have been guilty of painting the other side as absurd and illogical without realizing that my own fears are just as ridiculous. Perhaps similar realizations by both sides of the gun control debate would get us to a common-sense solution that could alleviate our country's gun violence epidemic.
"When I saw how well I'd done — five out of six shots hit the center — I grinned."
My dad is an ex Special Forces soldier who grew up hunting deer and helping his older brother make moonshine in the middle of the night. As his only child, I never wondered if he wished for a son instead of a daughter. Sure, I had long, fine hair and soft skin, but that didn't stop him from putting a pellet gun in my hand at the age of 10 and showing me how to aim at a bright-orange target stuck to a slab of plywood in our backyard.
A couple of years later, when he pointed out a soda can a few yards away from where we stood on my uncle's farm, I had no trouble making my mark. This time, however, I held a revolver, much like the gun John Wayne carried in movies. It was impressive, like a shiny new toy. I had the best aim among my family that day — a small feat, yet my dad was proud. I was proud, too.
I was also young. Tragedy was two-dimensional, the stuff you read in comics. I didn't understand the kind of power I held in my hands.
That is, until 1999. A few months after the Columbine massacre, the boy who wrote me my first love letter accidentally shot himself in the face while handling his father's gun. He was only 13.
From then on, my callous attitude toward guns was gone. They weren't toys to shoot targets. They were dangerous, and I was scared of them.
I was so scared, in fact, that not until this story did I pick up a gun again.
Despite my fear, I'm the only member of CL's staff who owns a weapon. My dad — who else? — gave me his .380 to keep in my home for protection. Seeing no way to get around taking it from him — he's a persistent man — I gingerly placed the gun in my dresser drawer, burying it beneath bright pink tights and fishnet stockings that I only pull out for costume parties.
The day my co-workers and I went to the shooting range, I was excited but nervous. The safety measures were familiar (via my dad), but I desperately wished to scribble notes on my arms so I wouldn't forget anything. The last thing I wanted was for someone to yell "Ceasefire!" (gun-range etiquette for "Someone made a mistake, everyone stop shooting!") because I had possibly put someone's life at risk.
When it was my turn to step up to the partition, I frantically replayed in my head everything instructor Randy had shown us. With my earphones pinching my temples, I leveled the .22 at the target sheet hanging three yards away that was already peppered with holes from other shooters. I went through the same motions I recalled from my childhood, shooting that dirty, brown pellet gun in our backyard: Bend the knees slightly; relax the shoulders; line the back of the sight through the front sight; breathe out slowly.
Then I pulled the trigger. Oddly enough, ease immediately replaced the heavy dread I felt in my stomach. No one was hurt. There were no screams or tears or bloodshed — just calm. It was like all my fear and tension had been released with that one round. So, I pulled the trigger again. And again. And again.
When I saw how well I'd done — five out of six shots hit the center — I grinned. I'm good at this, I thought to myself. I couldn't help but want to hang up my own target sheet and shoot a few more rounds. I needed proof of my skill level to take to my dad.
I'd hardly call myself a gun enthusiast, but I'm not afraid of my dad's — I mean, my — .380 anymore. A large part of that is because of my experience at the shooting range. Tragedies like Newton, Columbine and Virginia Tech — even home accidents like that of the boy who wrote me my first love letter — are senseless and sad, but I don't know that the proposed gun ban would stop any of that.
What I do know is that while there are mentally ill people who shouldn't have access to weapons, there are even more cautious, law-abiding citizens, like those at The Range, who have a healthy respect for guns and what they're capable of. My dad is one; and now, so am I.
"This was my first time holding a gun."
"Remember to breathe." That's what the gun instructor at The Range at Lake Norman kept reiterating to me as I held a shiny black .22 handgun and nervously aimed it at a target poster with the orange silhouette of a man's body. This was my first time holding a gun (water guns don't count, right?), so I handled it like I was holding a baby — very carefully.
My posture was somewhat poor and my muscles were tense, but after some patient guidance, I fired several shots that sent shell casings through the air. The experience didn't make my adrenaline rush like riding a roller coaster. It was more like a car wreck — the nauseating feeling you get when you realize someone's just rear-ended you and you're not quite sure how bad the damage is.
I'm anti-gun and support the proposed assault-rifle ban. My nerve-racking experience didn't change my core beliefs. But visiting The Range at Lake Norman showed me a new perspective: Guns as a hobby. The environment was safe, the staff was helpful, and other visitors seemed responsible. They were enthusiasts — not so different from people who frequent tattoo and reptile shows — looking for the knowledge and skills to use and handle guns properly. Still, I couldn't wrap my head around why anyone would want to own and shoot an AR-15 rifle. (Our instructor made it clear that "assault rifle" is not a technical term, more a nickname.) Why does anyone — aside from military men and women — really need (not want) a gun like this? The answer was simple to me: They don't.
Despite my apprehensions, I gradually built up the courage to shoot the "assault" rifle. I wanted to see what the big fuss was about. It was heavy and didn't sit well against my shoulder, so I uncomfortably fired only one shot. There wasn't a kickback like I'd imagined, but I heard the impact. I felt like I had ignited a bomb. For anyone into big guns, it would have been a very exciting experience. But I didn't feel excited.
Shooting the AR-15 was still an educational experience: I realized how much recent news event have solidified, perhaps unfairly, my opinions on guns. Upon my arrival, I watched a mother and her teenage son going in to shoot. But because of recent events, what normally would have looked like mother/son bonding, only made me cringe. How many times did Adam Lanza go with his mother to a gun range and responsibly shoot before turning into a merciless killer? I know my thinking was extreme — not every mother and son that frequents a gun range is doomed for future disaster. Lanza was an exception, but he was an exception that cost 26 people their lives.
I support the banning of these weapons, even though I know its naïve to think it would have a major impact on gun violence. More importantly though, I believe we need tighter gun sanctions and a more strenuous and regulated process for folks who can purchase and handle firearms. It's irrational to think that firearms could ever be completely removed from our society, so we need to be rational about how we protect our society from them. But we also should consider that to many people, guns are fun.
- Shout out to The Range at Lake Norman owners Tricia Sisson and Trish Stukbauer for providing spiffy facilities (and guns) and our instructor, Randy, for all the courteous, professional advice! For more info, visit www.therangeatlakenorman.com.