By Kristen May
I grew up in a family where wild game, from pheasant and duck, to antelope and deer, was a regular feature of the table. I can remember fighting with my siblings for the last piece of deer sausage from my grandfather’s last hunt, and winter meals of pheasant cacciatore. N.R.A membership simply was a fact of life for my grandfather and his brothers, and yet I was never afforded an opportunity to so much as see my grandfather’s prized hunting rifles. I don’t think it was any conscious decision on the part of the men in my family, I simply think it never occurred to them to buy the coveted Red Ryder BB gun for the nieces and granddaughters as they did for the nephews and grandsons . . .
As a consequence, my only gun education came from the: “if you ever see a gun anywhere call an adult immediately” and the “Little Johny Doe played with his daddy’s gun and shot himself” variety, right along with the “Don’t do drugs” and “Stop, drop and roll” if you’re ever on fire. And while gun safety is an important lesson for children to learn, public school cemented a fear of guns deep within my subconscious.
I supported the idea of owning them, I simply considered it something for “other people,” particularly the men in my family, to do. Then in high school I got a job working early and late hours exercising horses at a neighbor’s farm. Isolated from any nearby neighbors, my employer asked me if I was armed and showed me where she kept her emergency pistol.
I was rather shocked to realize that even the heft of the gun in my hands made me break out in a cold sweat as I visualized this item going off in my hand like some unpredictable metallic cobra. I had no basis of experience to cause this irrational fear, just years of “Just say no” and “call an adult” horror stories from a tender age. I told her that I was fine with my meager pepper spray and she put the gun away.
Her husband, however, decided that he wasn’t going to take no for an answer and decided that the easiest way to get me over my fear was to hand me a .45 and make me shoot it. Without instruction. None. My strongest memory was of he and his friends laughing after I took hold of the gun, telling me that if I continued to hold it like that I’d rip all the skin off my palm. Which, of course, only made me more nervous. They didn’t mean to be cruel, they simply didn’t understand the depth of my anxiety or my complete lack of experience with firearms.
After a moment of working up my nerves, I pointed the gun, aimed at the target and fired. I felt like a tiny cannon had gone off in my hands and was imaging the recoil swinging around and firing into my face! My next shot never happened, as the men laughingly told me “honey, don’t flinch before you pull the trigger.” Thankfully, my boss rescued me, took the gun away and told them to leave me alone. I wouldn’t touch another firearm for a decade, and my hesitance had turned into a full blown phobia.
I had long since moved away from Alabama and was now teaching as a college professor in Houston. My fiancé, a former riflery competitor, worked long weeks on oil rigs in Wyoming and was insisting that he wanted to buy me a gun for self-protection. I laughed him off, as I simply didn’t see Houston as a “dangerous city” and told him that was why we had police officers and a baseball bat. However, he purchased a Walther .380 for me anyway and promised that I’d enjoy shooting it.
He knew my family were hunters and was very surprised to discover my firearm phobia! I was dubious, but I knew how important it was to my fiancé that I learn to shoot. So, after some soul-searching I agreed that he could take me to a gun range to learn from an expert. I knew that as a future gun-owning family, it was important that both he and I were comfortable with the weapons and I wanted to stop breaking out in a cold sweat when I’d catch a glimpse of his gun in the car lock-box or the gun safe next to the bed.
When I next visited him up in Wyoming he took me to a small local range where the grandfatherly man in charge proudly showed me his daughter’s riflery awards and promised he’d help me get over my fear. He didn’t ask Michael and I for any compensation and spent the next two hours slowly explaining weapons to me and working me from a competition air pistol to a .22 and finally to my .380.
I still occasionally flinched before pulling the trigger or jumped when someone else fired off a pistol in another lane, but neither my fiancé nor the range owner laughed at me or made me feel stupid or scared. After a while, I actually began to enjoy myself and was surprised to see I was actually hitting the target! I won’t say I got over my fear in a single day, it took several months of my now-husband gently coaching through my instinctive flinch before I found I was no longer becoming inexplicably anxious around a firearm.
Now, both my husband and I enjoy shooting together, are members of the N.R.A and I’m planning to complete my concealed carry requirements next month. I’ve been able to connect with my grandfather through our shared enjoyment of riflery and I feel far safer during the weeks my husband is away on an oil rig knowing I have the knowledge and the skill to defend my home and family if it were ever needed. I only hope that soon I will be permitted access to self-defense tools at work as well.
Violence on college campuses has become an unfortunate possibility, and the extent of the training I receive as a college professor boils down to, “hide your students, then yourselves, then throw erasers and pens at an assailant if you have to.” I feel a responsibility for my students’ well-being in the classroom and I’d rather be offered the opportunity to enhance my concealed carry training with classes on how to defend myself and my students until the arrival of the proper authorities, rather than be told to throw pencils and erasers. Or hide and pray.
Having gone from “hesitant to healed,” I can understand where a culture of gun fear has developed when weapons are only seen in the context of violence on TV and the well meaning, but often exaggerated, safety lessons in schools. However, as a gun owner now and a college professor, I can see where education and dialogue can turn fear into understanding. The answer to gun violence isn’t prohibition, it’s education. Education, in general, leads to a more productive and less violent citizenry, and gun education in specific leads to more armed law-abiding citizens who have the skill and knowledge to stop tragedies from occurring and to transmit the lessons of respectful and responsible gun ownership to future generations.