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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.

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  1. Great article. Hopefully shows the rest of us the impact we can have on others through our deeds and words

  2. Clearly it was a long sometimes bumpy road, but you at least had some family background to raise an interest and the desire to make an effort.

    Congrats on your success.

  3. It is very unfortunate that females haven’t had opportunities for the sort of early familiarization their male siblings are offered, but as urbanization metastasizes all over the damn place, a lot of young men are in the same boat. I have found that women and girls can be the best shooting students in the world, though. The absence of preconceived notions or macho posturing is a real advantage. I hate to hear that bozos are still pulling that old trick of handing an inexperienced lady a hard kicking pistol just to get a cheap laugh. That sort of crap doesn’t do any of us any good.

    • I will admit to bias here, but I never really found the .45 to be a “hard kicking” gun… but your mileage may vary and you never start out a beginner shooter with one, even so. It’s one of the reasons that my dad is a proponent of .22LR to this very day. Great for training at all levels.

      • It’s a bigger “boom”, but also somehow softer than a 9mm. For what it’s worth, my wife seems to like shooting my Range Officer (her 2012 Hanukkah present for me) more than “her” G19.

        • I stand by what I wrote. You do NOT hand anyone who has never fired a handgun a .45 acp pistol, with NO warning or instruction, unless you are out for a cheap laugh. Did you read what she wrote? How long it took to overcome that experience? Virtually every woman I know has experienced the same puerile practical joke at the hands of some dimwit – “here, hold my beer and watch me make her scream”. Idiots!

          As to the nature of the recoil of .45 versus 9mm, I’ve owned both, though I don’t have a .45 at the moment, and in my opinion – in full size pistols – the .45 kicks harder. We’re not talking here about comparing a 1911 to an S&W Shield, are we? .40 is a whole different story.

          Women, pound for pound, have considerably less upper body and grip strength than men. Simple fact – look it up. I’ve played and taught guitar for fifty years, and grip strength can be a major issue. The Taylor guitar company became the first successful post-war startup in the industry largely on the basis of accommodating this discrepancy in their neck design. Try to get a good look at the name on the peg head of any guitar played by a female musician on TV. Two times out of three, it will be a Taylor. Yes, it’s easy enough to acclimate almost anyone of normal strength to the recoil of almost any pistol, but you DON’T do it by handing a young lady a .45 and saying “here, honey, it’s easy”.

        • Leadbelly: That’s what I said, more or less. Give them a .22 … It still goes “Bang” but it’s a little bang, and you can teach all the fundamentals of shooting before you give them something with more bark and a harder bite. Because you’re absolutely right, more (expletive deleted) have scared folks off the shooting sports with that “funny prank” than anything else, and it pisses me off every time I see it. Makes me wanna hand them something nasty like a featherweight .458 win mag and tell them “Oh, it’s easy!”

          As for the .45 Vs 9mm debate, I do believe I said that your mileage may vary. Bottom line, go with what works best for you in terms of design and chambering. I’ll just be over here with my 1911, pointedly not mocking anyone who prefers 9mm/.380/.40S&W etc.

  4. Reading this story puts me in mind of two things.

    One, I’m lucky; My dad bought a lever-action .22 for me before I was born. He didn’t know if I was gonna be a boy or a girl yet, but I was gonna learn how to shoot and how to do so safely.

    Two, the flinch and the trigger jerking is a natural human reaction. Even growing up around firearms and shooting them for most of my life, shooting them in the Marines, and shooting them afterward, I still have to make sure I don’t start picking up bad habits, so don’t feel too bad about the sudden jump from someone in the next lane firing or the potential to jerk the trigger. It takes a LOT of practice to make that go away completely.

  5. Fine testimony Kristen! Some menfolk need to wise up to help the fair sex feel comfortable with firearms. As Eowyn says in LOTR, ” The women of Rohan learned long ago that those without swords may still die upon them.”
    Lets make it our goal to encourage every daughter to be a “Shieldmaiden.”

  6. Wonderful story. I’m sure your experience will inspire other young women, and men, to confront their fear and learn this essential life skill.

  7. I hate those people that hand a new shooter, a large caliber gun so they can get some laughs. Awesome story though.

    • Honestly I wish that wife had slapped her husband silly on the spot.

      I don’t even like it when I see comments about “that doesn’t look like a kitchen”

      And the pig at the end of this video ought to never get laid again: And apparently (since this is a lengthy playlist) there’s a lot of people who get off posting “women get hurt shooting big guns” videos. (I don’t know whether the guy who put together the list is one of them, or just as appalled as I am.)

  8. Thanks for this splendid account your journey. It’s frustrating to read of all the lost time caused by those idiot asshole men. So glad you found the right guy. Some day we’ll have campus carry. That’s the goal I’ve been working for in TX.

    I feel fortunate that in my South Texas social circle, girls are sort of expected to know how to use a shotgun and a rifle.

  9. Great story, well written. This will be an excellent article to share with people who are just getting started or just starting to show an interest in firearms. Bookmarked for that purpose!

  10. Good story, and I’m glad you’re on your way.

    I firmly believe that firearms familiarization should be taught before you graduate high school. It doesn’t have to be a permit level course, just enough to understand the basic concepts of what guns can, and more importantly, cannot do, e.g. guns do not “go off” absent outside influence and bullets do not “explode.” The vast majority of fear and uncertainty about guns among the general population is borne of ignorance, and the only cure for ignorance is education.

  11. Great story and thank you for sharing. I am always disgusted by the Youtube videos of guys giving hand cannons or 10 ga shotguns to their young wives or girlfriends and laughing hysterically as the action ensues. This really makes me angry because these jerks are creating the very problem you describe. Instead of taking the right approach and using a 22 to start someone correctly, teaching them the basics and helping them become comfortable, they are creating the beginnings of an anti-gun soccer mom who will never pick up a gun again. These jerks really do the shooting community and the pro-2A crowd a great disservice. I wish they would stop. They have an opportunity to foster a hobby that can bolster their relationship with a loved one and create an ally in the fight against the tyranny of the anti-2A crowd. Bravo to you Ms. May and thank you for sharing.


  12. Great article. I share the disgust at the jerks who think it’s funny to hand a new shooter a “big boomer” firearm for their first try, and then go into yuckitup fits when he/she flinches. Start with an air-gun or a .22, and make their first range trip fun. For me, the whole point of having a non-shooter try out a gun is to enlist people on my side of the “keep and bear arms” debate – sort of an enlightened self-interest deal.

    Kudos to you, Kristen, for being willing to learn effective self-defense after that prior crappy experience, and kudos to your then-fiancé for his help in the process.

    • Don’t spent much time on Youtube, do you? There is one video that sickens me every time it make the rounds, because anyone that know anything about pistols knows what’s going to happen before it happens, and you know damn well the two idiots laughing behind the camera do as well, but they let it happen – and this woman gets slapped in the face by a DEagle. It enrages me every time!

  13. I think an important aspect of this story is how the men in her life unintentionally contributed to her fear of guns by treating shooting as a masculine activity. It is up to us to make sure the women in our lives have the opportunity to learn how to shoot safely, and in a manner that is appropriate for them.

    • Certainly. It’s more likely that a woman will need to bridge a strength and size gap with a firearm.

  14. I have no shame in admitting that I still flinch sometimes at the range when another gun fires. It’s taking larger and larger calibers, but I still do.

    “I felt like a tiny cannon had gone off in my hands.” I know! Isn’t that AWESOME?!

    “public school cemented a fear of guns deep within my subconscious.” I’m still finding beliefs that have been instilled in me that are turning out to be not just false but downright anti-truth. From guns to Economics. Fortunate for me I don’t respond with much emotion to these beliefs so in my 20’s I decided I wanted to know more about the issue of gun control so I bought an XD. I figured in order to understand the issue as well as I could, I would have to be versed not just in the arguments and statistics presented by each side but to have a personal understanding of the nature of firearms as well. I think the hubub at the time was the expiration of the AWB, though I was only aware that gun control had made it into the news again and remained ignorant of what was spurring it at the time.

    I was familiar with the chants that the AWB had reduced crime and decided to investigate myself. I hit up the FBI website for data on violent crime and homicides, the census website for population data, plugged them into Excel (ok, it was open office’s Calc) and let my jaw drop. I got a bit of a nudge in the pro gun direction partly because of something that turned out to be not true. I’m sure everyone here is familiar with the drop in homicides beginning in 1992, the line reaching full steepness in 1994, which has led to many claiming credit for the AWB, But what caught my eye was the steepness of the graph on the upswing before the peak. It started to slow down and level out starting in 1989 and I, for some reason, had the idea that Glock had got going in the US that year or close to it. Certainly if a statistic is to decline over a certain period of time, its incline must first cease. I had thought Glock was not just a revolution in firearms manufacturing but also in affordability so for a short time I was assigning undue credit to Austrian perfection.

    Of course in retrospect it seems much more logical that it was the wax and wane of the crack epidemic, although one would expect a similar rise in crime to coincide with the rise in prevalence of crystal meth, but that does not seem to be materializing.

    I am still disturbed by the claims that a piece of 1994 legislation is responsible for a trend starting in 1992 or even 1989, but I can’t say I’m shocked by any margin anymore.

    Anyway, enough self service. I’m sincerely glad that you overcame your fear in spite of the attempts to educate you. Just remember those guys flinched too their first time.

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