This weekend , my partner’s father taught me how to use a gun.
It happened in the kitchen, at the table, where he’d laid out a spread of paper towels and on top of them placed a pistol broken down to its pieces. He sat me down and said, “You see, Glocks are so precise. The man who made these was a watch maker, so it all comes together. It’s so clean.” Later as he began fitting piece into piece, he said, “I just want you to learn about them so you can be more comfortable. The first rules of a gun or if you find a gun in the house, is to make sure it isn’t loaded before you do anything with it.” I wanted so badly to explain to him that I would never aspire to do anything with his guns. Still though, I was curious. Maybe it was the writer in me. I wanted to hold it, turn it over in my hands and feel the weight of it. I did not want to fire it, but I wanted to know how it fired. How it made everything so simple.
This all started when Howard, my boyfriend’s father, reached into the side pocket of his recliner and pulled out a pistol. “Maiasia,” he said, “Just for future’s sake, I just wanted to let you know, there’s usually a gun in the chair.” He held it aloft like he was holding it up to the sun to see through it, and I, who had been on my way to the kitchen, let out a wild squeak. I had spent the last weekend in that recliner while he and his wife, Linda, were in Florida visiting Linda’s mother. I had even reached into the side pocket which was quite capacious and deposited things there for safe keeping: my phone, my pack of pens, my phone charger, and, from time to time to avoid losing it, the recliner’s remote control. I had rifled through the pocket to find my phone when it had sank in a little too deep. How close had I come to brushing a finger against the frame of the gun or clasping it and, in a state of shock, pulling it forth?
The first time I visited my boyfriend at his home, he lived in New Jersey in a two-floor house in a quiet cul de sac. His parents were vacationing at Disney; they knew I was visiting, knew he wanted to impress me because we were not yet dating. He gave a quick tour of the house, then we settled in to watch movies, and it didn’t occur to me that he had swept quickly by a room on the second floor of the house until I was back upstairs, using the bathroom, and I noted that the room had no door. I peeked in, and at first glance, the room seemed to be cluttered with familial junk: paintings no one would ever hang, clothes no one could fit and no one could let go of, duffel bags and sleeping bags and.. junk, but when I looked closer, there were rifles lining the side walls, boxes of ammunition, and I let out a sharp exhale. A wild thought shot through my head. “Of course. He’s invited me here to kill me.” It only took me a few seconds to realize how crazy that sounded and then a few more to realize what was truly crazy was keeping all your guns next to your ammunition in a room with no doors. I went inside.
They lined the walls next to filing cabinets and lock boxes. I lifted one of the packs of ammunition and fingered the cartridges. They were heavier then I expected, and seeing them packed they way they were, they reminded me of a box of crayons. When I returned downstairs and asked the man who would become my partner about the room upstairs, he admitted to hoping I wouldn’t notice the room and its contents. “The gun’s are my dad’s. He’s usually got them everywhere around the house, but I had him clean them up for you.” That was his and his family’s attempt to impress me, to hide their guns in a room with no doors.
This was in mid-January of 2016. Half a year after Donald Trump announced his bid for the Presidency. The country was neck deep in a gun control debate, and both myself and my new boyfriend were all for a gun ban. We commonly cited countries that had banned guns and met amazing success. We followed the media coverage of each of the shootings that year and hoped they would be enough to tip the debate. Whenever I returned home from undergrad in Jersey and saw someone driving down the streets of Connecticut with a pro-gun bumper sticker I would call Matthew, my partner, and ask what in the world could possess someone to defend guns in this state after Sandy Hook, and he would remind me that some people in my state still believed Sandy Hook was a hoax and I’d sigh and he’d sigh, hundreds of miles away, and we’d wonder why we couldn’t change the world with a flick of the wrist.
Now, near the close of 2018, I’m in my boyfriend’s parents’ new home in PA, an open carry state. It seemed like when they bought the house last summer, all Howard could talk about was the possibility of getting his open carry permit. His eyes would light up the way the did when he invited me to the local shooting range, when someone asked him about the latest appliance he had bought around the house. He had once been a member of the NRA, but over the last two years, things had changed for him. He was no longer a staunch republican. Donald Trump changed that for him. He was no longer a staunch defender of the NRA. Dana Loesch changed that for him. He is no longer anti-immigration and no longer an ineluctable optimist. 2017 changed that for him. He had told me and his son earlier today that he doesn’t even like hunting anymore. He never got his open carry permit. Yet, he still keeps guns around his house, still believes in one’s right to use lethal force in self-defense, and still believes that I would be more accepting of guns if I knew them better, as if his recliner pistol was an old friend who had made a bad first impression.
So we worked over the gun. The frame of it was made of plastic and very lightweight. This I did not expect. Howard fitted barrel of the gun into the slide, the recoil spring came next, then he slid the whole section onto the frame. He had me do it. He showed me how the trigger worked as a safety so that it wouldn’t fire if dropped. He said it made it a very safe little piece of work.
As we worked it over, taking it apart and putting it back together, I asked questions, simple and direct, what’s a caliber, how do I empty the chamber, how do I reload a magazine, what would the recoil feel like, how man times he had fired it… I held the pistol in front of me in what my partner, Matthew, called Weaver Stance. One hand on the frame of the gun, the other fisting the bottom of the grip, both arms held straight ahead, but not locked, to handle the shock of firing. As I held it, Howard explained to me the mechanisms that caused the gun to shoot, how the firing pin connected with the butt end of a round, igniting the powder and causing a small explosion. The rifling of the barrel, the way the barrel is constructed so that the bullet comes out spinning, was necessary to keep it accurate. The gun, he told me, was accurate up to around 25 yards and had four different safety mechanisms other than the trigger. Sitting at the head of the table, I lined up the sight of the pistol with a small vase of flowers at the back wall of the room. I had never fired a gun before, not even a BB or paintball gun.
As I got older and began to bear witness (as is my responsibility as a citizen), I started to think that guns were like cell phones. They made it so easy to kill, as easy and quick as sending a text, that maybe we believed that killing quickly, killing in general, was our right. I mean, who would want to defend a law that let us, even implored us, to do the messy, slow kind of killing? The killing that involved work and fighting and begging and feeling someone else die with your body? Guns make it simple. Guns cross the line of life and death in the tug of a finger, and for the untrained and trained alike, send such a shock through our systems that for a second its easy not to think in terms of what we’ve done, only how we react. Our ears ring. Our heart pounds. Someone has fallen. This after the gun has fired, not after we’ve fired it.
Sitting at the head of the table, I tried to form a body image of the firing of the gun. The trigger is resistant. I’d have to put effort behind that motion, intention. I felt my body tense, already trying to rebut the force of the shot. My jaw tensed, mouth dried. In my mind I pressed my finger against the trigger and pulled, but what came next I couldn’t imagine. Would my arms fly up wildly, unready for the kickback? Would my shoulders bear the force and push back into my body? Would I feel it in my chest or my legs? Would it smell like coal, sulfur, or metal? How longer after firing would I hear the vase shatter or would the roar in my ears drown it out? Would the vase shatter or would it explode?