There has been a running joke among my friends and exes throughout the years to never let me near a gun. I’ve often laughed along, poking fun at my horrible aim, and friends respond in jest about hiding their weapons just in case I’m having a bad day. It is not that I am a violent person with a criminal record. Admittedly, I’ve never owned a gun of my own. The jokes stem from the actions of my mother.
When I was sixteen, my mother—who suffered for years from untreated and under-treated mental illness—shot my father. It was a big deal in this area, all over the news for well over a year between the arrest and the trial. There was no way for me to hide from it. I had two choices—to let it eat at me, building increasing anger and resentment, or to embrace it and learn to laugh. Very much my father’s daughter, I embraced it with humor. Friends who had previously been uncomfortable broaching the subject of the shooting felt at ease when the jokes began. I would laugh along, because it was easier to laugh than to cry, easier to make light of the situation than to face it head on.
Beneath it all, though, I had an underlying fear of being around guns. While I’ve always maintained my belief in the rights of others to own guns, I myself avoided them. On some level, I had always been terrified of being my mother in any way and shooting a gun was very obviously a large part of my mother’s legacy. Beyond that, a gun is what stole my father from me. He did not die from the shooting, but he moved away and distanced himself from the traumas of his past. Though he survived, I lost him just the same.
For years, I avoided guns. I had a healthy fear of them. I shot off an old shotgun at seventeen with high school friends, then proceeded to sob for two days, imagining that bright flash in my father’s eyes a moment before that first bullet hit and that smell lingering in the air as he struggled to run away and another shot followed. I was haunted by nightmares for weeks of my being at the end of the barrel of my mother’s pistol, or worse yet my finger being on the trigger as my father stood there, unaware of his fate. That experience left me with no desire to have anything further to do with guns.
Years later, I’ve found myself rebuilding my life in many ways. I began to examine past choices and realized that so many of my decisions in life revolved around my fear of becoming my mother in some way. If I was going to move forward down a healthier path, I needed to stop living in fear. I decided one of the biggest first steps I could make, albeit a very symbolic one, would be to face my fear of guns. After all, I am not my mother.
While I had a few friends who owned guns, I found myself turning to an old friend with a varied collection for help. He was very safety conscious, which I greatly appreciated because guns still make me more than a little uncomfortable. He double-checked his pistol to confirm it was unloaded before handing it to me to get a better feel for it. He walked me through the proper way to hold it: finger never on the trigger until you’re ready to fire, hands side by side rather than cupping, thumbs resting atop each other. He walked me through procedures and explained the different types of bullets. In my mind, I created a mental checklist.
We went to a chunk of land his parents owned. His teenage son met us there, rifle in hand. It was humbling to see someone less than half my age so much at ease with firearms, so comfortable with shooting. We walked through how to properly hold the rifle as well. I was amazed by how heavy and solid they both felt in my hands. Lowering my earmuffs, I tossed out last-minute questions to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything and to prolong the moment because deep down I was anxious and scared. What was surely a non-event for most people was an enormously huge deal for me.
We began with the pistol. I tried to mimic the stance I was shown but truthfully it felt unnatural. When I squeezed the trigger, it was louder and brighter than I could have imagined. I found myself wincing and squinting with each shot. After a few shots, I was handed the rifle. Once again, I was surprised at the weight. As we reviewed everything from proper stance to hand and arm positioning, I found myself shaking out my left arm here and there to give it a break from the heaviness. There was a pad on the butt to help with kickback; however, I still braced myself, unsure of how much force to expect. The bang and the flash were both larger, as was my wincing reaction. Though I’m sure there was some kickback, my heart was pounding too quickly and heavily in my chest to feel anything else. I honestly cannot tell you if I hit anything with any shot because I truly was not aiming at anything in particular. The entirety of my focus was on the guns in my hands and facing down that growing fear in my gut.
We have plans to go shooting again, next time with my own sons in tow. They’ve already shown an interest in guns but have been hesitant in the past to discuss them too heavily with me due, I believe, in a large part to my mother’s legacy. I want to encourage my children to openly embrace their interest in guns around me without fear that it will traumatize me in some way.
My first experience shooting guns was relatively short, done as the peacefulness of dusk approached. In time, I want to become more comfortable and perhaps even proficient with shooting a gun; eventually, being able to pull the trigger without physically wincing in pain would be a huge milestone, as well. I no longer want to live in the past, spending my life avoiding things because of the actions of others. Shooting a gun will not transform me into my mother. Shooting a gun will, however, help me to move forward, become my own person, and live my life more fully.
Author’s note: I sincerely thank Cliff V. and his son Ian for working with me to check such an important item off my living list. It was a huge deal for me to face this fear–your patience and understanding was greatly appreciated.
[Photo credit to B. L. Acker]
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