Hitching a ride, trusting a partner, marrying the same person three times
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On the outside, the local shooters club is pretty much what I expected: a graceless gray warehouse tucked off the highway behind a gas station in a dumpy part of town. Inside, however, the club is surprisingly clubby: deep leather chairs, slate-gray floors, a wine bar glowing warmly in the incandescent light. There is an ammo vending machine, the first I have ever seen, tucked unobtrusively in a corner and a beautiful blue globe gleaming on an end table, as if waiting for the Great White Hunter to enter and give it a spin.
“This is the Cadillac of gun clubs,” brags Joe, our instructor. There isn’t, he says, another like it in Massachusetts.
Joe is small statured, silver haired, and non-posturing, a man who does not strike me as a cop. This is a relief. When searching for a basic firearms-safety class, I’d purposefully avoided the one closest to our house because it was also near the state police headquarters. Its website bragged that most of the instructors were officers.
Once the rest of the group has arrived, Joe introduces himself: NRA-certified instructor, “shooting enthusiast,” many years of teaching experience. Pointing to his American-flag neck gaiter, he says he has a hard time talking for four hours through a face covering. “Anybody going to freak out if I take it off every now and then?”
I raise an eyebrow but say nothing. It is January 2021, a full year into the pandemic; at this point who even has strength to complain? Anyway, his gaiter will do about as much good on his neck as it does on his face, so why insist he pull it up? The conference-room door is open; the club, I have been told, uses MERV 13 filters in its air system; and my husband and I have come prepared with N95 masks. I inch my chair away from Joe, and we go on.
Thanks to the pandemic, the class is small: just seven students. In addition to us there are a married couple from Brookline in their thirties, two strapping young brothers barely out of their teens, and a thin young man who sits alone at the end of the table, dressed head-to-toe in black, including a hoodie. Mrs. Brookline is Asian. I am Black. Everyone else is white.
The basic firearms-safety course approved by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires only four hours of instruction. By comparison, a motorcycle license, which I obtained last year, requires fifteen hours of instruction over the course of two days, the bulk of which is operating the bike itself. The Commonwealth does not require live fire to be part of its basic firearms course. In Massachusetts you can get a license to carry a gun without ever touching a weapon, much less shooting one. Still, Joe assures us that, unlike some other, inferior, courses, ours will include the chance to actually shoot.
“I want this class to be fun,” he says.
While Joe talks, I flip through the NRA Guide to the Basics of Pistol Shooting, a 150-page, spiral-bound textbook featuring many, many photographs of guns and people shooting them. A Smith & Wesson ad on the first page reads: “Congratulations on Becoming Part of the Firearms Community.”
The guide says that “Americans own pistols today for many different reasons. Some people compete in the various types of pistol shooting matches held throughout the country, including those held at the collegiate and Olympic level. Hunters, too, have found that the use of a pistol to take game can be a challenging and exciting experience, and nearly all of the fifty states allow pistol hunting. A new shooter will quickly discover that pistol shooting is fun!”
For the second time the word fun startles me, given the context. I did not come to a class about weapons expecting to have fun.
Joe asks us to go around the table and introduce ourselves, giving our history with firearms and our reason for taking the class. Unexpectedly he begins with me. The first part of the assignment is easy: I have never fired a gun, never held one, never wanted to do so. No paintball or air rifles, no water pistols since I was nine or ten. My family includes many veterans and at least one member of law enforcement, so legal gun ownership is not beyond my experience, but knowing there’s a gun in the house makes me feel less safe, not more. Statistics back me up on this, but even if they didn’t, it wouldn’t matter, since feelings are what we’re talking about. All safety is an illusion, said James Baldwin. It’s just a matter of which illusion you pick.
My feelings about guns are wholly negative, a fact that causes me to stumble on the assignment’s second part. The whole class waits while my mind races for a response. In truth I’m reluctant to say what has brought me to this place on a bitter January morning; reluctant to tell a room full of white people why a progressive, NRA-hating, middle-aged Black woman has decided, this late in life, to get a gun.
What violence I saw as a child was enacted mostly by white people, in whose glowing, televised company I spent much of my time. From heroic cops like Kojak and Baretta, to heroic cowboys like those on Bonanza, to heroic freaks like the Bionic Woman and the Six Million Dollar Man, the white folks who strutted through our living room every evening were forever solving their problems with fists or feet or guns. Even the women on Dynasty, so rich they never wore the same dress twice, rolled around in the dirt smacking one another. My sisters and I never fought that aggressively. My mother would have had a fit.
By comparison the Black folks on television largely spent their time helping or joking or making people laugh. On Starsky & Hutch, Huggy Bear was a hustler, but he never shot anybody. Fred Sanford was a grouch who aimed his stinging barbs only against other Black people. “Boom Boom” Washington on Welcome Back, Kotter was a slacker, but to solve problems he used his charm. Setting aside the Blaxploitation movies (which we were not allowed to watch) and the occasional Black actors who played law-enforcement officers, like Clarence Williams or Georg Stanford Brown, the Black folks who appeared on the screen were strikingly nonviolent. Even the enslaved people in Roots rarely fought back, preferring to outrun, outsmart, or endure. Maybe a little spit in massa’s cup. Thus the message was absorbed long before it was understood: in America violence is for white people. The only acceptable stance for Black folks is nonresistant suffering.
I am not a violent person. I have never been in a fight, never hit someone, never been slapped or kicked or punched. The closest I’ve ever come to a physical altercation is getting in the face of a few white people: A woman who touched my hair. A repo man who kept showing up at my mother’s house to harass her over a debt she didn’t owe. (A relative had used her name to finance a car.) A man who asked, at a park near my house, if I “even live[d] in this town” after I asked him to pick up after his dog. A neighbor who called me “uppity.” In these moments I stood up but did not strike out, restraining the urge toward violence not for their sake but for my own. It is possible to be angry without being violent, especially if one lacks power. Especially if one is non-wealthy and female and Black.
It is also possible to be violent without being angry — just ask the cop who knelt so casually on George Floyd’s neck. Not every person attacking the U.S. Capitol on January 6 was raging mad. See the people taking selfies in the hallways. See the insurrectionist leaders calmly carrying their zip ties and issuing instructions. See the hordes chatting gaily as they mill around their hangman’s noose. Not everyone was angry that day, but everyone had power and knew it; it was precisely that power they were there to defend. Beforehand they flew across the country on private jets or rode on rented buses from suburban Boston, toasting and singing as they came. Afterward they sat around in hotel lobbies, drinking beer and jovially recounting the day.
For all the lies about the Black Lives Matter protests — and about the Civil Rights Movement protests before them, and the anti-lynching crusades before that, and the Red Summer before that, and the abolitionist writings before that — the simple truth is that Black people in America have never been as violent toward white people as white people have been toward us, and that white violence against Black people is usually calculated. A friend of mine gasped reading that statement, but the only surprising thing about it is that anyone, knowing history, should be surprised. Consider the incalculable violence of 250 years of slavery. Consider the bloody rise of the KKK. Consider the nearly 4,500 lynchings of Black people by white people documented by the Equal Justice Initiative, and the thousands more yet to be documented. Consider Tulsa in 1921 and New York in 1863 and Memphis and New Orleans in 1866 and Wilmington in 1898 and Atlanta in 1906 and Springfield in 1908 and East St. Louis in 1917 and Chicago in 1919 and Rosewood in 1923. Consider Ida B. Wells’s groundbreaking book The Red Record, in which she documented the true causes of lynchings and anti-Black violence during the Jim Crow era as overwhelmingly economic. Consider, for just one example, the Elaine Massacre, which took place in Elaine, Arkansas, during the Red Summer of 1919: white mobs slaughtered between fifty and one hundred Black sharecroppers who had asked for a better share of the profits from their labor. Consider Fred Hampton and Mark Clark and Medgar Evers and Dr. King.
Conservatives love to decry the violence of Black uprisings like those of the Long, Hot Summer of 1967, or those following the 1992 acquittal of the police who beat Rodney King, or the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, without ever mentioning the relentless white violence that ignited them. But even in those uprisings it is inevitably Black people who bear the brunt of the violence. The 1967 riots, largely sparked by police beatings or shootings of unarmed Black men, left between eighty and one hundred people dead, the vast majority of them Black and a large portion killed by cops. No one knows the number of Black men killed by police in the years preceding either those uprisings or more recent ones. Though organizations such as Mapping Police Violence have been trying to subvert governmental unwillingness to track this public-health data by doing it themselves, such efforts go back only a few years. The true toll of decades and decades of police violence against Black people remains as much a mystery as the number of Black lives lost to lynching and white mob violence.
But some things are clear: Power begets violence. Violence reinforces power. White Americans damn well know this much.
Why are you here? This is the question Joe has asked me in front of the group. Why do you want a gun?
I try to dodge the question. “I’m . . . interested in things,” I say.
“I’m a writer.”
“A writer! I hope you aren’t going to write about me!” Joe says with a grin.
A lot of people say this when I tell them what I do for a living — or, rather, a lot of men do. I have learned to ignore it. “I’m curious about all of this,” I explain. “Last year I was curious about motorcycles. I got my license.”
“Motorcycles!” He laughs. “A lot more dangerous than shooting!”
Motorcycles are indeed dangerous. When my husband first told me he intended to purchase one, after having given up riding for twenty years while raising his kids, I was nervous. But, for the record, more than nineteen thousand Americans were killed in gun-related violence in 2020, compared to roughly five thousand annual motorcycle fatalities. Motorcycles are dangerous, but motorcycles are made for transportation. Guns are made to kill.
After I am done, my husband gives his history (more on that in a minute). Then the young brothers tell their story: they have shot air pistols and paintball guns, and now a lot of their friends are getting into shooting, and they want to do the same; it looks cool. Mr. Brookline already has his license and is, in fact, a member of the shooting range; he is just accompanying his wife to the class for support. Mrs. Brookline wants to learn how to handle their recently acquired gun. Why they have recently acquired a gun, they do not say.
Finally it is Mr. Hoodie’s turn. Alone at the end of the table, hands shoved deep into his pockets, chair tilted back, he says, “I want a gun for self-defense.”
He is the only person in the room who implies he might use a gun to shoot someone. I wonder if this makes him more dangerous than the rest of us, or just more honest. Joe also seems to wonder; he lingers longest with Mr. Hoodie, asking follow-up questions: Do you have a job that requires you to worry about your safety? No. Live in an area that feels particularly unsafe? No. Have you ever shot a gun before? Yes. What kind of gun was it? A Glock. (Later my husband will say: “Of course it was.”)
The ice now broken, Joe wraps up: “People own firearms for a lot of reasons.” He gestures toward me. “Some people want to have fun—”
“I didn’t say fun.”
My tone is sharper than I intend. Joe blinks, and I’m a little embarrassed. For some reason it feels important to let this group of people I will never see again know that I do not derive pleasure from shooting things.
“It’s just that I would never use the word fun in this context.”
Joe gives me a look. “Let’s move on.”
My husband got his first pistol permit (Firearms Identification Card) at sixteen when some friends were going down to the cop shop to apply for theirs and suggested he roll along. He remembers the process as pretty seamless: Four teenage boys stride into the Fitchburg, Massachusetts, police department and request permission to legally shoot things. The chief looks them over briefly and hands out the permits. My husband, I should remind you, is white.
His first gun came a few years later, a housewarming gift from his father for his new bachelor pad. It was an M1 carbine left over, his father said, from the war. That gun was eventually stolen during a break-in, but years later he got another one. His work buddies often went to the range after a long day of engineering, and sometimes he tagged along. The first few times he borrowed a friend’s gun, but he knew that generosity would not last: “It’s like a car — people will let you use theirs once or twice, but after that, you’d better get your own.”
A perfect analogy, I tell him. Americans are very intimate with, and very possessive of, their cars.
It turns out he had this gun when we met, though I did not know it. When we got serious, when it became clear we would be sharing a home and a life, he sold the firearm. “I knew how you felt about guns,” he later told me. “I didn’t want anything to stand in the way of us.”
Who would have thought one of the great romantic gestures of my life would involve a man quietly getting rid of a gun?
All of which explains his surprise, years later, when I raised the possibility of bringing a firearm into our home. It was the fall of 2020. George Floyd had been murdered, the latest victim in an endless stream. The birther president was ramping up his lies. Armed white cultists roamed the country, giant flags with the name of their idol waving from the back of their trucks. They chanted maniacally at rallies. They intimidated voters. They tried to run people off the road. The cops winked and smiled.
“Are you afraid?” my husband asked. “Is that why you want to get a gun?”
“Not afraid,” I said. “Pissed.”
For three hours we work our way through the NRA book: safe gun handling, safe storage, types of ammunition, shooting positions, parts of the pistol and how they work, how to clear a gun that jams.
At one point Joe asks a question about misfires, and I answer it. He looks surprised. “How did you know that?”
“It just makes sense,” I say, because it does, and because even here I am the eternal good student, always wanting to give the right answer, even if the question is about guns.
Then Joe announces it is time for live fire. He takes the two brothers and Mr. Hoodie into the range first, leaving the rest of us behind to take the required written test. Joe encourages us to work together to answer the fifty questions, reminds us to check the book if we get stuck. This is a test everyone is meant to pass.
Then it’s our turn to enter the range. My hands shake as I slip on my safety glasses and put in the earplugs. It strikes me that I am about to step knowingly and willingly into a room filled with armed strangers, most of them male, most of them white. This seems like insanity. I am astonished that people do this routinely, consider it fun. What is the positionality — the unearned, unexamined, unshakable social identity — that makes stepping into a room full of armed strangers feel like a way to increase one’s safety instead of a way to endanger it?
What is the version of history in which these facts — white men, guns, shooting — turn out well for someone like me?
Joe ushers us all into the anteroom, pausing to scoop a live round off the floor. Then he opens the door to the range. Silence.
“Looks like we have the range to ourselves today,” says Joe.
I nearly tremble with relief.
The area where the shooters stand is smaller than I expected, only slightly larger than the conference room we have just left. Eight or ten stalls, each the size of a shower, are separated only by what looks to me like a slightly upgraded office-cubicle barrier. Joe steps into the first one, reminds us of the three safety rules, hands us empty magazines and bullets to load in them, and then unpacks his gun. It’s a .22. He dismantles it with a few swift movements, showing us the parts: action, barrel, stock. I have never seen a gun this close, but even my decidedly non-mechanical brain can understand how it works. Such a simple, simple machine.
“Who wants to go first?”
I shake my head. My husband steps up, unloads his first clip at a rapid pace. Joe pulls in the target, compliments my husband on his aim, and advises him to slow down. My husband breathes, takes his time emptying the next three magazines. I watch his face. When Joe hands him the peppered target, he smiles.
“Your turn.” Joe looks at me.
“Don’t be,” he says. “I’ll take care of you.”
It’s a nice reassurance, but I marvel at his certainty. A person he has known less than four hours stands six inches away, holding a loaded gun. I could drop the weapon, or jerk uncontrollably, or turn it on him before he had a chance to react. Anything could happen; anything always can. All safety is an illusion, but maybe it doesn’t feel that way if your position in society has not only given you power but also protected you from the experience of being, and of feeling, powerless.
Taking a deep breath, I pick up the gun. It is neither light nor heavy, just a thing, an object, cool to the touch. As directed, I keep it pointed in a safe direction, downrange toward the paper target twenty feet from where I stand. I pull the trigger, bracing for recoil, but there is none, really. I finish the three magazines as quickly as possible, put the gun down. My husband beams, proud of me, but I avoid his eyes.
Joe holds up my target. “I bet you’re the kind of person who is good at everything.”
This is flattery, the kind of thing a good salesman says to a potential client. But I feel too grubby for flattery, too ashamed for false modesty. “Actually, I am,” I say bluntly. I do not say that this is one of the things that frightens me.
It takes a while to get an appointment with the local police officer in charge of issuing licenses, but when I do, he is surprisingly — almost disappointingly — accommodating. He checks my paperwork, takes my picture, takes my fingerprints (another thing I had not expected, another thing that makes me feel like a criminal). He makes polite chitchat and asks only one question:
“Been thinking about this for a while?”
I say, “Not long.”
Why do you want a gun? My friend is appalled at what I have just told her, shocked at my change of heart. I explain as best I can, trying not to sound sheepish. My friend is skeptical. My friend is white. My Black friends, when I tell them, ask where the class was given and how much it cost. My family — among them a police officer, many veterans, and several longtime legal gun owners — offers practical advice: size, cost, caliber.
Why do you want a gun?
A gun-owning friend, helping me fill out the required paperwork, says the right response to this question is “For all legal purposes.” He is a Black man, and the irony of the statement does not escape him. Rarely has the law been a Black person’s friend.
“It’s a skill,” says my husband. A skill like riding a motorcycle or changing a tire or starting a campfire. That there is skill involved in accurately propelling a small metal object long distances into a designated spot, I cannot argue. Nor can I argue that people should not take pleasure in possessing such a skill. I only wonder what all that practicing is in preparation for. What, exactly, are you practicing to hit?
“Others own pistols for personal protection,” the NRA guide says.
My husband thinks this is the reason I am suddenly interested in firearms. He knows the long, bloody history of white supremacy in this country, sees the emboldened anger, the rising violence. Even before the 2016 election we’d fantasized about moving abroad after retirement, finally leaving it all behind. Retirement is coming, but in the meantime we still live here. In the meantime we see what is clearly to be seen.
He says that even after I learn to shoot and safely handle our firearm, I will need regular visits to the shooting range to keep up my skills. I disagree. Say I do not need to become a markswoman. Tell him I only want to learn how to safely load, unload, and carry a weapon, how to store it properly so that no unauthorized users can find or wield it, how to keep from shooting myself in the foot.
“Survival is not my goal,” I tell him gently.
If a civil war breaks out, I say, if violent white mobs begin roaming the country as they have done in the past, I will not worry about precision shooting. I intend to sit on my porch with my legally acquired handgun and as much ammunition as I have and perhaps a bottle of Scotch and take them as they come. I say as much to my husband. My husband, understandably, is shocked. He’s not sure he believes me. I’m pretty sure he should.
“Are you afraid?” my husband asks.
Only of my anger. Only of becoming like them.
Is it possible to be angry without being violent? Is it possible to live in a violent society without becoming that way?
They march in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting about replacement. They run down Heather Heyer like a dog. I sit at home and watch, angry.
They march through Washington, D.C., shouting, “Reclaim America!” escorted by police. I sit at home, law-abiding, an exemplary citizen. Furious.
In Texas they try to run a Biden campaign bus off the road. In Oregon a Republican legislator lets them saunter armed into the state capitol. They try to kidnap the governor of Michigan.
They storm the United States Capitol, smashing windows, assaulting cops, chasing a Black officer up the stairs like a lynch mob running through the Mississippi woods, slinging racial epithets. They invade our government while waving the flag of slavery. “This is our house!” they chant. “This is our house!”
At home I watch the television, fists balled. Our house? Our house? This house that sits on a bloody foundation, which rests on stolen land? This house painted on the outside but inside left to crumble and rot? This house that has room for all but also locked doors and hidden keys? This house?
This house is not your house. This house is either everyone’s house or it is no one’s.
That’s what I want to defend.