I knew it was unloaded, but I still made him show me, just to be sure. As we stood side-by-side in our bedroom one night, he pulled the slide back again, tilting it slightly so that I could see inside. I peered into the chamber. There was nothing but darkness, an idling hollowness.
“Clear?” he asked.
My husband’s voice was serious. Tonight we were practicing again. He raised his eyebrows in anticipation of my response. I felt like I, too, needed to act serious, so I fought what felt like the pull of an oncoming smile. Instead, I nodded.
“Clear,” I said.
He released the slide with a sharp, attention-grabbing click. The sound alone was intimidating. He handed it to me, then waited for me to clear it again as I’d been taught. Always clear the gun for yourself, I heard him say in my head. I copied his actions, though not as smoothly. Using the strength of my right hand, I pulled the slide back, and although its springs resisted me, I still got a peek inside.
Still dark. Still hollow.
The muscles in my hand relaxed and the slide again glided back into place. Stretching out my right hand, I suspended the gun in my left, making sure to point the barrel at the ground. Even without that warm flash of chambered gold, that small shiny member, I held it gingerly, uncomfortably. Almost unintentionally, my fingers curled around the grip, careful to avoid the trigger, like a woman’s eyes avoiding a stranger’s.
“Hold it right,” he corrected me.
I’ve been taught how to hold a gun and how to shoot it, too. I know not to touch the trigger until my hands are up and out in front of me, steady and strong, the gun safely secured within their grip. I know not to squeeze until I’ve found my aim. I know not to aim until I’m ready, until I fully intend to shoot, until I am completely committed to it—the trigger, the bullet, the moment. Until I mean it. Then I squeeze.
I knew the chamber was empty, but I still felt a small rush. Whether it was caused by thrill or fear, I’m still not sure.
Across the United States, an estimated 15 to 20 million women own—and carry—their own guns. Some use them for work, in law enforcement and security jobs. Some use them for fun, in shooting competitions and on hunting trips. Some women, though, use guns for an entirely different reason. For these women, guns are not for enjoyment, for hobby or recreation, but for personal safety. They are used for bodily protection.
Where I’m from in the South, gun-toting women are by no means an anomaly. I should know—my husband wants me to be one of them.
Some people talk about feeling empowered when they recall their experiences with guns. Simply holding a gun can make you feel powerful, if you are comfortable with the weapon, if you know how to use the machine. But perhaps you do not even have to know. Maybe the dead weight of it in your hands is enough, or the plain promise behind a slow squeeze of the trigger. Maybe knowing what it can do is enough to make you feel powerful.
It is these thoughts that play through my mind when I pick up my husband’s Glock, or any of his guns for that matter, and force my finger to its cold, rigid trigger. When I watch him shoot at the range—knowing my turn is coming up next—a single question spins around my head, nagging at me with the intensity of a gnat, punctuated by persistence.
Are you ready for this?
I long to be the self-reliant Southern woman; in-charge and distinctly unafraid. The independent feminist in me pounds away, asking me what I’m so hung up on. But for me, guns present an ongoing dilemma: To carry, or not to carry? The question is anything but uncomplicated—anything but easy.
Choosing to carry means that, someday, I might choose to shoot. I might pull the trigger. I might stop a beating heart. Somewhere inside, that feels like a sin.
Am I ready to shoot?
It’s something I’m still warming to.
The South is a gun culture. Most of us believe in the right to bear arms—whether we bear or not. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get some looks—some raised eyebrows. Talk about guns— about your gun—and prepare to be associated with every extreme stereotype, from pro-secession Confederates to doomsday hoarders. Not everyone here is completely comfortable with guns.
Myself, at times, included.
The first time I ever pulled a gun’s trigger was when I was eighteen, during my first trip to a local shooting range with my father. Feeling the bullet leave the barrel in one forceful, explosive instant gave me a new kind of rush, something I’d never quite experienced before. But, I wasn’t sure if the feeling was good. I wondered: Is this what empowerment feels like? The only feelings I could recognize were anxiety, uneasiness, and a hint of the wild, reeling experience of being a little out-of-control.
“You’ll get used to it,” my father assured me. “It just takes a little time and practice to get comfortable with it.”
I wasn’t so sure.
Years later, every time I raise the gun, point the barrel, and finally squeeze, a wave of apprehension rolls over me, steadily swelling in the space of time between my finger’s pull and the gun’s blast. The only difference is that now I’ve come to expect it. I wait for that feeling as much as I wait for the gun to go off. Like the smoke from the barrel, the feeling lingers. It swirls.
The women I know who shoot and carry—many of them my friends—say their guns make them feel safe. Women form bonds with their guns, and like any good, secure relationship, this brings some peace of mind. Regular, ritualistic cleaning fosters closeness and familiarity. Trips to the range ensure that practice makes perfect. Concealed carrying, I imagine, feels like sharing a secret with a very close friend. And women like secrets. Secrets can save lives.
Yet, when I hold a gun I feel burdened. I am uneasy with it, or perhaps more precisely, with the responsibility of it. I am not sure if it is a power I want to take.
My husband gets frustrated with my uncertainties, my seeming indifference on the subject. But, it’s not that I’m indiffer- ent—I’m ambivalent. My feelings are mixed and many. Our conver- sations often repeat the same pattern of dialogue.
“Why don’t you sign up for that class?” he’ll begin, referring to a women’s gun safety course he has been urging me to take. And then, in response to my shrugs or sighs or silence: “I want you to be able to protect yourself. Even if you don’t want to do it for yourself, can you do it for me?”
I avoid answering this impossible-to-say-no-to question because I have nothing to say that will satisfy him or me. I can’t yet say, “Yes.” Sometimes, I answer him with a half-hearted “I will,” but he knows just as well as I do what that means. My reluctance upsets him.
Sometimes it upsets me too.
A few months before we got married, we made a trip to the courthouse to apply for our marriage license. While we were waiting in the little office, a middle-aged woman wearing heels and a gray, tailored suit walked in.
“Hello. I need to talk to someone about my concealed weapon’s license,” she told the woman at the desk. “I’ve yet to receive it in the mail, and I was wondering...”
“See?” my husband interjected, whispering in my ear. “Lots of women here carry.”
“Lots of women probably do,” I replied.
“Well, why don’t you get your license? Just apply for it, then it’s done.”
“I will, after we get married,” I assured him.
The promise, though, was empty. We both knew it—our stalemate on the subject was far from new.
Yet I know my husband has a point. Today, in 2013, millions of women carry guns. Millions of women need to protect themselves. Millions of women need reliable defense. They need security, dependability, an old friend with a secret.
I wondered why the woman in the gray, tailored suit needed a license. Had something happened to her? Did she feel unsafe? Did she need protection? Perhaps she needed to feel empowered, to feel powerful, to feel in control. To be in control.
She certainly wouldn’t be the only one—Gun Owners of America reports that 200,000 women use guns in self-defense each year.
Despite my uncertainty, I know one thing for sure: we live in an uncontrollable world—something I read about and pray not to see. A world of random muggings, desperate hold-ups, haphazard hijackings, and pointless killings. But we also live in a world of methodical burglary, strategic kidnapping, and calculated murder. It’s no secret that we live in a rape culture—a world where women’s bodies are vulnerable to violence, anger, and brutality—a culture where one in five women have been assaulted. Women are attacked every day and sometimes killed.
My mother never taught me to live in fear. Guns aren’t a product of paranoia; they’re an act of deterrence. “A little secret to fall back on,” she says. “Just in case.”
“Guns may be dangerous,” my mother says, “but danger itself is unpredictable.”
If mothers are worried about their daughters, should we really be the ones keeping secrets? Perhaps it’s time to find a little security in spilling the beans: women are packing heat. Although their profile may be low, their numbers are not. Especially, it seems, in the South.
But to me, this group of women feels distant. They are still more a number to study than a group to sign up with. Right now, I’m still learning to shoot.
My father and my husband weren’t always into guns. They weren’t always “gun enthusiasts,” as they say. In fact, the men in my life began showing an interest in pistols, rifles, revolvers, holsters, bullets, and cartridges only a few years ago. Now, they go to the range as often as they can. I am always invited—and encouraged—to come along.
My husband started collecting guns halfway through his deployment to Afghanistan as an Army pilot. Two small scars remind us of the time he took a bullet through his arm and leg while flying in combat. He owns the same model of the gun he was shot with—an old Russian rifle that shoots long, round 7.62 mm bullets.
To him, guns are unmistakably linked to personal responsibility; they’re for your own safekeeping.
“I realized that people will harm you, that only you can truly defend yourself,” he told me one day as I watched him meticulously clean the dark, steel barrel.
“I realized that you can’t expect anyone else to save you in time.”
His words struck me in the same way that the bullet struck him: it was abrupt and surprisingly painful, “like a hammer, not a pierce.” Together with his team, he was able to safely land the aircraft that day—upset only because the enemy got away.
You can’t expect anyone else to save you in time.
My father’s interest reflects similar, if not the same, beliefs. “It’s about control,” he says. “It’s about knowing you can control something so deadly. And knowing I can protect my family.”
To both my husband and my father, guns are about safety and defense. Guns are about protecting yourself and those you love, defending your home and property. Defending—for my husband—the troops and civilians on the ground.
They address distrust in humanity.
But I can never blame my family’s beliefs—their shared mindset—on the South. They’re not from here. Although they’ve lived in the South for many years—my parents more than twenty, and my husband six—they’re from the Northeast, the Midwest, and the Northern Midwest. Not the South—that’s just me. In a way, only I represent the South in my family—only I am so tied to it. Only I feel it. This is my home and my culture, but like anything loved, there comes a time when you must question it. My Southern identity is mine, but like most Southerners can tell you, it requires responsibility—guns aside.
Perhaps the burden of responsibility I feel while holding a gun is really the responsibility I feel for my own life, here in my South. Perhaps my apprehension lies in the burden of my own safekeeping, in becoming my own keeper, which requires admit- ting that I am a woman and can be attacked, killed. It asks that I take power and control for myself. For me, this is a hard reality to finally and fully face. Looking it dead in the eyes—for anyone, that’s confrontational.
Standing next to me in our lane at the shooting range, my husband handed me a fresh magazine. It carried six tightly packed .45-caliber bullets, stacked together like a line of soldiers waiting for the trigger’s command. With one forceful motion of my palm, I loaded them into the gun’s well, making sure the magazine was properly seated. I looked to him for approval—he nodded.
“Now chamber your first round,” he said.
Holding the Glock in my right hand, I used my left to pull and release the slide. I knew the bullet was loaded.
“All right, you’re armed and ready to go,” he said as he stepped back out of the lane.
The white paper outline of my enemy hung a few yards in front of me, fresh and clean. It was shaped like a man with bulky shoulders, a wide torso, and a masculine-looking head. I picked my mark, deciding on the upper chest area. Clenching the gun in my fists, I lifted it up and out in front of my body, holding it as I’d been taught. My eyes stared between the sights, fixing my target. My finger found the trigger. I exhaled, then slowly squeezed, hearing my father’s voice in my head. Don’t anticipate; let it surprise you.
A small dark hole appeared on the target’s right shoulder. “Nice!” I heard my husband say.
I aimed again, breathed out, and squeezed.
A few inches to the left, two more tears in the target’s chest. “Good job, babe!”
Three to four inches in diameter, the group was far from perfect. An ideal group stays within a boundary the size of a quarter. But my aim does not have to be perfect; it only has to stop someone, to stop an attack. It only has to control a situation. Remember, you shoot to stop, not to kill, my father always says.
I emptied the last three bullets into the pseudo-man’s head.
The more I shoot, the smaller the waves of apprehension I feel pulsing between each slow squeeze. Pulling the trigger feels less sinister, less treacherous—less likely to knock me off my feet.
Perhaps shooting is a cerebral game. Perhaps one’s unease with guns comes from years of hearing the words “deadly” and “dangerous” in the same sentence as the word “gun,” from seeing the menacing ways guns are portrayed in television shows and movies. Perhaps the unease is a psychological reaction to a machine so metallic and cold. Perhaps it’s a subconscious response to the acts implied by the gun’s very existence, acts of controlling, of defending, of killing. Perhaps the unease is a response to the taking of power—to trading a husband’s hand for an entirely different kind of grip.
Perhaps it’s just a matter of “getting used to it,” of coming to terms with the gun and reconciling it with who you are and what you believe in. As in any relationship, getting acquainted and comfortable takes time, especially when one half of the whole is so unforgiving.
Alexa Boehringer | Gun-Shy