Mass Shootings Remind Me Of My Terrifying Trip To The Gun Range
By Jessica Watson
Fifty people gone. Families, friend circles, communities — broken beyond repair, viciously torn apart, totally destroyed. Forever. We cannot get back what we’ve lost, and in a nation where mass shootings and crimes of hate are becoming the norm, we are constantly losing. I am out of prayers and well wishes, my confidence depleted by a system that is supposed to protect me. I’m familiar with the pony show that occurs after a mass shooting and it provides no comfort: We will collectively discuss gun policy for a few weeks, but ultimately we will see no change. Coverage of the mass shooting will eventually fade to the second page of newspapers while new topics surface — until another mass shooting shakes us all again.
I am numb. I am not safe.
I remember my first time holding a gun. I had just moved from Baltimore to Atlanta back in 2013, and I was keen on taking up new activities as a way to make friends. I joined a few Meetup groups to help me ease into the local social scene, and one of them was hosting a gun safety and shooting event at an indoor shooting range. I remember the sunny winter day; my eyes fixated on the American flag hanging in front of the building, briefly catching the wind, fluttering as if it might fly away.
At the time, it seemed to make a lot of sense for me to learn about gun safety, to get comfortable around the weapons. I was caught up in one of those I see others doing this for the fun of it, so why not me? ways of thinking. After all, I was an outgoing single woman in her late twenties, innately drawn to trying new things and venturing off the beaten path.
Before this outing, I’d never seen up close, touched, or fired a gun, and yet I wasn’t particularly alarmed at the prospect. This was going to be an afternoon of connecting with new friends, having a good time, and trying something new. Other friends and acquaintances reassured me that it was a very communal sport. My typical scroll through Facebook usually revealed a social gathering at a shooting range, or proud men announcing with photo evidence that their lady can shoot. I was curious, what was all the hype about?
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The front counter of the shooting range had mounted target posters displayed on each side, showcasing that familiar black outline of a human frame. Nearby, encased in thick glass, were shelves of firearms. The man at the counter instructed me to sign a waiver and surrender my ID. “Groups will start gathering over in the lounge area in a few minutes,” he added, pointing to an open space with a light grey modern couch.
I noticed a small group of men and women migrating toward the lounge. It was almost time. I made my way over and introduced myself. We chatted. There was excitement in the air. “I brought my own gun for the range,” I remember overhearing one man say with a grin on his face. And there were others too . . . Eager. Wide-eyed. Ready.
Who are these people?, I thought, feeling unsettled as I found myself not sharing the same enthusiasm. I realized I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting out of an event like this.
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A large man with a military frame approached us and commanded the attention of the group, quieting our conversations. He carried a black box and led us to a brushed steel, bar-length table, assuming a spot in front of the crowd. Mr. Military began to talk about his respect for guns. As he continued, he passed around a couple bullets so that we could see what we would be shooting. I rolled the bullets around with my fingers. They felt solid and cold. Before passing them on to the woman next to me, I noticed that my palms were sweaty. I look up and watch Mr. Military carefully undo the clamps on the box and produce an unloaded, black and silver handgun for the room. People start nodding their heads in quiet anticipation; there were side glances and quiet smiles. He passed it around.
I couldn’t breathe.
His words started to fade into the background. The chatter of the group slowly disappeared. The room became blurry — I had a gun in the palm of my hand. I held it, letting my fingers run over the trigger. I felt it in a way of wanting to know it completely, this foreign object invading my sacred space. It was heavy. The weight of it was like an anchor pulling me down into deep waters where it was becoming painfully clear I didn’t want to be.
“Oh no,” I whispered to myself, “I can’t do this.” I quietly passed the gun to the next group member and found myself unable to refocus on the task at hand. Instead, my mind swirled; the gravity of that gun. Heavy. The power if it. Immense. But this was just for fun and safety, right? It didn’t mean anything . . . Still, to have my energy attached to a weapon that is used to end or injure a life . . .
At the time, we were still in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, where a 20-year-old gunman fatally shot his mother in their own home before driving to the school grounds in Newtown, Connecticut. There he killed 26 people, 20 of whom were first-graders before turning the gun on himself and firing one last time.
As I’d held the gun, the image of children flashed through my mind. To be in a classroom among your friends, finishing the recital of your ABCs and basic arithmetic, and hear shots fired just outside the door. To watch little ones crying inconsolably as they’re asked to place their hands on the shoulders of the student in front of them, and are led away in single filed lines by uniformed police in bullet proof vests. To be a substitute teacher, going to work on what appears to be a normal day, and to never return home. To be a parent, waiting by your car, looking to pick your daughter up, not sure if you’ll get to hold her in your arms again, feel her warm body and see her eyes light up with all the wonder and promise of the world . . .
Today, I’m reminded that we’ve being going out into the world to live our lives, carefree despite what happened at Sandy Hook and the other mass shootings occurring regularly since. We stride on with little concern about whether or not we will return home. We go into the office and make small talk, we join our friends for lunch or happy hour drinks after a long day, we go the movies, we go to concerts, we go out dancing.
And, very possibly, we’re living under false pretenses about our own security.
We’ve seen time and again that it takes just one man with a point of view and a weapon to change the course of history. And it’s all the more alarming that the gun used in this massacre, the AR-15 rifle, was the same gun used in the 2013 Sandy Hook Massacre. After Sandy Hook, we vowed as a country never again, but to date, we’ve allowed 1001 more mass shootings within our nation. Perhaps a gun by itself behind a counter means nothing, but when gripped by a hand it automatically takes on the mission of its master.
At the shooting range, the gun I’d held carried the weight of everything. Though I had long passed it on, its touch still lingered. My eyes started to sting, and something deep welled up inside of me. I needed a way out.
I opened my mouth but no words came out. My eyes searched the room frantically for the door. I needed to leave, but I needed my ID back first. I discreetly left the group and made my way to the front counter, focusing on one step at a time, mentally running through my words with a quick prayer that they would come out right.
Do not break down in this shooting range, I told myself between forced even breaths. Do. not.
The same young man greeted me again, a concerned expression on his face in response to my solo return.
“I need my ID back,” I said, “I have to go.” I was slowly shaking my head, something I could not stop doing while he fetched my card. He assured me that it was okay and I could come back at any time, but I simply repeated, “I have to go.”
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I thanked him and made my way back to the heavy door at the entrance. With one push it opened out into the crisp midday air. The sun warmed me. I made it past the gravel lot, fumbled for my keys, then sat in my car and locked the door. With my keys barely in the ignition, I could fight it no more. I sobbed.
Everything poured out, salty tears like great tsunami waves crashing beyond the shore and obliterating everything in their path. Eventually my breathing became more stable, falling once again into the rhythm of life. But how could I have been so foolish? I was seeking so much to fit in and find new friends, I forgot the basic essence of who I was: someone who has empathy and compassion for my life as well as the lives of other humans and animals alike — someone who would never be caught near a gun.
I know that we have responsible gun owners in this country. Should I be concerned that I made such an instantaneous and strong connection between the shooting range and Sandy Hook, two very different forums? Or should I be disturbed that we have become so desensitized to innocent lives lost that we don’t give a second thought when handed a gun for sport?
President Barack Obama said in his Executive Order on Gun Control, “Somehow we become numb to it, and we start to feel that this is normal.” I can’t be the only one concerned with our new norm, with hands tied about how our outcries and heartbreak can lead to actual policy and change.
The familiar black outline of a human frame on the target posters, that’s just for fun. Right?