Best of the Net 2012  

Packing Heat

She unfolded one delicate hand from her flower print lap, flipped it nonchalantly and spoke with quiet authority. "Don't worry, we all got guns."

"But there must be metal detectors. I probably just didn't see them."

"Nah, I been here before. Gets hot they leave the back door to the parking lot wide open."

Six of us lined the wall of the jury box in Magistrate Court in Greenville County, South Carolina, and two alternate jurors sat in the front row of the otherwise empty courtroom. Judge Jesse McCall stepped out of chambers, apologized for the delay and asked us to wait, said the lawyers were trying to work it out.

I was contemplating the safety of a court building without metal detectors and must have looked concerned because another juror leaned forward, stuck her chin around the woman next to me. "You safe, honey. We got it covered."

When the first woman spoke I'd thought of pine trees and plaid shirts, hunting rifles, maybe handguns in nightstands, but that wasn't what these women were talking about. They had carried guns into the courthouse, probably in the purses that sat near their feet. And they'd insinuated that other people brought weapons into the building too, that it was easy.

I grew up in the Detroit area in a gun free home during the 1950s and 60s. We read the World Book Encyclopedia for sport and my brother and I received extra candy rations for nailing spelling tests. All we packed, other than our suitcases, was one encyclopedia volume each for long car trips. When we drove from Michigan to California on our dream vacation to Disneyland, I chose the M volume because we were on our way to see Mickey Mouse in Dad's Mercury Marauder.

Safety was a recurring theme in our home. Dad was a decorated WWII Veteran, had survived the horrors of landing at Omaha Beach, endured gruesome front line combat and then commanded U.S. forces at the liberation of Dachau. He insisted that guns were for killing people and refused to have one in the house. Mother's dull cooking knives were stored in a drawer in our knotty pine kitchen to thwart their use by potential burglars, and tops of opened canned goods were disposed of separately so no one's hand could be cut burrowing in the trash. Good grades, healthy teeth and injury-free daily life were our credo. Weapons were not necessary. Nothing we owned was worth hurting someone else to keep.

One sunny afternoon in 1983, I confronted a burglar running out my back door. I was about thirty-five, married, and living in Birmingham, Michigan. He brandished the crowbar he'd used to break in and I practiced the behavior I'd learned in a recent self-defense course for women. I lifted both hands above my shoulders and turned my head down, signifying that I didn't see him and wouldn't recognize him in a lineup. It worked. He turned and high-tailed it across the side yard, stringy yellow hair flapping behind him.

Our house had been ransacked. True, I'd not been attacked, and did realize that as Dad always said, it was "just stuff," but the feeling of personal violation overwhelmed me for hours. A stranger's hands had pawed through my underwear, thrown my books off their shelves, rifled through my music cabinet of Henle Editions, smeared my Nana's silver with greasy fingerprints and loaded a pillowcase with it.

After the police report was complete I called my husband at work and reported the incident, said there was no reason for him to come home early. In retrospect I'm not surprised at my methodical behavior, how I returned our possessions to their rightful places with extraordinary care before our daughters arrived home from school. My reaction was steely cold and calculated, from the moment I spotted the splintered door jam, to my observation of the robber's crusty shoes and filthy jacket as he bolted away. I wonder now, thirty years later, if I'd had a gun, would I have shot a gaunt, strung out guy in his twenties who'd heard the garage door open and abandoned his loot on my kitchen floor? Maybe. Okay, probably. Because although I wasn't yet aware of it on that day, it turns out I love guns. Especially semi-automatic handguns. An emotional cloak of comfort enfolds me when I slip my fingers around one and my mental electricity switches up to high voltage. It's the magic combination of heightened awareness, tingling mental acuity and physical heat.

I met black-leather-Stan at Target Sports, the mother of all Detroit gun stores, in 1992, when he swaggered up behind a plexi-glass counter marked BULLETPROOF. His leather jacket gaped wide open over his belly and the studded visor of his leather cap came up to my chin.

"What's a long drink a water like you doin' here so early?"

I'd arrived at 9:55 am and waved from my Geo Metro like a friendly five-year-old as Stan slid the accordion security gate open.

"The Yellow Pages said you opened at 10:00 am and…"

"Yeah, well, it's still Friday night for folks who come here. What'd ya want?"

"To shoot a hand gun."


"None, I'm…"

"Let me see your hand." I spread it on the counter, Stan flopped it over, examined the palm, pushed up my sleeve.

"More muscle ‘n I ‘spected on a lanky thing like you. Try a semi-auto, lightweight, double safety, good for beginners."

As a middle-aged classical piano teacher, I was an idiot in Stan's world, an enormous cavern crammed with guns and ammo. Stan tugged a ring of keys from his pocket, fumbled with thick fingers and unlocked the counter. He grabbed a gun and slapped it into my open hand.

"This here's a Walther 9mm, holds fifteen rounds, take down jus' about any obstacle. Don't bulge much, stick it in your pants, wear somethin' over it. Grab a hold, see how she feels."

She was cool, not cold, as my fingers slipped into the grooves on her sleek gray handle. The thrill was visceral. I was short of breath. There I stood, an environmentalist and staunch advocate of stricter gun control laws. Yet I was radiant, grinning and gripping a hunk of steel, suppressing the urge to let it rip. Stan took the gun out of my hand.

Stan bumped his elbows against double metal doors and cold air blasted our faces as we entered a cement-floored bowling alley-type room. Paper targets with torsos with bushy heads and thick beards outlined on them were suspended from looped wire cable. They seemed oddly familiar, like Saddam Hussein or maybe Arab men in general and I felt squeamish at the prejudice, but only for a second before adrenalin punched out my moral conviction.

The shooter's area of each alley had stainless steel walls, six feet tall and four feet wide with a waist high shelf between them. Stan barked orders, "'Bout here. Left foot back, right foot out front." He tapped his boot on the sticky floor. "Balance your weight, bend your knees. Steady?"

"Yeah, fine." I was prickly hot, thought Stan would give me the gun, but he picked up a headset instead, adjusted the metal headband and clamped the earpieces tight on my ears. He yanked the set down, let it rest around my neck. "Arms steady, shoulder high, straight out in front a ya, brace your right wrist with your left hand. Good. Put ‘em down, gimme your right hand."

He laid the warm gun in my outstretched palm and I closed my fingers, assumed my shooting stance and focused through the gun sight on the tip of the barrel. Stan smirked. "Shit, girl. You a natural if I ever seen one." I pulled the trigger and a portal of power and heat split open. I passed through it.

That portal of power and heat isn't as easy to find these days, almost twenty years later, at sixty-four, and I'm still longing for it—the explosion, the adult dose of invincibility that shooting a handgun arouses in me.

The day Stan initiated me with the Walther 9mm I was forty-four and proud of my physical prowess. The number of jumping jacks and squats I did in aerobics classes, how high I hit the bag with my leg in kickboxing, how many miles I rode my bicycle, how the head rush of any physical exertion exhilarated me. Classical pianist and piano teacher, yes. But a strong, sweaty one.

For as long as I can remember I've identified with gun-slinging chicks in movies and on TV. I admire their flawless execution of tasks in the name of the law, the government, or best of all, their motorcycle gang. I slip into the skin of Tara Knowles, pediatric surgeon and "old lady" of Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy. She's a straight shooter who digs bullets out of gang members, stitches them up at the clubhouse and throws back a shot of whiskey to commiserate afterward. And there's U.S. Marshall Mary Shannon, on In Plain Sight, another crack shot, who sneaks snitches into Witness Protection while employing compassion and insight to deal with her alcoholic mother and slutty sister. None of these women go looking for trouble, but they blast the hell out of it when it comes their way.

I'm old enough to be the mother of these heroines and I suppose that explains my fascination with their sprinting and hurdling, their astounding accuracy at shooting down villains. I love to run fast and am not as good at it as I used to be. The tensile strength and boundless energy I've taken for granted all my life is waning and it's hard to acknowledge that. I ushered my parents through their last ravaged days and recognize with excruciating clarity that my corporal losses are just beginning. Would a gun stuck in the back of my pants compensate for the strength that's seeping away? That old adage, "God created men. Colt made them equal," is on continuous loop in my consciousness.

Gun sale statistics support the testimony of South Carolina locals who insist that everybody buys, carries and shoots guns, here, in the velvety green mountains where my husband and I have retired. The first time afternoon gunfire split the air in our remote location I was stunned, but a guy doing landscape work explained, "Just some hothead lettin' off steam, havin' hisself some fun."

Yeah, I get that kind of fun.

I was satisfied with my decision about not owning a gun, had put the idea out of my mind for twenty years, but I still want one. I'm seduced by the aura of danger, the illusion of power that smothers my natural-born pragmatism whenever I handle a handgun. I am not a warrior and do not seek an opponent, yet know it would be difficult for me to separate illusory power from the veneer of violence that comes with a handgun. That veneer lights my fire, makes my synapses glow and crackle as neon memories of youthful recklessness come alive. I am invigorated. Dazzled.

Yes, I recognize that I can't have a gun for the same reason I didn't try cocaine in the 1980s. Because I know I would love it. I'd stick my piece in my pants and carry it around. I'd swagger and wear sunglasses indoors. And before long, I'd have to take it out and show people.

I had to find out if I could still shoot straight and decided to visit Allen Arms, here in Greenville, last month. First I checked out their website and clicked on Introduction.

A sexy-sounding woman with a British accent, odd, I thought, for a South Carolina business, discussed options for Training, Competition, Retail Sales, Tactical Opportunities, party planning, gift certificates, Ladies Only classes, and a Valentine's Day couple's special. The sign over the machine gun room read: "Put a Smile on Your Face That Brillo Can't Take Off." I discovered that the eight-hour South Carolina Concealed Weapons Course is given twice weekly and that specialized classes, such as Pistol Protection in the Home, are also offered. Holy shit. Sign me up.

I walked in to Allen Arms mid-afternoon on a January Tuesday and the place was jumping. Women aged twenty to fifty, children (with adults), gnarly old guys, sharp young guys, two of them in business suits, as well as a morbidly obese man in a motorized chair, all jockeyed for position in front of the glass merchandise counters. I'd called ahead, made an appointment, and Travis, an instructor, politely asked me to wait. He stashed me in a room with folding chairs to watch a twenty-minute safety video on a wall-mounted TV because all the instructors were busy with students on the shooting range. The video explained the etiquette of entering and exiting a shooting alley. It advised that standing to observe, or to insult another shooter was prohibited, and described which direction to kick bullet casings to prevent slipping on them. Travis returned, and as we walked through the crowded, gun-filled store, I couldn't help but think about Dad.

In 1978, Dad was assaulted in a parking lot on the Detroit River after an evening business meeting. He'd walked to his car alone and was struck in the head with a blunt instrument after handing over his wallet, watch and ring. An older woman bystander ran to a phone booth and called an ambulance, or Dad, then in his sixties, may have bled to death from the severe head wound. Dad had practiced law in the Guardian Building on Griswold, for over thirty years, had kept his firm downtown long after other Detroit businesses fled to suburban terrain. He was dedicated to the city where he'd grown up, but the brutal robbery was a bridge too far, and he'd known others who had been attacked and injured.

A police detective suggested Dad carry a gun to protect himself, keep his hand on it in his coat pocket when walking city streets after dark, hold it ever ready in his building's parking garage. Dad, however, wasn't willing to arm himself, to step into what he called, "that culture of violence." Said he'd seen enough bloodshed in his life and moved his offices to a brand-spanking-new building in safe, suburban Troy. What on earth would Dad have thought of me strutting through a gun store, itching to fire a handgun?

Travis Nelson, my instructor for handgun training at Allen Arms, was a former Greenville County Sheriff's Deputy and full time firefighter with the Wade Hampton Fire Department. Tall, strong, clean cut and articulate, he wore khakis and bore no resemblance to leather clad, wise-cracking Stan at Target Sports, in Michigan. Travis, a certified National Rifle Association Pistol Instructor and South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Concealed Weapons Permit Instructor, has been employed with Allen Arms since it opened, has been hunting and shooting most of his life, and was confident and courteous with this old lady gun student.

Travis led me into a carpeted conference room, attached my required photo ID, a South Carolina Driver's License, to a small clipboard and promptly left the room. He returned with a miniature laundry basket of pistols and semi-automatic handguns and sat down across from me at the long vinyl table. "What are your goals?"

"I haven't held a gun in twenty years and want to see if I can still shoot. And I'm interested in getting a permit to carry concealed." Wait. What? The words spilled out, but yes, I was interested. In spite of my upbringing, political constructs and long-standing decision never to own a gun, I felt suddenly righteous, even indignant imagining it, and sat up straighter on my spindly folding chair. Muffled gunshots came from the range and the unpredictable barrage of small explosions was hypnotic. And why shouldn't a peace blabbing yogi like me have a gun? Southern women in baggy flowered dresses carried them into court in their purses. It seemed everybody had one, even the most unlikely prospects, as I'd recently come to know.

Charcoal gray clouds hung low over boarded up houses and trash littered yards that winter day in 2010 when we four women arrived in Anderson, South Carolina for an ACBL Bridge Tournament. Four teenaged boys with drooping pants and stocking caps sauntered toward our slow moving vehicle. Charlotte, a retired college professor, originally from South Dakota, was driving, and Louise, a retired psychotherapist from North Carolina, was seated next to me in the back seat. As Charlotte spoke to Marily, who was seated beside her, I was dumbfounded.

"Marily, open the glove box. Careful, there's no safety on it." The boys in the street, all tall and black, ignored us as they ambled by. I stretched forward between the bucket seats. "You have a gun in here?"

"Certainly do and I have a permit to carry."

Next to me, Louise chimed in, "Mine's in my handbag."

"Why would either of you ever need a gun?"

When we'd checked in, earlier that afternoon, the Quality Inn lobby was jammed with guys in camouflage with shaved heads and lace up boots. I'd assumed they were Marines. A Baptist Church bus arrived when we did and black church members assembled outside the glass doors of the hotel. Men in suits, women in dresses, and little girls in pastels and pigtails smiled as we left for the tournament. After the first round of play, Charlotte and I returned to our room and I popped two Tylenol PM. Next morning, she spoke from under the covers.

"Didn't hear the ruckus last night did you."

"Nope, slept like a brick."

"The police were here twice, sirens and all, and there were gunshots, people running around yelling and screaming right outside our door."

I was stunned. Not because I'd slept through it, but because just hours before, I'd asked Charlotte why she'd ever need a gun.

Sobbing women hunched over the Registration counter as a bedraggled manager dispensed refunds that morning and the lobby was abuzz with chatter. According to those who'd opened their motel room doors, a confrontation occurred between a church member and a camouflage-wearing guy who was not a Marine, but a skinhead. A fistfight between two young men escalated to a rumble and police arrived, neutralized the conflict and left. It broke out again and multiple gunshots were fired from both groups.

Assuming I'd been awake and heard the commotion, I wonder: would I have felt safer if I'd had a gun? Charlotte said she wished she'd had hers in our room instead of in the car where she'd left it. Statistics about the safety of owning a gun versus not owning one are incongruous. From the National Gun Lobby to Freedom States Alliance, data might convince us that a handgun is mandatory for survival and day-to-day self-defense, or, that having one triples the risk of homicide and suicide in our homes.

But who cares about statistics? Not me. I care about imagining that I'm a gunslinger who pulls the trigger, hears the BOOM, absorbs the recoil and knows she doesn't blink. What would I really be protecting if I carried a gun? Nothing. Nothing except my fantasy of being an invincible ass-kicker, a rough and ready girl who stays strong as the decades of her life march on. One who blows the head off the relentless monster of passing time.

After my lesson with Travis, at Allen Arms, I brought my shot-up target home as a souvenir. Yes, I can still shoot straight. I have to drop my left eyelid, just slightly, to focus through the gun sight at the end of the barrel, but hey, no problem. Travis says lots of people, of all ages, do that.

-Leslie Tucker (from The Baltimore Review)