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GOOD Magazine Feature | Get to Know the Americans You'd Least Expect to Fancy the Firearm
And instead of dealing with so much else that is broken in this country, fear of those guns has instead translated into an attack on gun rights—rights that for many represent a fundamental and deeply felt freedom. The issue matters as much to some people—all along the political spectrum—as speech or religious freedoms matter to others. Baum tells me that most of us naturally understand the exceptionalism of the First Amendment: “We’re trusted to know things and speak and publish and print and broadcast. But it’s also very true in the context of guns, where we are trusted to own and operate these very dangerous weapons—and for gun guys [and girls], that’s an important thing.”
For LGC’s Gardner, Second Amendment protections matter, but don’t represent the whole of his political ideology. “I’m not a single-issue voter,” he tells me. “I care a great deal about things like marriage equality. I care a great deal about fairness in labor… I care about defense overspending. I do happen to care about Second Amendment rights.” He adds in summation, “I do shoot.”
When Hilliker wrote his gun license application letter to the police chief, he felt in some ways he was making an important political statement. He even wrote, “I think the more Democratic voters who are registered gun owners the better, for the diversity of the conversation about gun-ownership.” Later at his licensing interview, the police chief let him know he thought his comment was pretty funny.
The right to keep and bear arms is serious business—for many it’s about self-defense. According to the Pew Research Center, while in 1999, just 26 percent of Americans owned guns for protection (49 percent had them for hunting back then), today 48 percent own guns for protection.
Hoeber’s perspective was sobering. Hoeber described herself as “Queer, trans… I have been in my life an outsider.” She says she doesn’t necessarily have the feeling that police are there to protect her, saying that if a fight broke out at a party at her house “chances are I’m as likely to go to jail because it’s my house, and I’m me, as somebody who came to a party at my house and started a fight.” She adds, “The idea of ceding the monopoly on deadly force to the police or to the state or to the other authoritarian power structure, that’s completely fucking ridiculous to me.” Turning over that kind of power, to Hoeber, is a totally right-wing idea.
I was torn between an emotionally fraught rock and a rational hard place. I’d invested considerable time talking to lefty gun enthusiasts, then just hours before I shot a firearm for the first time, I spoke to Kim Russell, media director of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, the viral Facebook-group-turned-grassroots-movement. Russell herself was a victim of gun violence. In a mugging turned fatal, her friend was shot, Russell dodged bullets, and finally had a gun held to her forehead by a 17-year old with a tragic family history who only wanted their watches and wallets. I pictured the final emptiness she described, the life leaving her friend’s eyes.
I also kept picturing tiny bodies massacred in kindergarten classrooms or the teenagers much more frequently gunned in the Chicago neighborhood where I used to live. In the same way that I can’t think “lemon” without also thinking “sour,” I couldn’t picture a gun without revulsion and fear.
“Fairness is an important, critical core value on the left,” Hoeber tells me. “And I think one of the ways that sense of fairness exists on a deeply emotional level is really strong and negative feelings toward bullies.” She sees the anti-gun impulse on the left as an association between guns and bullies. “The gun is the dangerous power of the redneck, the Klansman, and the bad cop, and the unjust military dictatorship.”
She uses “bullies” in the broadest sense possible, but wonders how few of us, since World War II, have an experience of guns and violence being used to protect us from bullies. Calling for patience, she reminds her fellow lefty gun owners that the anti-gun impulse among other liberals “comes from wanting to take the power away from those who would subjugate others.”
It’s immense power that can come from the mere flick of a finger. When I finally held a pistol, then a revolver in my hands, I could feel the potential costs of carelessness. It was an intimate handshake, albeit briefly, with the grim reaper. And I was clutching between the two palms of my hands both totem and taboo.
A gun, it seems, is a symbol of momentous heft.
I don’t know what runs through a hunter’s head when he or she looks at a Remington 700 .30-06. But I was beginning to see that the tension over guns was less a matter of political leaning, and more a matter of the gun’s place in a person’s imagination, a matter of which direction the barrel aimed: if it were your kids imperiled, or yours you were protecting.
I think of Russell, the memory ever-present in her mind, of a muzzle pressed to her forehead. I consider Hilliker, a dad, making sense of tragedy by demystifying the gun. I see in my own hands the blast, the thump of fear and adrenaline in my veins, and my finger depressing the trigger again. I know that however much it still scares the hell out of me to extend my body into the thrust and trajectory of a bullet, were the threat of harm to come to me or my children, I’d want to stand on this side of the gun—not aiming to kill, never to kill—but to have some force behind which to salvage what I love.
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